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On September 7, 1968, 50 women—one representing each state of the United States—prepared to be judged on their beauty by millions of eyes across the country, in the 41st annual Miss America pageant. But this year would be different.
As the contestants walked across the stage, protesters unfurled a bed sheet turned political statement from the rafters that read “Women’s Liberation” in large letters. The women shouted “No More Miss America!” over the crowd in the first ever protest against Miss America. While they didn’t get caught on camera, their words hit print in the next day’s newspapers, dragging the second wave of feminism into the mainstream.
As the protesters shouted from the rafters inside the show, outside hundreds of women took over the Atlantic City Boardwalk, carrying signs that said “Can make-up hide the wounds of our oppression?” and “All Women Are Beautiful.” One woman holding pots and pans and a baby mopped the boardwalk while another another chained herself to a puppet giant puppet of Miss America to symbolize how women are imprisoned by beauty standards. The protesters even crowned a sheep to symbolize how the pageant treated women like livestock at a county fair competition to a crowd of laughing and grimacing spectators.
READ MORE: I Was There: The 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest
The protesters dumped feminine items they deemed symbols of oppression including “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.” into a giant “freedom trash can” that they intended to set on fire.Though they weren’t allowed to light a fire on top of the flammable boardwalk, the bra burners myth was born later, in a New York Post story on the protest.
The protest was inspired at a meeting of the New York Radical Women. The group of activists discussed a film about the role beauty standards play in women’s oppression. The movie used the swimsuit competition as an example. That’s when feminist activist, Carol Hanisch, decided taking on the nearly 50-year-old iconic pageant might be the perfect way force this conversation around beauty into the public eye.
In the months before the pageant, the protesters advertised their demonstration as a change to stand up to “an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.” They also issued a press release that included 10 reasons for their hatred of the pageant, as an open invitation to women in August.
The group condemned the consumerism around sponsoring the program and how it valued women’s beauty before her personality. They felt the contest reinforced “the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” Also drawing their ire were the pageant’s racist standards that kept women of color from wearing the crown. The protesters also rejected the double standard that demanded that the women be “sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” Worst of all, they felt the pageant stripped the contestants of their voices, pushing women to be “inoffensive” and “bland.”
Protesting Miss America
In 1968, four hundred women gathered at Atlantic City’s Miss America Pageant to protest what they called “ludicrous beauty standards” perpetuated by American culture. In front of television cameras ready to film the pageant as a major media event, Miss America Protesters seized the opportunity to criticize the “Madonna-Whore” messaging symbolized by the beauty pageant.
In “No More Miss America!” Robin Morgan, one of the founding members of Redstockings, a Racial Feminist organization and think tank, describes the pageant as instructing women to “be both sexy and wholesome,” and she points out this beauty paradox not only objectifies women but the pageant, like Playboy magazine, exploits women. They called the pageant a “cattle auction.”
There is a rumor that women burned their bras at the Miss America Protest. In fact, they did not. They assembled a “Freedom Trash Can” where protesters discarded symbols of their sexist oppression: wigs, false eyelashes, girdles, and copies of Ladies Home Journal magazine.
Watch: “Up Against A Wall” (Documentary Trailer, Third World Newsreel, 1968)
Ironically, at the same time a few blocks away, the first Miss Black America pageant was underway. It was a celebration black women and another kind of protest against the Miss America Pageant’s exclusion of racial diversity. This coincidence demonstrates the necessity to conceptualize feminist movements and its intersections with civil rights movements.
The United States sent Miss America pageant contestants to entertain the troops during the nationally divisive Vietnam War. For Morgan, this practice, like the absence of racially diverse contestants, was the “perfect combination of American values—racism, militarism, capitalism—all packaged in one ‘ideal’ symbol, a woman.”
The Miss America Protest attracted major media attention and it sparked new awareness about the beauty standards that inform American sexual politics. It is often credited as an inaugural moment of Second Wave Feminism.
Susan Benet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (1999)
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (2002)
Miss Black America at 50: A look back at the pageant’s history of protest and pride
Girl wants to be Miss America when she grows up. Girl’s dad recognizes the racism she will face on her path. Girl’s dad creates a black-centered pageant that becomes an institution for half a century.
