The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The year women refused to stay silent, tossed their bras and redefined politics

On the Atlantic City Boardwalk, demonstrators, some waving high heels or underwear, protest the Miss America pageant on Sept. 7, 1968. The protest, organized by the New York Radical Women group, aimed to highlight the pageant’s “objectification of women, treating them as meat, treating them as sex objects.” (Getty Images)

Everything was discussed, no topic deemed taboo: reproductive rights, abortion, orgasms, workplace inequality, financial disparity, relationships, rape, the harassment they faced daily walking down the street.

The modern women’s movement began the way women have long come together, meeting in living rooms across the country to share their lives and issues. “Consciousness-raising groups” planted the seeds of protest. Women met monthly or weekly, the gatherings formed largely through word of mouth. Sometimes coffee and cake were served. Personal stories, always.

The groups often sat in a circle, each woman getting a chance to tell her story. Susan Brownmiller, who would write the seminal book on rape, “Against Our Will,” told her group that she had had three illegal abortions. Peggy Dobbins shared that, as an unwed mother, she had given up an infant for adoption. “The personal is political” became the message.

The year 1968 was the moment when women took the message and the movement out of their homes and onto the streets.

Consciousness-raising “changed my life,” says activist and writer Alix Kates Shulman, who was married with two children in 1968. “I was trying to graciously accept my fate that my work life was over. The movement was an explanation of all my discontents.”

“If you spoke your personal experience, you discovered it was shared. If it was shared, it was social,” says Dobbins, a sociologist who was active in the movement. “And if it was social, it was political. And if it was political, you could do something about it.”

“It was happening spontaneously all over the country,” says Amy Kesselman, who belonged to a group in Chicago. “We exploded the definition of politics.”

Fifty years ago, abortion was illegal. The pill and the IUD made sex safer but also shifted the burden onto women to make sure they didn’t get pregnant. The working world remained largely separate and unequal. Want ads were frequently listed by gender (“Wanted World’s Best Looking Exec Secretary”). A woman often couldn’t get credit cards or a checking account without her husband’s signature. Twelve women served in Congress, and not one in Lyndon Johnson’s Cabinet or on the Supreme Court.

The term “feminist” had yet to widely enter the vernacular. Neither had “sexist”; the invective of choice was “male chauvinist pig.”

In January of that combustible year, 5,000 women marched against the Vietnam War in Washington, calling themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. Rankin, then 87, had been the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916 and again in 1940. She was a dyed-in-her-wool-suit pacifist who had voted against America’s entry into both world wars. Rankin marched in all black, the Evening Star reported, “from her boots to her hairnet.”

The brigade moved to the Shoreham Hotel for post-march meetings, where a group of about 200 younger, mostly college-educated women separated from the larger conclave. They complained that the protest had cast them in the roles of “tearful and passive reactors to the actions of men,” the late Shulamith Firestone wrote.

At the hotel, they carried a coffin symbolizing the “Burial of Traditional Womanhood.” Kathie Sarachild read an oration: “Yes, sisters, we have a problem as women all right, a problem which renders us powerless and ineffective over the issues of war and peace, as well as over our own lives.”

These women, many veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements, had discovered that younger men, even the scruffy long-haired radicals, were as opposed to gender equality as their fathers were.

“Our brothers in that world wanted us to make coffee, not policy,” says activist and writer Robin Morgan, a member of New York Radical Women. “Out of that grew this tremendous anger. There was a feeling of betrayal on the left that was enormous and heartbreaking.”

Thus was born, nearly 50 years after women got the vote, the second wave of feminism.

A beauty of a protest

How to make their message known?

“It popped into my head that the pageant might be something good to protest because it was very popular at the time and helped set appearance standards for all women,” recalls Carol Hanisch, also a member of New York Radical Women.

In 1968, Miss America represented the Super Bowl of beauty; almost two-thirds of all televisions in use were tuned to the pageant. It was the perfect event.

The protest was the movement’s first big media moment, and it was carefully planned.

About 100 women flocked to Atlantic City on Sept. 7, arriving at midday and marching all afternoon. Many came from New York by bus, but protesters also traveled from Washington; Gainesville, Fla.; Detroit; and Bancroft, Iowa. Most of the women were in their 20s and early 30s, but some were accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. The group included lawyer Flo Kennedy and other black activists.

Bev Grant, who would become a musical performer and remain an activist, took photos and shot film. Dobbins created a life-size Miss America puppet and strutted along the boardwalk like a carnival barker: “Yes, sirree, boys, step right up. How much am I offered for this No. 1 piece of prime American property? She sings in the kitchen, hums at the typewriter, purrs in bed.” Their signs read “Up Against the Wall, Miss America” and “We Shall Not Be Used.”

