September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Women’s Lib – hostility to equality in the 1970s

3 min read
Women's Lib burst on to the scene in the 1970s but the fight for sexual equality was fierce as Tony McMahon discovers

In the 1970s, the struggle for women’s liberation – referred to as “Women’s Lib” – erupted to the surface. News programmes, documentaries, and even entertainment shows smirked at Women’s Lib – mocking its supporters. And there was an obsession, that looks creepy now, with alleged mass bra burning by Women’s Lib supporters. Something that actually never happened (blog post continues below image of a 1970 newspaper article).

The myth of mass bra burning by Women’s Lib in the 1970s

Male media commentators and entertainers in the 1970s got their Y-fronts in a twist over Women’s Lib supporters engaging in mass bra burning. The thought of female figures no longer being shaped by girdles and bras was clearly too much to endure for many men. Leading feminists pointed out that the whole story around bra burning was a ludicrous fiction. But as with fake news today, once this story was out there, it would linger – even in a world before social media – spreading in pubs and clubs with accompanying dirty chuckles.

There had been a couple of bra destructions by individual women when other items of ‘restrictive’ clothing were also incinerated – but the idea that bras were going up in flames across the western world was nonsense. The story seems to have originated from the 1968 Miss America competition where a “freedom trash can” was set up outside by Women’s Lib and protestors dumped everything from hair curlers to high heels into it. But of course, male journalists gave a couple of bras pre-eminence. Two years later in Oklahoma, an attempt to set a bra on fire was unsuccessful resulting in it merely smouldering. But that became headline news.

Much to the exasperation of leading American feminist Betty Friedan who countered this whole thing was a figment of the media’s lurid imagination. Even Raquel Welch, whose semi-clad image graced many heterosexual boys’ bedrooms, decried the American obsession with female breasts and the way it was used to dehumanise women (blog post continues below).

Miss World competition disrupted by Women’s Lib

In 1970, the veteran comedian Bob Hope presented the annual Miss World competition at the Albert Hall in London. This was primetime TV viewing with the contestants wearing national costumes followed by swimsuits and interviews with the main presenter that infantilised the women to the level of Stepford Wives. It’s not difficult to see why this sexist meat market became an object for Women’s Lib action. So, Hope got more than he bargained for as the stage was pelted with flour bombs and rotten fruit and water pistols were fired.

Hope tried to make light of it in his customary sneering manner. But something happened that night. For millions of people, the Miss World contest started to look tawdry. The act of protest tore back the curtain on this annual humiliation of young women. What had previously been accepted was now questioned increasingly. Women’s Lib had scored a major victory at the beginning of the 1970s. Even the Royal Albert Hall website today celebrates that evening as a major moment in the venue’s long history. Here is Bob Hope getting his just desserts (blog post continues below).

In 1979, the Conservative Party was elected to power and Margaret Thatcher became the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister. While Thatcher declared herself an opponent of feminism, her victory gave comedy writers of the old school one final chance to lampoon Women’s Lib. The Two Ronnies was a variety show on BBC1 that dominated Saturday night viewing throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

FIND OUT MORE: Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist

It included a dramatised story in episodes and in 1980, The Worm that Turned portrayed a future police state in Britain run by dominatrix-style women. Men were forbidden to wear trousers and reduced to doing housework or working as tea ladies. The reason this still landed well with the show’s huge audience was that the idea of women having complete equality still seemed absurd to many misogynist men.

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