The tale is simple enough on paper, but Philadelphia entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson faced several obstacles before and after establishing the Miss Black America pageant in 1968. And his goal wasn’t solely to provide a platform for his young daughters who both expressed a desire to compete in Miss America. He wanted to challenge widespread negative stereotypes associated with black people in the United States.
In celebration of Miss Black America’s 50th anniversary — with a new winner to be crowned Saturday at the Gem Theatre in Kansas City — the Anderson family and past title-holders reflected on the pageant’s transition from humble beginnings in Atlantic City, to Madison Square Garden and national television. The competition afforded black women opportunities to travel the world and develop meaningful relationships, while retaining its original spirit of protest and pride.
“There was an absence of any type of relevance to black people in the media,” Anderson said of the climate in the late 1960s. “The amount of money that black people contributed to the economy was ignored.”
Instead, there was a reinforcement of the sentiment that blackness was undesirable. “The big problem was that black people bought into the negativity,” Anderson said, recalling black mothers who pinched their children’s noses, trying to make them thinner, or more European-looking. “Or a black child might hear a parent say, ‘Did you invite the little light-skinned girl with the good hair to the party?’ … In other words, curly hair was depicted as being ugly or being bad, and dark skin was ugly. So these were the problems that were faced and had to be protested against during that time.”
Marking the end of the civil rights movement, 1968 was a year of great unrest and activism, encompassing historic events from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, to the anti-Vietnam War protest at the Democratic National Convention. With the support of the NAACP, Anderson staged his own form of protest against the Miss America pageant, which had failed to include black Americans since its inception in 1921.
But there were some stumbling blocks. When Anderson tried to recruit participants at a black modeling agency in New York, some women with lighter complexions declined. “The culture in terms of black people was that the closest you were to white, the more positive you would be seen,” Anderson said. “And that’s what that was.”
He also recalled being “laughed out of the bank” when seeking a loan. “It was just basic, sheer determination to finance it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but I did get some support.”
On Sept. 8, 1968, the Miss Black America pageant commenced in Atlantic City at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, just blocks away from the Miss America pageant. At the same time, hundreds of feminists protested Miss America outside on the boardwalk.
“[It was] this intersection of race, gender, activism and beauty,” said Brittany Lewis, Miss Black America 2017, who entered the pageant as part of her Ph.D. research at George Washington University. “You have people protesting the pageant for what it says about women largely, and then you have black women using the pageant as protest, really not identifying with Miss America, or with those protesting Miss America.”
Miss Black America contestant Saundra Stovall (née Williams), who was 19 at the time, briefly encountered the protesters, but she remained focused. She was crowned the first Miss Black America, and received widespread media coverage, with publications like the New York Times placing her and Miss America’s photos side by side.
“I had no idea that our little pageant had, in a very short period of time, grown from a local event to an international event,” Stovall said. “There were just tons of reporters, and they were from all over the country and other countries around the world. … I did my very best to represent the cause and the purpose of the pageant.”
The pageant transitioned from a small room at the hotel to a star-studded event at Madison Square Garden the following year. Stevie Wonder sang, and the Jackson 5 appeared in what would become known as their TV debut. That same year, Curtis Mayfield penned “Miss Black America,” the pageant’s theme song.
“Every time I hear it I just glow inside,” Stovall said.
In 1970, Stephanie Epps (née Clark), an aspiring singer from Arlington, Virginia, became the third Miss Black America. She said entertaining soldiers in Vietnam as part of a USO tour was the highlight of her experience.
“I saw friends over there that I knew, that I went to school with I did the best I could to encourage them,” she said. “They were fighting for a country that they loved. And they wanted to come back to a world that would receive them because of what they’ve done, and not because of their skin color. But, as you know, that was what was waiting for them when they got back.”
Throughout the years, Anderson worked hard to syndicate the pageant to local television stations, but, in 1977, he sold NBC on airing the pageant live.
“I had some luck in the sense that that year, CBS had stolen the Miss America pageant from NBC,” he said. “They were really angry at CBS. They were going to air the Miss Black America pageant on the same night as the Miss America pageant, but they backed off and it was aired the night before.”
Claire Ford Hopkins, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, won during the historic broadcast. “There certainly was a level of excitement, a level of specialness in the air [because] we were being produced by this network that provided choreographers,” she said. “You could tell that this was a real-deal situation.”
