When New York Radical Women demonstrated against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, they dropped an assortment of 'instruments of female torture' into a 'trash can of freedom' and garnered for the feminist movement the label of bra-burners. Nothing had actually been set on fire that day - the town, which was worried about its wooden boardwalks, had refused to give a permit - and the label was highly selective: in addition to the offending undergarment, the women dumped copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan, eyelash curlers, false eyelashes, home perm kits, high heels, aprons, girdles, and items used in secretarial work, too. The epithet - coined by the feminist Robin Morgan as a counterpart for 'draft-card burner' - shows how deeply the women's movement both was and was perceived to be about female sexuality. What was it? Who would define it, shape it, control it? Who were women's bodies for? To many feminists, the brassière, which simultaneously confined, shaped and presented the breasts, represented culture, conformity, discomfort and subordination, while bralessness represented nature, rebellion, ease and freedom - never mind that many women found going without a bra uncomfortable and embarrassing.
LRB 14 November 2002 | PDF Download