By Carol Hanisch
The protest of the Miss America Pageant in 1968 was the opening militant “shot heard round the world” beginning a brief era of the fight against male supremacy by the newly emerging Women’s Liberation Movement. Since then, both the Pageant and the WLM have gone through some changes.
With its return last year to Atlantic City and ABC-TV, the Miss America Pageant is back in prime time while the Women’s Liberation Movement is fragmented and the remnants hard to even find.
ABC had dropped the show in 2004 after it drew a record low number of viewers. It moved to less-watched cable TV channels and was held in Las Vegas. Now it’s back on the offensive. As its website trumpets: “The 2014* National Competition heralded the Miss America Organization’s triumphant return to its home in Atlantic City. With the ABC telecast of that night breaking all viewership ratings for the past nine years, Miss America was forever reestablished as the iconic symbol of young women striving for excellence in the boardwalk competition of its birth.”
Forever reestablished? Let’s hope not!
The pageant has always been a commercial enterprise, even though the Miss America Organization itself has not-for-profit status. It was initially started in 1921 by Atlantic City businessmen seeking an event to expand the summer season on the New Jersey shore with an exhibition of “bathing beauties.” Held outdoors, it drew tens of thousands of spectators. The Pageant’s move into national broadcast television in 1954 brought in some of the country’s largest corporate sponsors. For the past few years it has been emceed by Chris Harrison, host of “The Bachelor/Bachelorette,” another popular ABC unreal “reality show.”
The Pageant was targeted by Women’s Liberation, both because it was a beauty competition for the “ideal woman” and because it represented so much of what was wrong with what that ideal woman was supposed to be: commercially beautiful, thin but well-shaped, poised in an acceptably docile sort of way, and with a modicum of non-threatening, male-approved talent. The anthem of the pageant went “There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal.” Everyday women struggled towards that ideal and often felt inadequate. As Ros Baxandall so aptly put it at the time, “Every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss America Contest.”
In the early 1960s, the Pageant was at its peak as the highest-rated program on American television. The closest thing the U.S. had to a princess, Miss America caught the attention of girls at an early age and, with the rest of the culture, helped pressure women to conform to society’s warped ideas of womanhood.
Raising feminist consciousness by women telling the truth to each other about their real lives proved to be the fertile ground from which the idea for the 1968 Protest sprang. As Princess Di would find out years later, all women are controlled and confined—even princesses. Fantasy and reality have little in common, and changing the social conditions for women’s real lives was what the Women’s Liberation Movement was all about.
Pageant Changes, Cosmetic and Otherwise
Now 46 years later, the Pageant is back big time making hay off women’s subjugation as a group while simultaneously rewarding a few women for meeting certain beauty and behavioral standards. However, there’s been a concerted effort to change its image to keep up with the times. In partial response, no doubt, to the mighty WLM of the past: “beauty pageant” has been officially replaced by “scholarship organization.” It has even added a STEM scholarship program in conjunction with Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education and an emphasis on community service provided by contestant volunteers. Miss America wins a $50,000 scholarship (not even a full year’s fees at an elite university), but she travels 20,000 miles a month for an entire year, making speeches and doing promotional work while looking picture perfect—truly arduous work.
The Miss America Foundation claims to be “the world’s largest providers of assistance to young women, totaling more than $45 million in scholarships each year.” If true, this is a sad commentary on how women are valued. The 12,000 women who compete annually are supposedly not really seeking recognition as the most beautiful woman in the U.S., they are competing for scholarships to college where they will focus on their minds! Only commercially beautiful, college or college-bound students need apply, however.
Keeping Up with “Diversity”
Down the street from the 1968 protest, a Miss Black America Pageant was held as an alternative to the lily-white Miss America Pageant. Official rule #7, instituted in 1930, had stated that contestants must be “of the white race.” The only stage appearances of African Americans was in musical shows as slaves. Although the “whites only” rule was abolished in 1950, the first Black contestant, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa (yes, from the flyover zone, not the supposedly more progressive east or west coasts), didn’t appear in a national competition until 1970. The first Black woman, Vanessa Williams, was crowned in 1983. The 2015 contest has a number of women of color in its ranks, including an African American representing Mississippi.
