Did Feminists Really Burn Their Bras?

October 25th 2015

Thor Benson

The idea that bra burning was a feminist activism practice in the 1960s and '70s is largely a myth. (Though there have been occasions when women burned their bras in protest since the myth of a bra-burning movement began.)

How the myth began.

The idea of bra burning is typically derived from a scene and a set of photos from the 1968 Miss America Pageant, where feminist activists were seen throwing items like Playboy magazines, high heels, and cosmetics into trash cans, things they felt represented female oppression or stereotyping. One of the prominent items thrown into trash cans were bras. But there was no fire in the trash can to burn the bras.

"Bra burning" as a concept can be traced to Lindsy Van Gelder, at the time a young reporter for the New York Post, who reported on the event. She attempted to give the movement validity by equating the feminist protesters with those protesting the Vietnam War by burning draft cards, a popular movement at the time.

Instead, Van Gelder created an image of women arbitrarily destroying what seemed to many to be inconsequential items. "I hope it's not my most lasting contribution to the culture," she said on her website.

There are those who argue that the women intended to burn their bras but were unable to get a permit. That is disputed.

How the myth persists.

Despite its inaccuracy, the myth and symbol of "bra burning" have persisted in American culture (and beyond).

There are scattered reports of women burning bras in small groups, likely inspired by the spread of the Miss America story. But bra burning never evolved into a widespread protest movement. (One AP photo from 1979 shows Canadian women burning bras, but there are no accompanying news stories that elaborate on that incident.)

The idea of "bra burning" has also shifted from the 1968 protests, which were about women's liberation (and included no scorched undergarments), to a pejorative used by some to put down the women's rights movement.

Many politicians have used the image of "bra-burning feminists" in an attempt to discredit women's rights movements, supporters, and initiatives. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin referred to Hillary Clinton in her book "America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag" as having engaged in “1960s-era bra-burning militancy.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) was recently attacked by a political opponent for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, though we've found no evidence she has, the failed amendment that would have codified equal rights for women in the U.S. Constitution.

A campaign email featured a video depicting former North Carolina GOP spokeswoman Kay Daly shooting a shotgun at "RINOs," or Republicans in Name Only, clearly referring to Ellmers, and says the ERA is the amendment "lesbians used to burn their bras over." The video also refers to Ellmers as a "feminist," used as a negative term.