As part of the partnership with NBC, Ford Hopkins earned guest appearances on Roots: The Next Generations and Fantasy Island. She also did a USO tour spanning Europe and Africa. But it was her relationships with the other women that she cherishes the most.
“I did grasp and understand the significance, even at that young age, of being among these other young and vibrant, excited, beautiful black sisters,” she said. “And we [tried] to do ourselves, our parents our families [and] our communities proud.”
Though NBC changed leadership and declined to air the pageant moving forward, Anderson continued to sustain successful ratings from syndication. He also franchised Miss Black America to colleges and individuals who managed local competitions that fed participants into the national system.
The national pageant changed homes over the years, even taking place in Jamaica in 1980. And the legacy of contestants continued to grow, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Toni Braxton.
Miss Black America did receive some pushback when Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win Miss America in 1984. “The thought was, ‘We don’t need to do that anymore, we just had a black Miss America,’” Amina Fakir, a Detroit native who won the 1985 Miss Black America title, said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s one. [But] in cities all around the country, young ladies get an opportunity to be in a pageant that extols the beauty of black women.’”
Miss Black America also suffered a blow in 1991, when Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a contestant. The pageant had booked him to appear at the festivities, which took place in conjunction with the Indiana Black Expo. Following the pageant, that year’s winner, Sharmell Sullivan Huffman, was questioned about the incident.
“If I were on a talk show or something of that nature, then that subject would always come up,” she said in an interview with Mic. “There was really not much that I could say because I was nowhere near anything that happened.”
Still, it didn’t stop the Gary, Indiana, native from having a positive experience, even returning for a couple years to co-host the pageant. “I really enjoyed speaking to our youths,” she said of her duties as Miss Black America. “That was very fulfilling.”
But the scandal impacted the perception of the Miss Black America competition.
“That wasn’t good for the pageant even though the pageant had done nothing wrong in terms of this happening,” Anderson said. “Then, I had sued Mike Tyson and [promoter] Don King, so this was a setback for the pageant.”
By 2009, Anderson’s daughter Aleta had long since worked her way up to executive producer. She helped launch a rebirth of the pageant, and has been working to strengthen the institution as a vehicle to uplift the black community. She cites youth programming and an annual discussion series (this year’s topic is mass incarceration) as just a couple initiatives surrounding the competition.
And a new generation of Miss Black America winners continues to find value in black spaces, especially in the midst of ongoing struggles, like police-involved killings of black citizens.
“When you’re a part of an all-black institution, you can be unapologetically black about black issues and the black experience,” Lewis said. “I think that’s why the organization is just as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1968, because we’re still fighting these same battles.”
The 1968 Miss America Protest - and its Significance Today
2018 is the 50th anniversary of a landmark protest at the Miss America beauty pageant. The protest was part of a new period of feminist activism—one with renewed significance in the #MeToo era. In this lesson, students learn the details of the protest using an original document and explore how the protest affected the women's liberation movement and our lives since the decades since.
To the Teacher:
2018 is the 50th anniversary of a landmark protest at the Miss America beauty pageant. The protest was part of a new period of feminist activism—one with renewed significance in the #MeToo era.
This lesson consists of three readings that introduce students to the history and significance of the Miss America protest, placing it in the context of the era’s wider women’s liberation movement. The first reading describes the protest itself and the motivations of participants. In the second, students engage directly with a primary source document—a 1968 press release in which protest organizers explain their objections to the beauty contest. The third reading describes the larger context of the era’s feminist movement and discusses how that movement’s accomplishments affect us today. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
Miss America Protest, September 7, 1968. Photo by Bev Grant. See more photos of the protest here.
Reading One: Remembering the 1968 Miss America Protest
2018 is the 50th anniversary of a landmark protest at the Miss America beauty pageant. The protest signaled the arrival of a new period of feminist activism—one with renewed significance in the #MeToo era.
On September 7, 1968, more than a hundred women marched on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ, near where the beauty pageant was being held. They threw beauty products and women's magazines into a "freedom trashcan," and crowned a live sheep Miss America. Others bought tickets to infiltrate the hall, unfurling a banner and disrupting the pageant.
