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The myth of the bra-burning feminists

The spectacular bonfire is a much-told story. It never happened

Perhaps all those hysterical mask wearers,lustily cheering their great leader have done us an inadvertent favour by sending some of us back to reread history in self-defence and discover how nuanced media myths are created. On the morning of September 8,1968,when protest was in the air and draft card burning by young anti-Vietnam protesters was making news all over America,an alliterative headline,“Bra-burners blitz Boardwalk”,caught public attention. The sensational report (in Atlantic City Press by old-school journalist John L. Boucher),described in some detail how,at a feminist rally against the Miss America pageant held the previous day at the venue in Atlantic City,protesters raised slogans against the organisers and crowned a lamb in a parody of the actual event,the protest climaxing in a spectacular bonfire of women’s undergarments. The protest march was led by feminist Robin Morgan,who had driven down from New York with hundreds of feminists to protest the pageant,an annual event that they felt trivialised female beauty and made young women in swim suits walk down boardwalks like cattle on display. The women had sought to create a piece of political theatre by placing a “Freedom Trash Can” in the middle of the boardwalk,in which they threw bras,girdles and other kinds of restrictive female undergarments,calling them items of female torture.

When I met Morgan a decade later in New York at the offices of Ms magazine,she corroborated that their boardwalk protest had lent the movement a media centrality that feminist protests till then had not been given. But she denied that any lurid bonfire had been created by them. Susan Faludi,(author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women) has similarly said that the myth of the bra-burning feminists was media-created and further exaggerated by those who felt threatened by the ideas and challenges the feminist ideology had brought centrestage. Two fun seekers,a disc jockey and an architect (both male) had actually paid three female models to participate in the march,toss a couple of padded brassieres into a trash bin and set fire to them. So,the mythical bra bonfires were neither planned by the actual protesters,nor was there any spectacular and large-scale burning of women’s lingerie on the streets of Atlantic City. Art Buchwald’s later lurid description of the event was based on hearsay. He himself was nowhere near the site.

In an age when the media constantly sought to trivialise women’s clearly articulated demands for equal rights and salaries by labelling it as Women’s Lib,all through the volatile 1970s,the alleged act of bra-burning acquired a life of its own and came down over the years as a symbol of all that is laughable,crazy and somewhat kinkily sexy about women demanding equality and independence. So when women were agitating in support of the Equal Rights Amendment that would give women equal pay for equal work,an Illinois legislator thundered against what he called the “braless,brainless broads”.

Around the same time in India (in 1972,to be precise),the Mathura (custodial) rape case shook the conscience of the nation when a 16-year-old adivasi girl was raped in custody by two policemen. The perpetrators were exonerated by the lower court on the grounds that the victim was an adivasi and hence perhaps habituated to casual sex. This amazingly retrograde ruling was set aside by the high court but the Supreme Court ruled that the two policeman charged with the act be released for lack of admissible evidence. This created a furore among women that grew when,in 1975,the first-ever national report on India’s women also confirmed the pathetic state of most of India’s women and the inadequacy of its laws vis-a-vis women’s safety and well being. In early 1980s,it led to significant amendments in the laws against rape.

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But a couple of years down the line,when I was about to launch a Hindi monthly for women,men in charge of the marketing section in a major publishing house explained to me between much clearing of throats and sideways glances that it was fine if I insisted my magazine would not promote Miss India contests but that a good and saleable women’s magazine must not give women disturbing notions about self-worth,etc. What women actually want from their magazines,they said,was readable and brightly illustrated material on food,child rearing,knitting,stitching and some romantic fiction. They also confirmed that since over three-quarters of women’s magazines were bought by men (they had better access to the vending joints and liked to vet what the mothers and sisters read at home),the faces on the covers must be fair and female. A cover story on rape experienced by girls in middle-class families was bitterly criticised as being fictional. These barbaric things,madam,I was told,happen only in the jhuggi-jhopris,not among people like us.

Much polluted water has flown down the Yamuna since then but even today,if you peruse media reports carefully,you’ll discover that there are several parallels and echoes between Germany between-the-wars and the India of 2013. There is the same hopeful burst of individual rights among all castes,communities and genders coupled with an ultra-right-wing backlash,economic stagnation and unemployment. Politicians and the media are becoming sympathetic to women’s issues as the Weimar Republic was,when German feminists lobbied for and nearly succeeded in winning the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies and decriminalising prostitution. There is also,undeniably,the same fear of the rise of the marginalised: women,minorities and the backward classes. Under similar circumstances in Germany,a vegetarian,non-smoking,non-drinking,would-be architecture student named Adolf Hitler entered the scene and presented himself as a panacea for the ills of too much democracy. Of this Hitler,branded as a champion of lower classes against inherited power and wealth of the aristocrats,an infatuated woman journalist wrote in Paris-soir of 1936,“I am surprised and astonished by the blue of his eyes… the face that brims with intelligence and energy and lights up when he speaks… I comprehend the magical influence and his power over the masses.”

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and chairperson of Prasar Bharati

First published on: 08-03-2013 at 03:47:54 am
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