They Didn’t Burn Their Bras!

Dear Kimberly,

I apologize for taking so long to respond to your November 22 letter; but as you know, I had some health issues come up and then was swamped with the editing and layout for the latest issue of Christian Feminism Today, which has just come off the press.

I want to pick up right where we left off, however, and comment on your thoughts about feminism’s image problem.  It troubles me that you’re finding so many young women who think feminism falls into the “women against men” category of Yates’s three-part typology (as described in my November 13 post).

Given the fact that any social movement is likely to have some extremists whose words or actions may reflect negatively on the movement, I don’t think that’s the primary explanation for the misperceptions many younger women have about feminism.  I believe there are at least three reasons such misperceptions have originated and persist.

Media Sensationalism and Misinformation about Feminism’s History

First, the mass media have a tendency to look for a good story to sensationalize, and a protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant provided them with just the sensationalism they relished.  Earlier, the media had taken some note of Betty Friedan’s book and the controversy generated by the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and no doubt there was some awareness that women were gathering with other women in consciousness-raising groups to share experiences and talk about the restrictions of rigid gender roles.

But newspapers, radio, and television reporters showed scant interest in small pockets of women getting together to voice their grievances and their questioning of the status quo. Apparently, it didn’t yet seem to be the birth of a social movement, even when  the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 as a civil rights movement, concerned especially with ending discrimination in employment at that time.  NOW’s goal, in the words of Analoyce Clapp, was  “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”

But, according to Judith Hole and Ellen Levine (Rebirth of Feminism, Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1971), the media’s interest perked up after a few loosely organized groups, led by one called New York Radical Women, staged a protest at the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City.  It was then, say Hole and Levine, that “the American public learned for the first time that there was a new thing called the women’s liberation movement” (p. 122).

Looking Back

Forty years later, National Public Radio (NPR) decided to take a look back and broadcast a feature on that pageant as part of its series, “Echoes of 1968.” Nineteen-sixty-eight was the tumultuous year in which Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Poor People’s Campaign took place in Washington, DC., protests against the Vietnam War were widespread, and riots broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The echoes of that year are still reverberating.

In telling the story of the pageant from the vantage point of 2008, NPR interviewed organizers of the protest.  They were women who had planned to call attention to the women’s liberation movement by employing methods used in other protest movements during the 1960s.  NPR also interviewed the 1968 outgoing reigning Miss America,  Debra Barnes Snodgrass, who had come to the pageant to give her farewell speech and crown the new Miss America. That speech was interrupted, however, by some of the protesters who had purchased tickets for the actual show, so that they could — at the right moment — unfurl a banner saying, “Women’s Liberation,” and shout comments against the beauty pageant, which they believed was oppressive to women.

Debra Snodgrass says she was offended and hurt by their actions, because she had considered the Miss America contest to be a scholarship opportunity and primarily a talent competition open only to women in college, a requirement that she felt showed that the pageant respected what women could do rather than just being about how women looked.  But she now says that she also sees how she has benefited by the gains made because of what the women’s movement fought for.  You can read about NPR’s coverage, listen to it and to related clips, as well as see still photos and videos here and through American Public Media here.

Carol Hanisch, one of the main organizers of the protest, later wrote that she regretted the way certain aspects of the protest gave a wrong impression of what the protesters were trying to convey at the Miss America Pageant. One problem was what she called “egotistical individualism” on the part of some who did not comply with group decisions.  She writes:

Posters which read, “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” and “Miss America is a Big Falsie” hardly raised any woman’s consciousness and really harmed the cause of sisterhood.  Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of as our sisters who suffer with us.  A group decision had been made rejecting these anti-women signs. A few women made them anyway.” (Carol Hanisch, Notes from the Second Year, 1970, as reprinted in Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettigrew, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005, p. 170)

Hanisch reports that both positives and negatives came from the protest.  Many women wanted to join the movement and work for women’s equality.  At the same time, Hanisch says she learned from mistakes that had been made in the protest and saw some ways to do things differently in the future. One of the main lessons learned was a recognition that the women needed to communicate more simply and clearly what the women’s movement was all about and to state its goals in language the general public could comprehend and receive.

