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Bra Flag

Land of the Freed-up Woman American flag banner made from bras, 1971.
(Museum object #2000.79.1)

By 1971, in the midst of the feminist movement, Marjorie Engelman of Green Bay, Wisconsin had experienced a new sense of liberation. She had started her first job less than two years earlier in the office of the Assistant Chancellor for Community Outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and found her work there exhilarating and freeing. Around the same time, Engelman began using the contraceptive pill and discovered reproductive freedom. As a fiber artist she decided to capture these liberating feelings in a work of textile art. The result was a bra banner in the form of the American flag that Engelman titled The Land of the Freed-up Woman.

Engelman used the motif of the American flag because it symbolized freedom to her. She decided to make the white stripes out of padded bras and to use the fringe from their straps to capture the spirit of bra burning, which she had read about in the popular press. Engelman purchased the bras for the flag from the Sears store in Appleton, Wisconsin. As she recalled later, "When I told the sales person that I wanted 20 of the small padded bras she looked at me and queried, 'You like that bra?' When I responded that I was using them in a work of art, she stared at me and was silent."

In addition to the bras, Engelman used velveteen she had around the house to make the red stripes. She designed the blue field of the flag to look like a package of contraceptive pills as they appeared at the time, with three rows and seven columns of foam "pills," each column labeled with a different day of the week. All together the banner cost her $75 in materials.

Shortly after Engelman finished making her banner, the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay featured it in an art exhibition. Engelman recalled, "There was a call from a Green Bay alderman objecting to the creation which in his eyes had desecrated the American flag. Others were scornful that this woman, a [Methodist] minister's wife too yet, could do a thing like that." The next year one of Engelman's UW-Green Bay colleagues took the banner to a meeting of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a few years after that the flag again saw use in a production by the Broom Street Theater, an alternative theater house in Madison.

By 2000, the year Engelman donated her banner to the Wisconsin Historical Society, she felt the work had become a period piece that should be preserved for posterity. At that time she wrote, "In many ways the banner has been a symbol for me of the freedom that the feminist movement brought to my life."

As it turned out, Engelman and the Wisconsin Historical Society soon found that the banner continued to resonate with young people. Pat Colchina, a teacher at Madison's Memorial High School, had heard about Engleman's bra flag, and in March 2002 used it to inspire her women's history class to make a modern version. The students' creation consisted of white bras tied to a chicken wire frame that they then painted as the American flag. On a glass cover over the front of the finished piece the students added text from the failed Equal Rights Amendment.

Engelman was deeply moved by the students' reinterpretation of her work and documented her feelings about it in a brief essay entitled "Why Did I Cry?" that included the following thoughts:

I cried because their interest and concern is hopeful for the future of both men and women. I cried because these young women and one man are pioneers and leaders among their peers. I cried because I am moved that the art piece that I did 30 long years ago inspired a group of young students to do their own thing. Here I am at 74, and there they are at 17 (more or less) and we are thinking and feeling many of the same things. My feelings are a mixture, but mostly joy and appreciation for a new generation who is seeing the light of what a world of true equal rights for women could be like. And that's why I cried.

LAB


Posted on March 16, 2006

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