Bloomers, suffragettes, The Spice Girls, Mindy Kaling, birth control, power suits. It all happened/happening. Bra burning? Whether that is fact or fiction depends on the source and the year. Most of us have an image of a bra burning blitzkrieg taking place outside the Miss America pageant in 1968. While I can’t speak from personal experience, that protest, from what I’ve read, didn’t go up in flames like most of us think it did.
Traveling from Florida, Detroit, New York, Boston and New Jersey, feminist protesters congregated on the boardwalk in Atlantic City on September 7. The feminist portion of the group – other civil right activists were also in attendance – was organized by the New York Radical Movement. They marched with signs, passed out flyers and pamphlets (one of which was the famous No More Miss America!), crowned a live sheep, and threw symbolic feminine products into “freedom trash cans” – curlers, hairspray, shoes, girdles, corsets, pots and pans, fake eyelashes, cleaning supplies, tampons, and bras. Some say these trash cans were light on fire, albeit briefly, while other say nothing was burned at all. But it wasn’t these acts that initiated the myth, or non myth. What caught the media’s attention were four protesters who hung a banner from the balcony with “Women’s Liberation” written on it while Debra Barnes Snodgrass gave her farewell address. She was the previous year’s winner. Police quickly removed the women and nothing was broadcast, but a reporter ran an article making an analogy between the women and protesters during the Vietnam war who burned their draft cards. The connection was made and stuck.
The New York Radical Movement was a group started by Robin Morgan, Carol Hanisch, Shulamith Firestone and Pam Allen. Relatively unknown prior to the protest, they got the idea to take action at the pageant after watching a movie that depicted women parading in bathing suits. It was a gutsy move, but it would bring momentum to their cause – “the degrading-mindless-boob-girlie symbol” and the public worshipping of “the most beautiful girl in America”.
The winner of that year’s pageant was Judith (Judi) Ford. She was a trampolinist who first won Miss Boone County and Miss Illinois before being crowned Miss USA. She used her Miss America Scholarship to obtain her B.S. in physical education and was later appointed by President Nixon and Ford to be a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, where she served for eight years. After, she taught physical education (P.E.) for 18 years. She didn’t achieve world peace, but she did use the competition to achieve something.
“I know pageants aren’t for everyone,” Ford was quoted as saying in this article. “I had people tell me it was a cattle show, and that I was being exploited. But the goal of the Miss America pageant is to promote women and give them opportunities and scholarships that they might not get otherwise…. My ‘unofficial platform’ was women’s athletics. For me, the Miss America experience was extremely beneficial.”
Did the protesters win or lose? My opinion is both. The image of Miss America was forever changed. It went from being a can’t miss to a what network is it on this year? More women are in the workforce today, but it seems like our expectation to work outside the house was added to our work inside the house. Before, women were just expected to cook, clean and take care of the kids. Now, women have to do all that, have a career and more. I hear more women complaining about juggling it all than men, don’t you? But I guess that’s what we asked for, so can we bitch? I certainly feel the pressure to do it all, to be superwoman, and that’s what I worry about most often, handling it all. Women who participate are still typical pretty, and let’s not forget the obvious, Miss America is still on TV today.
Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on the bra burning myth and the Miss America pageants?
References + More Reading
One: Opinion: Feminism, Bra Burning & Hating Men
Two: Bra Burning, Gray Hair, Other Illusions
Three: Miss America Pageant Shaming: A Feminist Trap
Four: Media Myth Alert
Five: Makers “Brought To You By The Woman’s Movement”
Six: Atlantic City Is A Town With Class; They Raise Your Morals While They Judge Your Ass
Seven: There She Is, Miss America: Catching up with Judi Ford Nash