Who was it who said, “History is but a fable agreed upon?” Voltaire? Napoleon? It doesn't really matter (history, in this case, fails us) because at least the sentiment is solid. Telling stories is what we humans do, and in some cases, veracity be damned if the truth isn't as colorful as what we can make up.
Then there's what psychologists call the Rashomon Effect, in which different people experience the same event in contradictory ways. And sometimes, major players conspire to advance one version of an event over the other.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Take the long-held assumption, found even in some of the most respected history books, that 1960s feminists demonstrated against the patriarchy by burning their bras. Of all the myths surrounding women's history, bra burning has been one of the most tenacious. Some grew up believing it, never mind that as far as any serious scholar has been able to determine, no early feminist demonstration included a trash can full of flaming lingerie.
The Birth of a Rumor
The infamous demonstration that gave birth to this rumor was the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest. Bras, girdles, nylons, and other articles of constricting clothing were tossed in a trash can. Maybe the act became conflated with other images of protest that did include lighting things on fire, namely public displays of draft-card burning.
But the lead organizer of the protest, Robin Morgan, asserted in a New York Times article the next day that no bras were burned. “That's a media myth,” she said, going on to say that any bra-burning was just symbolic.
But that didn't stop one paper, the Atlantic City Press, from crafting the headline “Bra-burners Blitz Boardwalk,” for one of two articles it published on the protest. That article explicitly stated: “As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women's magazines burned in the 'Freedom Trash Can,' the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded 'Miss America.'”
The second story's writer, Jon Katz, remembered years later that there was a brief fire in the trash can-but apparently, no one else remembers that fire. And other reporters did not report a fire. Another example of conflating memories? In any case, this certainly was not the wild flames described later by media personalities like Art Buchwald, who wasn't even near Atlantic City at the time of the protest.
Whatever the reason, many media commentators, the same ones who renamed the women's liberation movement with the condescending term "Women's Lib," took up the term and promoted it. Perhaps there were some bra-burnings in imitation of the supposed leading-edge demonstrations that didn't really happen, though so far there's been no documentation of those, either.
A Symbolic Act
The symbolic act of tossing those clothes into the trash can was meant as a serious critique of the modern beauty culture, of valuing women for their looks instead of their whole self. "Going braless" felt like a revolutionary act-being comfortable above meeting social expectations.
Trivialized in the End
Bra-burning quickly became trivialized as silly rather than empowering. One Illinois legislator was quoted in the 1970s, responding to an Equal Rights Amendment lobbyist, calling feminists "braless, brainless broads."
Perhaps it caught on so quickly as a myth because it made the women's movement look ridiculous and obsessed with trivialities. Focusing on bra burners distracted from the larger issues at hand, like equal pay, child care, and reproductive rights. Finally, since most magazine and newspaper editors and writers were men, it was highly unlikely they would give credence to the issues bra burning represented: unrealistic expectations of female beauty and body image.