In the 1960s, the Miss American pageant was a major televised event. “Everybody tuned into Miss America back then—this was like the Oscars,” explained one of the protest participants, Alix Kates Shulman. Making national headlines, the protest thrust the emerging women’s liberation movement into the national spotlight. Writer and professor Roxane Gay described the demonstration in a January 2018 article in Smithsonian magazine:
On August 22, the New York Radical Women issued a press release inviting “women of every political persuasion” to the Atlantic City boardwalk on September 7, the day of the contest. They would “protest the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.” The protest would feature a “freedom trash can” into which women could 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.” The organizers also proposed a concurrent boycott of companies whose products were used in or sponsored the pageant. Male reporters would not be allowed to interview protesters, which remains one of the loveliest details of the protest….
The organizers obtained a permit, detailing their plans for the protest, including barring men from participating, and on the afternoon of September 7, a few hundred women marched on the Atlantic City boardwalk, just outside the convention center where the pageant took place. Protesters held signs with such statements as “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?”
The protesters adopted guerrilla theater tactics, too. One woman performed a skit, holding her child and pots and pans, mopping the boardwalk to exemplify how a woman’s work is never done. A prominent black feminist activist and lawyer, Florynce Kennedy, who went by Flo, chained herself to a puppet of Miss America “to highlight 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. “The Atlantic City action,” Kennedy continued, “is comparable to peeing on an expensive rug at a polite cocktail party. The Man never expects the second kind of protest, and very often that’s the one that really gets him uptight.”
The freedom trash can was a prominent feature, and the commentary about its role in the protest gave rise to one of the great misrepresentations of women’s liberation—the myth of ceremonial bra-burning. It was a compelling image…. But it never actually happened. In fact, officials asked the women not to set the can on fire because the wooden boardwalk was quite flammable.
The 1968 protest connected the oppression of women with many other forms of injustice, including racism. As historian Paige Welch explained in a September 9, 2016 article in The Conversation:
Many now hail [the protest] as the opening salvo of the second-wave feminist movement in America. Less well known is that they saw the pageant as the nexus of many problems with American society: racism, war, capitalism and even ageism. The organizers had roots in radical leftist causes, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
Upon descending on Atlantic City, women’s liberation protesters distributed a leaflet that proclaimed “No More Miss America!” In it they denounced the pageant as “Racism with Roses,” a pointed critique of an event that put white women on a pedestal while ignoring African-American, Latina and Native American women.
After the event, protest organizers celebrated their success, but they also offered self-criticism. In a 1968 essay, organizer Carol Hanisch noted, “We didn't say clearly enough that we women are FORCED to play the Miss America role—not by beautiful women, but by men we have to act that way for and by a system that has so well institutionalized male supremacy for its own ends.”
Nevertheless, the organizers were clear that their protest made an important impact. Later writing in The Feminist Memoir Project, Hanisch explained:
When we read the morning papers, we knew our immediate goal had been accomplished: alongside the headline of a new Miss America being crowned was the news that a Women’s Liberation Movement was afoot in the land and that it was going to demand a whole lot more than “equal pay for equal work.” We were deluged with letters, more than our small group could possibly answer, many passionately saying, “I’ve been waiting all my life for something like this to come along.” Taking the women’s liberation movement into the public consciousness gave some women the nudge they needed to form their own groups. They no longer felt so alone and Isolated.
In subsequent years, the feminist movement scored a string of political and social victories that would change the way that Americans of all genders think about themselves and their society.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the reading why did the women involved want to protest the Miss America pageant?
- Why do you think the Miss America protest was effective at drawing attention to the cause of women’s rights?
- What do you think of the tactics the protesters used? Why do you think they used them?
- According to the readings, the protesters cited some limitations to their action. What were their own criticisms? What do you make of these?
- The protesters made considerable efforts to address political questions beyond gender discrimination. Why do you think they saw these other issues as connected? Do you agree with them that the issues are connected? Why or why not?