Some of the mass media understood the message the women wanted to convey and spoke positively about it, although other representatives of the media ridiculed the protest.  (Ridicule is a favorite weapon used against any social movement that dares to challenge the way things have been.  It’s nothing new, as you’re well aware from all the study you’ve been doing on women’s history and especially the efforts of the suffragists to gain the right to vote.)

Bra-burners?

The term “bra-burners,” a derogatory term that continues to be applied to feminists today, was coined in reporting on the pageant protest.  Never mind that no bras were burned by those picketing the Miss America pageant, nor were bras singled out in any way as the main focus in a symbolic gesture in which women were asked to bring items they considered  “instruments of torture” that were part of society’s expectations for girls and women.  A large trash can, the “Freedom can,” was supplied for depositing what various women brought. Among the items tossed into the trash can were high heels, girdles, magazines (especially Playboy with its image of women), mops, cooking pots, and yes, bras — whatever individual women considered a symbol of oppression in their lives as women.

But no one labeled the women magazine-burners, or shoe-burners, or mop-burners.  They became known as bra-burners. (I’ve wondered sometimes, if men had tossed neckties into a trash can as part of a protest against men’s fashions, would they be mocked and ridiculed as tie-burners?  Or would other men have rushed to join them?)

Even if a fire had been lit (and the protesters had considered it but knew they could not get a permit), it would not have been a “bra-burning” ceremony but rather a burning of all the varied items in the trash can!   Different ideas abound about why the “bra-burner” mythology has been perpetuated. Perhaps it was a photo of a woman tossing a bra into the trash can that stuck in people’s minds.  Perhaps male reporters found the bra-discarding imagery titillating.  Perhaps it was a handy term to parallel the draft card burning of Vietnam War protesters.  Whatever the reason, some people who continue to misunderstand or oppose women’s equality still regard “feminist”and “bra-burner” as synonymous.

(By the way, Kimberly, sometime we need to discuss the history of women’s fashions and the way certain styles and clothing expectations have limited women’s activities.  Think of those extremely tightly-laced corsets of the Victorian Era, for example.  But we can save that for a future post.)

Accepting the Opposition’s Definitions of Feminism

A second reason why some people are suspicious of the word feminism is because they have accepted the definitions of feminism put forth by those who oppose full equality for women.  Words like “strident,” “shrill,” “man-hating,” “anti-family,” “unwomanly,” “mannish,” “anti-God,” “feminazi,” “castrating,” and worse are tossed about freely in describing feminists.  It’s no wonder that young women would not want to call themselves feminists if that is what feminists are perceived to be!

One of the most egregious examples of whipping up hatred toward feminists by those who are against women’s full equality was a fund-raising letter sent out by Pat Robertson to Christian Coalition supporters in1992, urging them to help defeat a state Equal Rights Amendment being considered in Iowa.  Robertson claimed the E.R.A. was not about equal rights for women but was an effort to destroy the family.  “It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” claimed Robertson.

We need to help women realize that to understand what feminism is all about, it’s important to see what feminists themselves are writing about and working for.  Only by reading actual feminist writings can young women find out what women committed to equality are saying and doing — and why they are pursuing certain goals.

No one will  learn what feminism is by accepting without question what someone else claims feminists are saying — whether it’s said on a radio talk show or from the pulpit.  It takes courage to find out for oneself.  You’ve been doing so much of this investigating yourself, Kim, and I admire you for it.  You’ve spoken honestly about your anxieties as you read the opening pages of The Feminine Mystique, after having heard it and its author demonized by fundamentalist leaders.  Reading articles and books by Christian feminist authors can help young women see how the Bible’s basic teachings are supportive of gender equality and how the message of Christian feminism can be applied to everyday life.

Woman as Agent

The third point that needs to be considered in forming an image of feminism is the realization that at its most basic, feminism is rooted in the idea of women’s agency.  Many people have erroneous ideas because they have no idea that this — women’s agency — is what feminism is really about. The wordagency comes from a Latin word for doing, acting, leading, driving, having power.

Patriarchy is built on the idea that women are not agents on their own behalf but are controlled by the agency of men.  Men act; women are acted upon.  Men decide what women may or may not do; women do as they are told.

