Today I welcome Resa McConaghy with a guest post on the history of “burn the bra.” Is it a feminist legend? Or a feminist myth instead? In her well-written post, Resa includes discussions of Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale, the 1968 Miss America Pageant, the Freedom Trash Can, and more. Oh and that burning bra in the photo above? Resa set it afire to mark the end to her research. Take it away, Resa.
Introduction to Burn the Bra
Women had achieved voting rights in 1918 in America. Still, they remained primarily in the at-home role, while dads worked outside of the residence. Most working women were teachers, but all women who were in the workforce were supposed to retire upon marriage. The Marriage Bar was removed in 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
Still, women were expected to retire in the 5th month of pregnancy, when the baby bump began to show. Pregnancy discrimination continued until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
Many laws discriminating against women working were relaxed during World War II. However, when the war was over and the men came home, women were expected to return to their servile lives.
But many women did not want to leave the workplace for domestics, and so they pursued careers. Furthermore, the post-war era saw the rise of a second wave of Women’s Liberation that gave us strong, educated, and creative women. Among them were Audre Lorde, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem.
Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale
Between January 26th and February 22nd, 1963, feminist legend Gloria Steinem was a Playboy Bunny. She went underground, for journalistic purposes. Her diary-style journal took readers through the unglamorous, unhealthy, humiliating, and very short shelf life of a Playboy Bunny.
On Wednesday, 13th, Gloria wrote:
“I’ve completed my unofficial list of Bunny bosom stuffers:
2. plastic dry cleaner’s bags
3. Absorbent cotton
4. Cut-up bunny tails
5. Foam rubber
6. Lamb’s wool
7. Kotex halves
8. Silk scarves
9. Gym socks”
When Christy invited me if to do a piece on Burn The Bra, the Bunny bosom stuffers from A Bunny’s Tale immediately popped into my mind.
In 1981, a down-on-her-luck and health ex-Bunny from the Florida Playboy Club gave me the article to read. I was a bit shocked by Gloria Steinem’s exposé, but I became insanely indignant and sickened when I read the part about the Bunnies all needing to pass a physical exam.
This exam was to be given by the official Playboy doctor, and only the Playboy doctor. The exam included an internal examination, for no legitimate reason.
Hugh Hefner’s Letter to Gloria Steinem
When Gloria Steinem’s article published in 1963, Hugh Hefner wrote her a letter that included mention of that exam. In this letter he said, “your beef about the physical given the girls before they start work at the club prompted my eliminating it.”
In the Postscripts after the article in her book, there’s more about the letter and about the years Gloria spent in court. She was not only a witness in court but also was sued. She endured reproach and death threats too.
Gloria Steinem in 1977. ©Lynn Gilbert
Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale is unfortunately enlightening. She was stirring the bubbling cauldron of feminism. As she once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
In 1968 many women were righteously pissed off, and Women’s Lib hit the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey where Burn The Bra was born.
The Miss America Pageant of 1968
It was 51 years ago.
In 1968, about 200 women staged a protest outside of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. It was organized by the New York Radical Women, founded by Shulamith Firestone. This protest is still going down in history toay; yes, 51 years later, people still question the idea of a Beauty Pageant.
On a related note, I strongly suggest watching the video below. For six minutes, it will put you right there in the 1968 protest. It will fill in a lot of details that I won’t have time to do.
Up Against the Wall Miss America
One thing I did not see in the video is the Freedom Trash Can. Into the trash can women threw symbols of their oppression, including:
- High heels
One woman eased her bra out from under her shirt, and, amid many cheers, she tossed it into the Freedom Trash Can.
Yes, this is the referenced Freedom Trash Can.
The bra was not lit on fire.
Yet, this is the moment when Burn the Bra was born. It’s like that old game, Telephone. Someone says something into someone’s ear, who then says it into the ear of the next person. The message travels secretly from one person to another, and always comes out the end of the line, differently.
Nonetheless, the symbolism of a burning bra and the protesters are a record of history. Check out I Was There: The 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest. by Robin Morgan, as told to Allison McNearny.
Burn the Bra: Musing upon my Bra’s Ashes
My conclusion is that Burn the Bra is both a myth and a legend. It is a legend born out of a myth that was born out of an action. It has become a Women’s Liberation symbol.
How many women have burned their bras since that day in 1968? I’m not sure, but I finally burned my bra. It’s my way of saying I’m solid with the ongoing Women’s Liberation Movement. You can see it aflame in the opening photo here.
I also wonder, what do young people know or think about Women’s Liberation, from its history to the need for an ongoing struggle? Also, what do female immigrants think who are from countries where women are not nearly as equal to men as we are here?
Personally, I embrace the idea that we should all know our female history, and that the women’s movement is not over until total equality of the sexes is achieved, globally. As Gloria Steinem said, “Imagine we are linked, not ranked.”
It’s a shame, but in researching this article I came upon a few websites and blogs leeching on the term Burn the Bra. They have nothing to do with the reality. One site, seemingly run by two men, is dedicated to showing women without bras. Not one bra is on fire either.
Another site deals with health issues regarding wearing a bra. Best I leave that for another time.
More Facts about Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale
Firstly, Gloria Steinem officially changed the title from A Bunny’s Tale to I Was A Playboy Bunny.
Secondly, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem is in its third edition. I Was a Playboy Bunny is one of the many articles in the book. There are two postscripts to the article, which cover the still occurring fallout after its release.
And here’s a very interesting article from The Guardian about whether or not Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale is still relevant today.
Lastly, A Bunny’s Tale is a TV movie made by ABC starring Kirstie Alley. In one of the postscripts in the 3rd edition of Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria wrote that she was happy with the movie.
A plethora of thoughts and ideas about Miss America 1968 and other Beauty Pageants swarm around in my mind. Again, best I leave that for a whole other article. Instead, I’ll leave you with some additional resources:
On The Civil Rights Act of 1964
More Information on Women’s Liberation
Thank you for reading this! – Resa
About the Writer
Resa McConaghy is a costume designer for film, television and digital media. She is based out of Toronto, Canada. Six years ago, Resa designed her first of 23 Art Gowns. Inspired by street artists, she has taken up pencil, paints and canvas. Her eyes are set on a gallery showing.
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