In Atlantic City, women threw — but, contrary to lore, did not incinerate — bras. (Officials prohibited having a fire on the boardwalk.) Also girdles, makeup, high heels, girlie mags, all deemed “instruments of female torture.” They were tossed into the “Freedom Trash Can.” The protesters passed out leaflets — mimeographed literature was a hallmark of the movement — while a large crowd gathered; some taunted the protesters, though Morgan recalls “how friendly the bystanders were.”

But the myth of bra-burning stuck. Critics jumped all over the idea, labeling the women hairy-legged and humorless. But the participants had a ball. “It felt very joyous and free,” says Helen Kritzler.

The protesters rented a sheep, which sported a “Miss America” banner and bow. (It was a boom time for barnyard animals: A week earlier at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Yippies nominated a pig, dubbed Pig­asus, for president.) They refused to speak to male reporters, viewing the protest as an opportunity for female journalists to get the byline on a story of consequence, something that didn’t run in the society pages.

Miss America “was a way of reaching the whole country,” Shulman says, to show what the pageant represented: “The objectification of women, treating them as meat, treating them as sex objects. And the racism in the pageant.”

In the 1930s, the Miss America pageant instituted a rule that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Though the rule didn’t appear after 1950, almost two decades later the pageant had yet to include a single African American contestant.

A few blocks down the boardwalk, Philadelphia promoter J. Morris Anderson sought to remedy the injustice by producing the first Miss Black America pageant. “It was an act of protest. Black people had been brainwashed that black was ugly. We wanted to turn that concept around,” says Anderson.

“It was a time we came together as a community to fight for justice and economic and racial pride,” says Saundra Williams-Stovall, who was crowned the first pageant winner. (Two years later, the first black contestant would compete in Miss America. The Miss Black America pageant is still in operation and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in August.)

Meanwhile, to get into the Convention Hall, the protesters “dressed up in high heels, the very sort of shoes we had thrown in the Freedom Trash Can,” Sarachild says. While reigning Miss America Debra Dene Barnes delivered her farewell address, a dozen protesters seated in the balcony unfurled a “Women’s Liberation” banner inked on a bedsheet and began yelling “No more Miss America!” (The banner didn’t appear on television: NBC’s cameras never turned from the runway to capture the unscripted moment.)

A beauty pageant, of all places, would be where the phrase “women’s liberation” first gained national attention.

Inside the hall, Dobbins sprayed Toni Home Permanent, a hair product made by a pageant sponsor, “on the floor at people’s feet” and was arrested. “I watched the end of the pageant from jail with women who have been arrested for demanding cash for sexual services.”

Most of the protesters were elated. “It put us on the map in a way that was much larger than we had been before,” Shulman says. “I thought it was a triumph.”

“The best fun I can imagine anyone wanting to have on any single day of her life,” Kennedy, now deceased, wrote in her 1976 memoir. “It was very brazen and very brash.”

But at least one demonstrator had regrets. “One of the biggest mistakes of the whole pageant was our anti-womanism,” Hanisch wrote weeks later, a view she still holds. “Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of as our sisters who suffer with us.”

Stagnation and regression

That year saw the birth of other women’s groups, including Redstockings and W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). The latter group cast a guerrilla-theater hex on Wall Street that Halloween. Two years later on New York’s Fifth Avenue, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, an estimated 50,000 women participated in the Women’s Strike for Equality. And in 1972, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to help end gender discrimination in the workplace.

Many second-wave feminists, now in their 70s and 80s, remain politically active. They’ve lived long enough to see more women elected to Congress, Hillary Clinton run for president and two successive years of massive global marches for women’s rights.

They’ve also witnessed what they view as stagnation for their issues: pervasive sexual harassment, women earning less than men, too few women in leadership positions and not enough affordable child care, especially for low-income families. The ERA has yet to be ratified by the required three-fourths of all states (but some legislatures are bringing it up for a vote again).

Instead of girdles, there are Spanx. High heels have grown even higher. Miss America may no longer be the icon she once was, but the fashion industry, advertising and social media continue to promote unattainable standards of beauty.

“I think of the #MeToo movement as a continuation of consciousness-raising, a resurfacing,” Shulman says. “With Trump’s election, the movement has been reborn. Our early movement was full of rage. These women are very angry. It takes another upsurge of anger to get a movement going.”

Hanisch observes less progress. “In some areas, like abortion, we are going backward, partly due to a big backlash against the gains women have won,” she notes. “We’ll never have true women’s liberation until we restructure society so that men and society as a whole share equally in what is now ‘women’s work’ and women share equally in the public work and governance of society.”

“All freedom struggles, including women’s liberation, are learning processes,” Sarachild says. “You advance, then you get pushed back.”

Movements take time, the early feminists argue. “Radical change, creating gender equality, can’t occur overnight,” Dobbins says. “Lord heavens, it’s only been 50 years.”