Feminism’s goal is to change that — not turn it upside down with women over men, but rather to level the playing field so that women and men are equal to each other.  In the community of faith, women and men can view themselves as partners in the realm of God, working together to see that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, with each person bringing her or his individual gifts and talents to serve God rather than being seen as simply a member of a category, as traditionally has been the case with women.  In the Body of Christ, “there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

I remember reading a letter to the editor in a news magazine (Newsweek, I believe)  many years ago during debates about whether women could be ordained as pastors, priests, or rabbis.   The letter-writer, a woman who was obviously aware of men’s fears about losing power if women were to be ordained or hold other leadership positions in religious institutions, said something like this:  “We’re not saying that you should move out and let us take over.  We’re just saying move over and let us help.”  That sums up my point nicely.

In your last post, you mentioned that one way that some Christians dismiss feminism as being unworthy of serious consideration is to link it to abortion rights.  Again, this issue must be considered from the standpoint of women’s free agency as being essential to any understanding of what feminism is about. It is about what we discussed in our earliest letters about recognizing women as fully capable human beings with free will and full humanity in the same way that men are considered fully human, which includes the freedom to make choices.  We do not call it selfish for men to want the power to make choices in their lives, and neither should we call it selfish for women to want the power to make choices in matters that concern them.

Incidentally, Kimberly, I thought the paragraph about a much broader definition of support for life issues in your last letter was excellent.  You said some profound things and said them really well.  And you’re also right that feminists are not a monolithic group with only one view on abortion or on anything else.  Pastors are wrong if they insist that feminists are people who are ipso facto “pro-abortion.”  They are pro-choice.  They believe in women’s agency.

Most feminists I know are very much aware of the complexities of abortion decisions, and they are not cavalier about the matter.  Many I’ve talked with have said they could not imagine themselves ever having an abortion.  But at the same time, they realize they would not want to insist that all young girls and women in all circumstances make the decision they think they themselves would make.  And perhaps under certain circumstances (rape, for example) they might make a very different decision for themselves as well.  In any case, the question of abortion, like all other questions related to women’s lives, must always take into account the moral agency of women.  Otherwise, their full humanity is not being recognized.

As you know, Kim, I’ve written at length about reproductive issues in two chapters of the book Nancy Hardesty and I coauthored, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, so I won’t take up more space to talk about these issues here.  But I do want to close with the very simple definition of feminism that Nancy and I provide in that book, namely that feminism is “a belief in and a commitment to the full equality of men and women in home, church, and society” (p. 1, 1992 revised edition). Perhaps some of the women you’ve talked with about feminism may be willing to give some thought to that definition.  On the other hand, maybe they’ll reject it.  As we’ve said in earlier posts, some Christians think women can be equal in society but not in the home or church.

Wow! This has been a long letter.  I guess I’m making up for the several weeks I was absent from this blog.

Have a wonderful and blessed Christmas.

Your friend,
Letha

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

3 COMMENTS

  1. I find it so ironic, Letha, that evangelical Christians in particular have been so opposed to feminism when its whole version of Christianity is based on the notion of “human agency.” In the nineteenth century there were great debates about “human agency.” Revivalism and the whole notion of a person “making a decision to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” was invented in the early nineteenth century on just that notion of “human agency.” Contrary to the historical Christian position that one could be baptized as an infant because baptism was a work of God that incorporated one into the Body of Christ, and contrary to the Puritan, Calvinist tradition that one must wait to discern whether God had elected one to be a Christian, revivalists argued that humans had the ability, the free will, the human agency to choose, to make a decision as to whether they would accept or reject the Christian faith.

    And in that regard, women as well as men as well as children were granted full human agency. One member of the family or community was not expected to decide for everyone. Each person exercised his or her own agency. “Salvation” became an individual human decision.

    And yet evangelicals in the twentieth century turned around and declared that after that the husband and father is the only one with the ability and the responsibility to choose everything else for the family. The decisions are all his to make. Amazing, isn’t it, how quickly pride, control, sin rears its ugly head?!

  2. Oh, Letha–thank you for correcting so much mythology that has sprung up around what even I used to call “women’s lib.”

    There is such a strong tendency to trivialize, exaggerate, minimize, and distort!

    Women’s agency is such a scary thing for a culture built on controlling women.

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