Reading Two: No More Miss America! A Primary Source Document
The following document contains excerpts from a press release written and released by the New York Radical Women in advance of their protest. The purpose of the press release was to communicate the reason for their demonstration and to attract the interest of the media. Consider what it might have been like to read—and write—such a document in 1968, as well as the impression it makes today:
NO MORE MISS AMERICA!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
On September 7th in Atlantic City, the Annual Miss America Pageant will again crown "your ideal." But this year, reality will liberate the contest auction-block in the guise of "genyooine" de-plasticized, breathing women. Women's Liberation Groups, black women, high-school and college women, women’s peace groups, women's welfare and social-work groups, women's job-equality groups, pro-birth control and pro-abortion groups—women of every political persuasion—all are invited to join us in a day-long boardwalk-theater event, starting at 1:00 p.m. on the Boardwalk in front of Atlantic City's Convention Hall. We will protest the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us. There will be: Picket Lines Guerrilla Theater Leafleting Lobbying Visits to the contestants urging our sisters to reject the Pageant Farce and join us a huge Freedom Trash Can (into which we will throw bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.—bring any such woman-garbage you have around the house) we will also announce a Boycott of all those commercial products related to the Pageant, and the day will end with a Women's Liberation rally at midnight when Miss America is crowned on live television… It should be a groovy day on the Boardwalk in the sun with our sisters. In case of arrests, however, we plan to reject all male authority and demand to be busted by policewomen only. (In Atlantic City, women cops are not permitted to make arrests—dig that!)
Male chauvinist-reactionaries on this issue had best stay away, nor are male liberals welcome in the demonstrations. But sympathetic men can donate money as well as cars and drivers. We need cars to transport people to New Jersey and back.
Male reporters will be refused interviews. We reject patronizing reportage. Only newswomen will be recognized….
—The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. The Pageant contestants epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best "Specimen" gets the blue ribbon. So are women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous "beauty" standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.
—Racism with Roses. Since its inception in 1921, the Pageant has not had one Black finalist, and this has not been for a lack of test-case contestants. There has never been a Puerto Rican, Alaskan, Hawaiian, or Mexican-American winner. Nor has there ever been a true Miss America—an American Indian.
—Miss America as Military Death Mascot. The highlight of her reign each year is a cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad—last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. She personifies the "unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for.". We refuse to be used as Mascots for Murder.
—The Consumer Con-Game. Miss America is a walking commercial for the Pageant's sponsors. Wind her up and she plugs your product on promotion tours and TV—all in an "honest, objective" endorsement. What a shill….
—The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity. Miss America represents what women are supposed to be: inoffensive, bland, apolitical. If you are tall, short, over or under what weight The Man prescribes you should be, forget it. Personality, articulateness, intelligence, and commitment—unwise. Conformity is the key to the crown—and, by extension, to success in our Society….
- How does the language used by protesters 50 years ago appear now? Are there particular words or phrases that are new to you? Are there portions of the press release that might have been clear in 1968 that seem confusing today?
- What are some of the objections that the protesters make to the pageant? Do any in particular stand out for you?
- The authors of the press release note that they will only speak to women reporters. Why do you think this was the case? Was this a good idea? What do you think the impact of this decision might have been?
- The press release was intended to answer basic questions that one might have about the protest. Did it answer questions you had? What might you still want to know?
- To what extent have the protesters' demands been met today? Which challenges still remain?
Reading Three: The Impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement
The Miss America protest was a part of a wider social movement. Although it was important in generating public awareness about a new wave of feminist action, it did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, it was part of and helped to fuel a much wider array of organizing, protests, and legal action. And this action had significant consequences. Over the course of just a few decades, feminists scored a string of important political victories. Professors Linda Gordon and Rosalyn Baxandall recounted the successes of the women’s liberation movement in a June 15, 2000 article in The Nation:
The movement’s impact cannot be easily encapsulated. Its judicial and legislative victories include the legalization of abortion in 1973, federal guidelines against coercive sterilization, rape-shield laws that encourage more women to prosecute their attackers, affirmative action programs that aim to correct past discrimination—although not the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in 1982, just three states short of the required two-thirds.
But the most salient accomplishments occurred not in law but in the economy and the society, involving an accumulation of changes in the way people live, dress, dream of their future and make a living. Feminists turned violence against women, previously a well-kept secret, into a public political issue made rape, incest, battering and sexual harassment understood as crimes and got public funding for shelters for battered women.
