History

Protesters Took on the Miss America Pageant and Electrified the Feminist Movement Fifty Years Ago

Miss America pageant sparked a feminist revolution in 1968. It never has been a progressive event. As it was the first protest Miss America by women, it highlighted the pageant and its antiquated, misogynistic attitudes toward women and beauty and how the United States treated women.

Carol Hanisch, a radical feminist conceived the uprising 1968 and popularized the phrase, “The personal is political.”

“Just might be the way to bring the fledgling Women’s Liberation Movement into the public arena,” she thought in in the summer of that year.

Miss America pageant began as a marketing scheme. It was held in Atlantic City just after Labor Day. It came into existence in 1921 as a way for newspapers to increase their circulation. It also helped businesses to extend their profitable summer season. Newspapers judged photographs of young women across the country and winners were called to Atlantic City for a competition where they were evaluated on “personality and social graces. There was no equivocating. Women’s beauty, white women’s beauty, was a tool.

Talent competition was introduced in 1938. Women, therefore were judged on more than just their appearance with that small bit of progress that came regression. Women were limited to be single and never married before between the ages of 18 and 28. The kind of beauty desired by the pageant was very specific and very narrow. Pageant desired slender-but-not-too-thin woman, the girl next door with a bright white smile, a flirtatious but not overly coquettish manner, smart but not too smart, certainly heterosexual. Miss America contestants had to be “of good health and of the white race,” says “Rule 7,” abandoned in 1940. The winner spent the year doing community service, but also peddling sponsors’ products and, later, entertaining U.S. troops.

Pageant was an obvious target to Hanisch and the other protest organizers. New York Radical Women invited women of every political persuasion to the Atlantic City boardwalk on September 7 in the press release of 22nd August. They would “protest the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.”

There was a freedom trash can in the protest allowing women to throw away all the physical manifestations of women’s oppression, such as “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.” There was a boycott with the companies whose products were used in or sponsored the pageant. Male reporters were not allowed to interview protesters, which remains one of the loveliest details of the protest.

There was a document issued with ten reasons for organizing the protest with detailed explanations. One of the reason was “the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” Another was racism as a woman of color had never won and there has never been a black contestant. They wrote;

“Nor has there ever been a true Miss America—an American Indian.”

Troops were also entertained highlighting the military-industrial complex and the role of Miss America as a “death mascot.” Consumeristic nature of corporate sponsorship of the pageant and valuing of beauty as a measure of a woman’s worth were also pointed out. They lamented that with the crowning of every new Miss America, the previous winner was forced into pop culture obsolescence.

Double standards were rejected that contestants were forced to be “both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” American women were encouraged to be “unoffensive, bland, apolitical.” The womanifesto proclaimed, “NO MORE MISS AMERICA.”

The organizers got permit with detailed plans for the protest, barring men from participating and on September 7, a few hundred women march on the Atlantic City boardwalk, just outside the convention center where the pageant took place. “All Women Are Beautiful, cattle parades are demeaning to human beings, don’t be a play boy accessory, can make-up hide the wounds of our oppression?” protestors stated.

Women also performed guerrilla theater tactics. One woman mopped the boardwalk in a skit, holding her child and pots and pans to exemplify how a woman’s work is never done. Florynce Kennedy, a prominent black feminist activist and lawyer, highlighted the ways women were enslaved by beauty standards. Robin Morgan, also a protest organizer, later quoted Kennedy as comparing that summer’s violent protests at the Democratic National Convention to throwing a brick through a window.

Misrepresentations of women’s liberty—the myth of ceremonial bra-burning, was raised by the freedom trash can. It was a compelling image, setting fire to their bras as they dared to demand their own liberation.

Wooden boardwalk was quite flammable therefore, officials asked the women not to set the can on fire. Lindsy Van Gelder, New York Post reporter suggested protesters would burn bras, a nod to the burning of draft cards. The myth can be traced back to it.

