The Bra Burning Magician

How one magician campaigned 50 years ago to get women accepted by the community.

The Bra Burning Magician
Magician burns bra outside Magic Circle

Magic has a misogyny problem. Hold on a minute – did that first sentence upset you? You may believe magic isn't at all sexist. Heck, you might think it's easier in general for female magicians. Well, I disagree.

Anyway... it can be hard to debate the current state of anything, and it tends to be a little easier to look back and reflect on the past.

Would it be sexist if The Magic Circle, the world-famous magic society, banned women from joining? Hopefully, we're all in agreement that, yes, that would be very sexist.

Okay – here's the mindblowing bit – The Magic Circle used to have a rule banning women, and the rule only changed in 1991. That's right, women were allowed to vote, join the military, and serve on a jury many decades before 75% of the male membership decided to allow women to be Magic Circle members, too.

1991! WTF. Four years before I was born! I actually know magicians who were members at a time when it was against the rules for women to join the magic circle. And only 75% voted to let women join! What was going on, eh?

It's easy to look back and see that it all looks a bit messed up.

We might do the same in the future. Maybe magicians will think back and be critical of this newsletter because we've only featured two female writers so far.

In the entire history of magic, the time that's passed since 1991 has gone by in a blink of an eye. So, yes, we've come a long way, and there are lots of female magicians in The Magic Circle today, including its current president – but it's foolish to presume, given its long history and very recent changes, that magic was suddenly cured of its misogynistic past.

The good news is that we can all happily agree that women should be allowed to join magic clubs and be considered genuine magicians. In recent years, only about 5% of Magic Circle members are female.

I like to believe magic is for everyone and that the main reason there are so few women in magic is that for almost all of its history, women weren't exactly encouraged to participate.

Obviously, a dream world doesn't mean there's a perfect 50/50 split between male and female magicians – the goal is simply that anyone can feel welcomed and know they have a place in the community if they wish to join. We're on our way there.

Today, there are more and more women in our industry, and perhaps in twenty years' time, there will be many more.

For every male magician who got into magic after seeing magicians like Daniels, Blaine, Copperfield, and Dynamo on the telly – there's a young girl today about to get inspired by a female magician.

And somewhere in the world right now, there is a 74-year-old female magician who played a public role in moving magic towards being a more accepting community. I'm not sure if anyone ever thanked her, though one magician is trying to find her to do just that.

Today's story is about a sorceress, her legacy and one magician's search to find her in the hopes we learn more about her experiences.

This story was submitted by Annanya George and is inspired by a blog post by Dr Nik Taylor (a magician and researcher). This entire story is possible due to his efforts. Taylor, in turn, began researching this and searching for its protagonist after seeing a photo in a 2016 blog post from magician Katherine Mills.

Diane Matthews

Just over fifty years ago, in 1972, twenty years before the infamous rule-changing vote at The Magic Circle, Diane Matthews made the news.

To protest the fact that female magicians were not allowed into the club, Matthews stripped topless and burned her bra outside of The Circle's headquarters.

There are two black-and-white images of her stunt. In the one featured in this post, Matthew's chest is mostly covered by her arm, but the second image shows her chest fully on display. It's clear from this second shot and the pose she strikes with a hand on her hip that the nudity is a decisive part of her protest.

The story was picked up in The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, with the headline "Diane's Strip Fails to do the Trick." Here's an excerpt:

The one trick that magician Diane Matthews cannot do is become a member of the exclusive Magic Circle. So yesterday she stood outside the men-only HQ, stripped off her clothes, and burnt her bra on the doorstep. The Magic Circle was not impressed. They did not rush out to offer her membership.

Diane was only 23 years old at the time. She was busy performing in clubs and cabaret with an act that mixed magic and dance. It wasn't as simple as going online to learn magic back in those days – mentors, magic clubs, magic magazines and physical shops were the main ways to learn tricks.

Diane explained at the time that one of the reasons she wanted to join was so she could earn more money, saying:

"A member always commands a higher fee than a non-member. People tend to think members are always better magicians."

Diane had only been performing magic for four months but was keen to show her act to the members in the hope that they would change their minds and let her in.

"If I could join the Magic Circle, I am sure I could learn a lot from watching other magicians."

But even if she'd been performing magic for decades, the rules of The Magic Circle wouldn't allow her entry. In fact, a spokesperson for The Circle had this to say:

"We would be pleased to see Diane’s act and would let her appear in our shows, but we don’t allow ladies into the inner sanctums of the circle.

Yuck. Inner sanctums... wonderful. He added:

"And there is absolutely no chance of us changing our minds."

Predictions were not this magician spokesman's speciality, clearly.

The Daily Mail reached out to more magicians for comment, and a magician named David Nixon offered support. He said he was in favour of women joining. When asked about the bra-burning stunt, Nixon replied:

"Did she manage to restore it afterwards? She should have got somebody to sign it first and then reproduced it from her handbag."

Magician humour was alive and well fifty years ago.

The key thing to note from The Daily Mail's coverage of the story is that Diane was not previously interested in the Women's Lib before she was refused Circle membership. She made sure to say separately that setting light to her bra was a completely independent gesture to the general Women's Lib movement.

The story went international and got featured in The Indianapolis Star with the headline, "Club Members Certainly Not Under Her Spell". Diane was quoted with more reasoning behind wanting to join:

“I want membership so that I can study in the organization’s library and museum."

