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Burning Up

Women never burned their bras. To understand how this happened, we need to go back to 1968, Atlantic City. To the Miss America Pageant.
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In the wake of Women's History Month (yes, it was all March long, didn't you notice?) much of women's history certainly could be dusted off (Seneca Falls, anyone?) and re-told, some pieces are best left where they belong -- in the dustbin. Or perhaps I should say, the trash can. Take bra burning. It's a term that's used rather liberally by the right to talk about feminists. It conjures up women running into the ran into the streets and casting off the yolk of male oppression. It's an image that is at once rebellious and silly. It's not flag burning. Or draft-card burning. It's bras.

Except for this one thing. Women never burned their bras. To understand how this happened, we need to go back to 1968, Atlantic City. To the Miss America Pageant.

Women this year are mad, and I mean they are really mad. This is back when the women's movement is called women's liberation and women are not being taken seriously. This is before Ms. magazine. And, this is way, way before Victoria's Secret. Women's underthings used to be ridiculously uncomfortable. In fact, the concept of comfort is a pretty new idea. So when feminism came along and suggested going au natural over being in pain to achieve the perfect hourglass figure, it was a pretty strong argument. And what better place to state your distaste for sexist undergarments than the Miss. America. Beauty. Pageant.

This protest happens right after the 1968 Democratic Convention. The images of the absolute chaos in Chicago during that time was witnessed on television and shown over and over in classroom documentaries and is basically seared into our understanding of that time.

So it wasn't completely surprising that the actual draft card burnings and supposed bra burnings merged into one big memory of the '60s.

Back on the sidewalk outside Atlantic City Hall, hundreds of women filled a trash can with girdles, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, makeup and bras.

And in fairness to the myth, the desire to light a fire was there, but there was just one problem. No one could get permission to do it. Since the boardwalk was wooden, the fire would be unsafe. So, these radical women were left with a trash can full of the cast-aways of womanhood. But instead of a fiery protest, it was just a big trash can full of junk.

Because, when going to the revolution, what's more important than...safety.

The image was too salient not to be picked up by the press, and the catchphrase bra burner was born, and hasn't died yet. Why is that?

I think it's because the idea of the man-hating bra burner, defying the restraints of civilization over a gleeful bonfire is too tantalizing an image to give up willingly.

Maybe that's the thing about bras and bra burning. Women have always had a love-hate relationship with their underthings. And somehow they came to represent everything that is hard, and then sometimes everything that is great, about being a woman.

Let's be clear here. These women in 1968 did burn. They burned with the desire for change, for equal rights, for comfort, for being free from the pressure of making their bodies mold to ridiculous looks that had nothing to do with an actual woman's body. But they did not burn bras.