Fact-checking Bra-Burning, and Related Thoughts

Kudos to Jessica Valenti for setting interviewer Deborah Solomon straight on a point of fact in a Q&A in this week’s New York Times Magazine (and to the magazine, which heavily edits these conversations, for including this exchange):

As the founder and editor of the blog Feministing.com, how would you rate the effectiveness of online activism compared to old-style models of political engagement like rallies and marches and displays of bra-burning?

Bra-burning never happened. It was completely made up by the media. A couple of women protesting a Miss America pageant threw some bras into a garbage can, and somehow that became this longstanding idea of feminists as bra-burners.

As it happens, Ariel Levy just recounted this history in fuller detail in last week’s New Yorker:

In 1968, at a protest against the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City, feminists tossed items that they felt were symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can: copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets and girdles. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches, and a myth was born. In her engaging tour d’horizon “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (Little, Brown; $27.99), Gail Collins quotes Van Gelder’s lament: “I shudder to think that will be my epitaph—‘she invented bra burning.’ ”

Much of Levy’s review essay is devoted to how feminism is (mis)remembered, but it also devotes some time to how the world has and has not changed. That subject also comes up in Solomon’s interview with Valenti:

What do you make of the glorification of male vulgarity in pop culture? Whenever I walk into my living room and find my sons watching “Entourage” or “Family Guy,” I think feminism has been a complete failure.

The rape jokes on ‘‘Family Guy’’ make me nauseous. About three years ago, Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote this great piece called ‘‘Men Growing Up to Be Boys.’’ It’s about how the new model of masculinity is perpetual adolescence.

The Times Magazine doesn’t include a link to that Chaudhry essay, but those interested can find it here.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.