 

Educational Fund to plan their Miss America protest. (Bev GranThe organizers also issued a document offering ten reasons why they were protesting, with detailed explanations—a womanifesto, if you will. One contention was “the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” Another was racism, since a woman of color had never won—and there had never been a black contestant. “Nor has there ever been a true Miss America—an American Indian,” they wrote. They also protested the military-industrial complex and the role of Miss America as a “death mascot” in entertaining the troops. They pointed to the consumeristic nature of corporate sponsorship of the pageant and the valuing of beauty as a measure of a woman’s worth. They lamented that with the crowning of every new Miss America, the previous winner was forced into pop culture obsolescence.

They rejected the double standard that contestants were forced to be “both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” The pageant reprsented the elevation of mediocrity—American women were encouraged to be “unoffensive, bland, apolitical”—and instilled this impoverished ambition in young girls. “NO MORE MISS AMERICA,” the womanifesto proclaimed.They also protested the military-industrial complex and the role of Miss America as a “death mascot” in entertaining the troops. They pointed to the consumeristic nature of corporate sponsorship of the pageant and the valuing of beauty as a measure of a woman’s worth. They lamented that with the crowning of every new Miss America, the previous winner was forced into pop culture obsolescence. They rejected the double standard that contestants were forced to be “both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” The pageant represented the elevation of mediocrity—American women were encouraged to be “unoffensive, bland, apolitical”—and instilled this impoverished ambition in young girls. “NO MORE MISS AMERICA,” the womanifesto proclaimed.

After other Post writers reported the idea as fact, syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald spread the myth nationwide. “The final and most tragic part of the protest,” he wrote, “took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.” He continued to revel in his misogyny, writing, “If the average American female gave up all her beauty products she would look like Tiny Tim and there would be no reason for the American male to have anything to do with her at all.” In a handful of sentences, Buchwald neatly illustrated the urgent need for the protest.

During the actual pageant that evening, some of the protesters, including Carol Hanisch, sneaked into Boardwalk Hall and unfurled a banner reading, “Women’s Liberation,” while shouting, “Women’s Liberation!” and “No More Miss America!” Their action gave the burgeoning movement an invaluable amount of exposure during the live broadcast.

At midnight on September 8, a few blocks away at the Atlantic City Ritz-Carlton, the inaugural Miss Black America competition was held. If the Miss America pageant wouldn’t accommodate black women and black beauty, black folk decided they would create their own pageant. After his daughters expressed their desire to become Miss America, the Philadelphia entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson created Miss Black America so his children’s ambitions would not be thwarted by American racism. The 1968 winner, Saundra Williams, reveled in her win. “Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant,” she said afterward. “With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful.” In 1971, Oprah Winfrey participated in Miss Black America as Miss Tennessee. The pageant, which continues today, is the oldest pageant in the country for women of color.

While the 1968 protests may not have done much to change the nature of the Miss America pageant, they did introduce feminism into the mainstream consciousness and expand the national conversation about the rights and liberation of women. The first wave of feminism, which focused on suffrage, began in the late 19th century. Many historians now credit the ’68 protest as the beginning of feminism’s broader second wave.

As feminists are wont to do, the organizers were later relentless in critiquing their own efforts. In November 1968, Carol Hanisch wrote that “one of the biggest mistakes of the whole pageant was our anti-womanism…Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of our sisters who suffer with us.”

History is cyclical. Women are still held to restrictive beauty standards. Certainly, the cultural definition of beauty has expanded over the years, but it has not been blown wide open. White women are still upheld as an ideal of beauty. In the Miss America competition, women are still forced to parade around in swimsuits and high heels. “The swimsuit competition is probably the most honest part of the competition because it really is about bodies; it is about looking at women as objects,” Gloria Steinem said in the 2002 film Miss America.

History is cyclical. As we look back on these 1968 protests, we are in the midst of another significant cultural moment led by women. After the election and inauguration of President Trump, millions of women and their allies marched in the nation’s capital and in cities around the world to reaffirm women’s rights, and the rights of all marginalized people, as human rights. They marched for many of the same rights the 1968 protesters were seeking. A year later, we are in the midst of a further reckoning, as women come forward to share their stories of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence. And, for the first time, men are facing real consequences for their predation. The connective tissue between 1968 and now is stronger than ever, vibrantly alive.

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