There are a couple of stories going around about modern women that must be true since we've heard them so many times in the media, right?
Don't bet on it.Here are two examples of phony "facts" about contemporary women that have often been trumpeted in newspapers, magazines and on TV. I admit that I believed them myself until not too long ago.
First, what's the most common thing that radical feminists did in the late 1960s to dramatize their protests? (Burn their bras, of course.)
Second, what was a middle-aged single woman's chance of getting married in the 1980s? (Because of the severe man shortage at the time, she was actually more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry.)
We all assumed both assertions to be true because we read or heard about them so frequently in the past two decades.
To characterize a radical feminist, just mention her burning a bra. To convince an unmarried female to get hooked when she had an offer, just remind her of the greater statistical odds of a terrorist attacking her than of another bachelor proposing if she waits too long.
But neither of these assumptions is at all factual, and we've simply been misled about them by the press.
I'm indebted to Victoria A. Rebeck, assistant editor at Christian Century magazine, for pointing out the debunking of the bra-burning and spinster-boom myths in Susan Faludi's best-selling book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women."
Rebeck asked me in her letter, "Are these, then, examples of urban legends or just bad journalism?"
I'd say it's a combination of both. Let's review each case.
Faludi's research revealed that although some women in the late 1960s had tossed padded brassieres into a trash can to protest the Miss America pageant, "no one actually burned a bra that day."
"Yet," she wrote, "to read the press accounts of the time, the bonfires of feminism nearly cremated the lingerie industry." The image of women burning their bras became a symbol of feminist dissent, although such an incident apparently never happened.
Rebeck in her letter mentioned two recent instances she'd noted of people being interviewed in the broadcast media who made reference to bra burning as a typical feminist tactic.
Faludi traced the second idea - that there aren't enough marriageable men to go around - to the Victorian period. This "spinster boom" theory again got heavy media coverage in the 1980s. For example, in 1986, Newsweek quoted "dire statistics" supporting the assumption, but they were all drawn from a "flawed and unpublished" study that was later discredited.
Newsweek's killed-by-a-terrorist comparison, it turns out, was the result of a reporter saying it as a joke, "and the next thing we knew, one of the writers in New York took it seriously and it ended up in print."
Exact origins of the bra-burning and spinster-boom stories are sketchy, like those of most urban legends. But, once established, the vivid stories seemed to acquire a life of their own and were repeated person-to-person, and publication-to-publication, without most people questioning their validity.
Also, like urban legends, the stories kept varying slightly in detail. Sometimes they were supported by seemingly authentic references to dates, places and people. Then you might hear something like, "A woman my sister's boyfriend knows really did burn her bra at a demonstration held at some university in California, probably Berkeley."
So it seems to be bad journalism that started and perpetuated the two stories. But it was urban-legend tradition that provided the narrative patterns that helped them evolve and fostered people's uncritical willingness to believe that the stories were true.
1992 United Feature Syndicate Inc.