Saturday, September 7, 2013

Myth America

I think the origin of the phrase "women's liberation" can be traced back 50 years, maybe more, but it may not have been widely used until this day in 1968 (I was a child in 1968 so there are certain to be things of which I knew little and understood even less).

Forty–five years ago today, hundreds of women staged a protest in Atlantic City, N.J., home of the annual Miss America Pageant. They were protesting what they saw as the meat market atmosphere of the pageant.

And women's liberation joined all the other groups of that day that demanded to be treated better than they had been treated up to that time. As I say, I was just a child, but the logic of the argument did not escape me. My parents had always taught my brother and me that a principle upon which this nation was founded was simply this — all citizens should be treated the same.

Now, at a time when there were protests for and against just about everything by just about everyone, it was necessary to stand out in some way. As much as it was anything else, the '60s was a very theatrical decade, and you had to be entertaining to gain attention. The protest at the Miss America Pageant found its dramatic hook — so to speak.

Into a barrel labeled "Freedom Trash Can," the protesters dumped such symbols of domestic oppression as makeup, pots, mops, high heels, girdles, false eyelashes — and bras, lots and lots of bras.

But, contrary to what rapidly became urban legend, the trash can's contents were not set ablaze.

(I will admit that, as a writer, I appreciate the dramatic side of that tall tale. But that doesn't change the fact that it simply is not true.)

That was what mainstream America thought, however, and "bra burning" became synonymous with the women's liberation movement.

I heard the phrase, but I had little idea what it meant. I only knew that the idea seemed alien and, in some ways, frightening to the adults in my world. Actually, fire was a frightening thing for me as well. It was frightening for anyone who had seen uncontrolled fire — and you could see it on the news every night — although I have to admit that I didn't fully understand things from the adults' point of view. Now that I am an adult myself, I think I can understand the confusion my parents, my grandparents and their peers felt.

They had seen the war protesters burning their draft cards so the idea had some legitimacy. They had just witnessed riots in the streets at the Democrats' national convention in Chicago; a few months earlier, they had seen race riots in nearly every major American city following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a confusing, frightening time in America. Traditional roles — gender, racial, you name it — were under assault. Those roles may have been — well, they were — based on unfair stereotypes, but they gave most Americans a guide for who they were and what their role in the culture was.

I don't have a vivid memory of the things my elders said, but my impression was that they were fearful of the violence, the aggression — and, also, probably, the threat posed to that social yardstick — that was implied by the idea of women burning their bras in protest. It was almost as if women were seen as the last friendly, traditionally nurturing demographic group in America. If the idea of their violent revolt was true, no hope was left.

And that is all it was, really — an idea, an idealized image, not a fact.

As I say, there were other items that were trashed during the protest, but nothing was burned. No fires were started.

In fact, according to the story I heard, that whole rumor started when a reporter who was covering the protest compared (I presume in conversation with other reporters) the women protesters to Vietnam War protesters burning their draft cards.

And a myth was born.

Nevertheless, I can remember hearing my mother, my grandmothers and the other women of their generations speak disapprovingly of what they thought was going on in Atlantic City.

After the fact, I wondered if, secretly, my grandmothers and the women of their generation weren't a bit envious of those younger women who were asserting themselves so publicly, perhaps expressing what my grandmothers and their friends had long believed but had never had the nerve to say.

My grandmothers were young when American women won the right to vote, and they may have thought that was as much liberation as they could expect in their lifetimes. Then, as they were approaching the end of their lives, the younger generation was doing things my grandmothers never would have dreamed of doing.

The times really were a–changing.

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