Other attempts to update Miss America have occurred over the years. In 1949, a new rule was instituted that contestants had to certify that they had never been married or pregnant. In 1999, the ban on contestants who had been divorced or had had an abortion was lifted but quickly reinstated and the new CEO of the Miss America Organization who had instigated it promptly fired after state pageant organizations rebelled in horror. So the Miss America Organization is anti-abortion and clings to the unlikely fantasy that the young women they crown Miss America are virgins unsullied by sex.
Miss America has often been called on to “entertain the troops”—literally—and such connections continue and are getting cozier. In 2013 a tattooed member of the Kansas National Guard Medical Detachment and director of a hunting company competed as Miss Kansas. Miss Utah 2007 was a combat medic with her state’s National Guard. One judge this year is a female Army brigadier general. “The judges will bring their expertise and knowledge of their respective fields to the judge’s table,” says the Miss America site. One wonders what expertise that would be!
It’s Still a Beauty Contest
Despite some cosmetic changes, beauty is still the prerequisite of the Pageant and the swimsuit (renamed Lifestyle and Fitness) and evening gown (now called Presence and Poise) competitions are hanging in there—wink, wink. While a woman might feel okay in a skimpy bikini on a beach where everyone else is scantily clad, walking down a runway with cameras bringing the picture to millions of TV watchers while the eyes of a fully clothed audience are upon her has to be a little creepy. No wonder protesters referred to it as a “cattle auction.” One also wonders what painful procedures she went through so that not one wisp of body hair shows to give her away as a real human being.
High heel shoes, one of the most agreed upon “objects of female torture” for disposing in the Freedom Trash Can by feminist protesters of the 1968 Pageant, are today featured on the logo of the “Show Us Your Shoes Parade” in the form of a pink stiletto heel that could have come straight off a porn apparel shelf. The shoe parade takes place the day before the finale and includes “floats, bands, dignitaries, military heroes, celebrities, youth groups, special units, our Forever Miss Americas and…the…contestants showing off their fabulously festive shoes and costumes.” That such fashion is cheered at the expense of women’s pain and bodily health is ignored.
Facing the Awful Truth to Change It
The comeback of the Miss America Pageant is, of course, only a small part of the picture and commands less importance than it did in 1968, but it does offer a glimpse of the power of the backlash. Despite the gains that the feminist movement has won, one has to wonder how far we’ve really come and how much more will be taken away before women rise up again and say “enough!”
The “high” heels thrown in the Freedom Trash Can were three inches at most; today they can be six inches or even higher. The one-piece bathing suits worn in 1968 were less revealing and demanding of bodily perfection than the bikinis of 2014. The pressure back then was to shave one’s legs and underarms; now there’s pressure to remove the hair on one’s private parts as well. Women were expected to “put out” in return for a date or a marriage, which was bad enough, but now they are often expected to casually “hook up” with little in return. They often have to care for a family while holding down a job. Those free public day care centers we demanded are no longer even on the table. Gains in reproductive rights like birth control, including abortion, are being rescinded. Actual gains on the equal income front are minimal, especially if a woman also has a family to support. The “war on women” that we wrote about in Meeting Ground in 1991 rages on. Election year rhetoric full of empty promises is heating up, but the real fight for equality and better quality of women’s lives is tepid.
We know from history that reality isn’t always pretty and gains won can indeed be lost, as those who protested on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 1968 have seen happen in our lifetime. The radical Women’s Liberation Movement that began to bring real change is missing in action on many levels, despite an abundance of talk, tweets and twitters. Ground will continue to be lost and there won’t be much more progress until a movement for women’s liberation makes a comeback—this time even stronger, more united, better organized and better able to persist than it was in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Ironically, the current predominant feminist ideology of “leaning in” for individual success not only fits well with the Miss America competition (and capitalist competition in general), it has replaced the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement’s goal of uniting women to liberate all women, Miss America contestants included.
As a song from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement reminds us, “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.”
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*EDITOR’S NOTE: 2014 is the correct date here. The Pageant that takes place September 2014 is actually called the 2015 Pageant, when they crown the winner for the year to come.
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RECOMMENDED RELATED VIEWING
Political comedian John Oliver did a recent hilarious segment on the Miss America Contest which uses many of the points made in this article. From fake scholarships to absurdly difficult questions to butt spray, he even pulls it off without much anti-womanism.
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