Because of feminist pressure, changes in education have been substantial: Curriculums and textbooks have been rewritten to promote equal opportunity for girls, in the universities and professional schools more women are admitted and funded, and a new and rich feminist scholarship has, in some disciplines, overcome opposition and won recognition. Title IX, passed in 1972 to mandate equal access to educational programs, has worked a virtual revolution in sports.
As regards health, for example, many physicians and hospitals have made major improvements in the treatment of women about 50 percent of medical students are women women successfully fought their exclusion from medical research and diseases affecting women, such as breast cancer, now receive better funding thanks to women’s efforts. In supporting families, feminists organized daycare centers, demanded daycare funding from government and private employers, developed standards and curriculums for early childhood education, fought for the rights of mothers and for a decent welfare system.
Feminists have also struggled for better employment conditions for women. They won greater access to traditionally male occupations, from construction to the professions and business. They entered and changed the unions and have been successful at organizing previously nonunion workers such as secretaries, waitresses, hospital workers and flight attendants. As the great majority of American women increasingly need to work for wages throughout their lives, the feminist movement tried to educate men to share in housework and childrearing. Although women still do the bulk of the housework and childrearing, it is also commonplace today to see men in the playgrounds, the supermarkets, PTA meetings.
Alongside these changes, there has been a more fundamental shift in the way that people think about gender divisions in our society. In fact, the very success of the movement in establishing a new “normal” has made it hard to appreciate the magnitude of the change in consciousness that has taken place over a relatively brief period of time. Journalist Ellen Willis recalled this transformation:
Any woman who says that radical feminism has made no difference in women’s lives either is too young to have lived through the pre-feminist years, or has thoroughly repressed them. I lived through them, and remember all too well. I remember a kind of blatant, taken for granted, un-self-conscious sexism that no one could get away with today pervading every aspect of life. I remember, as a Barnard student, wanting to take a course at Columbia and being told to my face that the professor didn’t want “girls” in his class because they weren’t serious enough. I remember, as a young journalist, being asked by an editor to use only my first initial in my byline because the magazine had too many women writers.
I remember having to wear uncomfortable clothes, girdles and stiff bras and high heels. I remember being afraid to have sex because I might get pregnant, and too tense to enjoy it because I might get pregnant. I remember the panic of a late period. I remember when a friend of a friend came to New York for an illegal abortion, remember us trying to decide whether her pain and fever were bad enough to warrant going to the hospital and then worrying that we’d waited too long, remember her fear of admitting what was wrong, and the doctor yelling at her for “going to a quack” and refusing to reassure her that she would live.
I remember that I was supposed to feel flattered when men hassled me on the street, and be polite and tactful when my dates wouldn’t take no for an answer, and have a “good reason” for refusing. I remember, too, feeling pleased to be different from other women—better—because I was ambitious and contemptuous of domesticity and “thought like man,” while at the same time, in my personal and sexual relationships with men, I was constantly being reminded that I was after all “only a woman” I remember the peculiar alienation that comes of having one’s self-respect be contingent on self-hatred.
But such particulars only begin to describe the profound difference between a society in which sexism is the natural order, whether one likes it or not, and one in which sexism is a problem, the subject of debate, something that can be changed.
As the recent #MeToo movement has shown, sexism, harassment, and sexual violence persist as major social challenges. But the bold movements and strategies of the past did bring about significant changes, and that history is worth reflecting on.
A Look Back at the Sexist, Racist History of Beauty Pageants
Beauty pageants epitomize the word "glamour." Young women dress up in floor length gowns, sparkling bikinis, and all the hairspray a human scalp can hold, while showcasing their broadest smiles and most special talents. A spectacle in the truest sense, beauty pageants are essentially graded performances of traditional femininity: who is the most graceful? Who is the most beautiful? Who can wear an evening gown and five inch stilettos without tripping?
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But far before sparkly tiaras and bouquets of flowers were handed out to sobbing women in evening wear, the ancient Greeks held beauty contests of their own. Beauty and aesthetics were extremely important to Greek culture, so beauty contests were held for both men and women. Males participated in a sort of beauty pageant called euandria (literally: "good maleness"), where men were judged on their looks.
Of course, women have been judged formally for their looks throughout the ages as well. Beauty contests for women called kallisteia were held in Elis, and also on the islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. Here, much like the pageants of today, women contestants were judged on their looks as they paraded back and forth.