And there's a new comment from a Magic Circle spokesperson.

Some time had passed, so perhaps the official spokesman had something better to say than mentioning the inner sanctums.

The Magic Circle spokesman's response:

“I’m sorry, but we feel that women can’t keep secrets.”

Oh, f*ck off.

By the next month, the story was picking up more reach, though perhaps in ways that really captured the general tone of the era. Saturday Titbits Magazine featured the story on its cover and gave it a full double-page spread.

Attractive model holding magic props
Photo Credit: @doctormagick

This time, they chose the headline, "Oh, Diane…a disappearing bra doesn't get you anywhere." Some of the piece reads:

STARTLING things go on inside the Magic Circle-but nothing to compare with what came off outside it. Attractive cabaret dancer and conjurer Diane Matthews whipped off her bra and made it disappear in a puff of smoke. Naked to the waist, she then protested against the “fuddy-duddy rule” that bans women as members. But the girl who calls herself the Seductive Sorceress failed to cast her spell. The ban stays.

This time, Magic Circle President, Francis White, was able to provide more context about why the men had banned women from joining their society. His reasoning: women members would only marry and leave to raise families. He added:

“We wouldn’t like to think they went off with the secrets of the Magic Circle.”

Another male member of the club added:

“They’d tell their husbands and boyfriends how to do our most baffling illusions, soon everybody would know. And once people are aware of how a magician produces his effects, he might as well pack up. Mystery is all.”

Little did this male magician know that one day in the future many male magicians would reveal their secrets to millions of people on a mobile telephone application called TikTok.

Their comments were presented to Diane, who had a mindful response:

“Having taken the trouble to train as a professional magician, I am not going to put myself out of business. I’m as keen to protect my livelihood as any man.”

Oh, and don't panic. David Nixon was back at it again and makes another appearance in this piece:

“I’m very much in favour of the opposite sex. They would certainly brighten up the place. Unfortunately, less than one per cent of magicians are women. I doubt if more than two or three would join if we asked them.”

Magic Circle's president had a thing or two to add on this point:

“Women just aren’t interested in magic, they think of us as little boys playing games.”

To be fair, you do sound like a child, mate.

Diane's response:

“Even if I’m the only girl who wants to join, I don’t see why they shouldn’t let me.”

Good point, Diane.

Public accounts came to an end two years later when The Daily Express was the first to report that she was to marry an insurance broker. Here's an excerpt:

I HAVE reassuring news for members of that exclusively male temple of illusion, The Magic Circle. Magician Diane Matthews, who two years ago burned her bra outside the Chelsea head quarters as a protest against their not admitting women, has decided to give up her three-year campaign and concentrate her powers on... marriage. She plans to wed rich 41-year-old insurance broker Ronald Piper.

A comment from Diane was included:

“I have been given the most frivolous reasons for being cold-shouldered. They claim women cannot keep secrets.”

In November 1974, Abracadabra, a magazine for magicians, picked up on the story in the final public mention of Diane that Dr. Nik Taylor could find. Abracadabra's writing on the story is worth reading a few times because while you might argue that the views expressed until now were limited to The Magic Circle, this magazine was read by many magicians at a time when magic magazines were incredibly popular – long before the internet and that pesky TikTok app.

This is the excerpt from Abracadabra.

Remember Diane Matthews, the magicienne who two years ago burned her bra outside The Magic Circle Headquarters in a frustrated effort to gain admission? Well, according to last Saturday’s Daily Express the battle is over, with victory going to the Circle. Diane has decided to give up the fight and concentrate on another project… her forthcoming marriage to a wealthy insurance broker!

Remember, ladies, if you marry someone wealthy, everything you did beforehand will be completely redundant. Urgh.

But her efforts did matter, and twenty years (twenty years!) after Matthews burned her bra, 75% (only 75%) of the male magicians in The Magic Circle voted to allow women to join in 1991 (1991!). Today, The Circle has a female president, and more and more often, female magicians join the community.

It's never been better to be a magician, and magic has never been so welcoming to every type of magician.

But – you knew a "but" was coming, didn't you? – One of the things that's always bugged me is when magicians, even well-respected magicians, insist on telling me it's easier for women in magic (often immediately after a female magician has walked away from us).

It took a long while for me to figure out how to word my frustration at this idea that it's easier for women in magic. But here goes.

Even if you do believe this to be true, the belief is naive to the idea that it might be more challenging for a woman to get into magic in the first place. Realistically, the way we discover and are encouraged and welcomed by the community is different.

Many men get into magic by watching a male magician on TV or by getting taught tricks by a male mentor and buying books with teachings by male magicians with tutorials written in a male-gendered language (the magician puts the coin in "his" hand). After that, they have a hobby that many view as a male thing and can attend conventions with thousands of other men and buy props made mostly for men.

The start lines are different – that's probably the best I can articulate it.

But they're closer than ever, thanks to people like Diane Matthews.

And the truth is it's complicated, and the circumstances are different for everyone. There will be many male magicians who have struggled hugely to enter and find their place in magic, too. I guess all we need to do is just be welcoming to anyone who wants to participate – and maybe not make comments about how easy it is for them as soon as they're out of earshot.

No one knows what happened to Diane. Dr Nik Taylor is still hoping to find and speak to the now 74-year-old. If you can fill in the gaps in her story, or if you happen to know if she's alive and able to share her thoughts on magic today, reach out to Dr. Taylor.