P.T. Barnum, ready to judge some women. Image: Henry Guttmann/Getty
Nowadays, pageants include a great deal more pomp and circumstance, arguably to a level of absurdity. Given all the glitz, glamour, there could only be one man behind the modern beauty pageant. That would be the circus hotshot: Phineas T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s.
In 1854, P.T. Barnum promoted many different sorts of contests. Ones that judged dogs, flowers, babies, and then of course: women. The women’s pageant never really took off, however, as people thought of it as beneath high society intentions and reputations. Barnum’s beauty contest was protested widely, but Barnum wasn’t going to give up so easily. Instead of continuing to hold live pageants, Barnum advertised for women to submit daguerreotypes of themselves for judgement.
About 60 years after Barnum failed to have his live beauty contests take off, the modern American beauty pageant took off in earnest. The oh-so-eloquently named "Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest" debuted in 1921 to attract more tourists to Atlantic City over the summer, and would later morph into the Miss America Pageant.
Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest was a convening of "Inter-City" beauty contest winners from around the east coast, who were judged both by a set of judges, and also by the crowd in attendance, whose applause (yes, their actual clapping) counted for 50% of the vote. The winner of this contest won a trophy, and depending on their performance in the initial popularity contest, other beauty contestants were considered for participation in a next day event called the "Bather’s Revue."
Yes, this was a bathing suit competition that consisted of about 200 bathing beauties from multiple other pageants. The prize? A trophy called "The Golden Mermaid."
The very first Miss America Pageant. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty
The next year, 1922, was the year the first Miss America was crowned at the Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest. The 1921 winner of the pageant was crowned Miss Washington D.C., but because a new Miss D.C. had already been appointed by the time the next Atlantic City contest rolled around, the winner was given the title of Miss America. Incidentally, the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was the first Miss Washington D.C. in the previous year.
The pressure of the Miss America title was too much for one of the earlier winners. The heavy schedule of appearances, speaking engagements and other events are nothing new to the pageant world, and the 1937 winner, Bette Cooper of New Jersey, wasn’t having it with the intense schedule, and disappeared right after winning. Her male escort for the pageant drove her off on a boat, and Cooper simply refused her duties. She also refused to talk to the press about her involvement with the pageant.
Composite of past winners, including the runaway Bette Cooper (top). Image: Hulton Archive/Getty
So it wasn’t all Golden Mermaids, tiaras, and Atlantic City boardwalk bliss. Miss America pageants were controversial for decades for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they did not allow contestants who were not white to compete, and had other racist overtones. African Americans were first featured in the 1923 pageant — during a dance performance where they played slaves.
In 1970, the first Black woman won a state level competition. That year, Cheryl Brown was crowned Miss Iowa, but the pageant did not crown a Black winner until 1984, when Miss New York, Vanessa Williams, won the title. However, with only a few months left before the 1971 winner was to be selected, Penthouse magazine printed unauthorized photos of Williams none too happy about having their crowning glory in a pornographic magazine, the Miss America pageant forced Williams to give up her title.
To protest the racist exclusion of Black women from Miss America, the African American community put on a contest of their own in 1968, on the same day as the Miss America contest in Atlantic City. While they were excluded from participation in the Miss America pageant, Black communities around the U.S. had been holding their own beauty pageants for decades.
The Miss America pageant has also faced protest by feminists around the country since the 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Miss America pageant was faced not only by protest from the Black community, but from white feminists as well. The feminist protest was organized by New York Radical Women, who spoke out against the oppressive nature of a contest where women are judged based purely on their beauty.
Miss America 1984 Vanessa Williams, before she was stripped of her crown. Image: NBC/Getty
Criticism of beauty pageantry has a long and storied history of its own, and in many ways parallels the decline of pageants themselves. Feminists have been outspoken regarding the sexist ethos of beauty pageantry since the famous 1968 protest. With mounting criticisms have also come marked declines in viewership: The Miss America pageant in 2015 amassed only 7.1 million viewers, compared to 8.6 million viewers just one year before in 2014. Miss America had previously broken viewership records during its first live broadcast in 1954, when 27 million viewers tuned in to watch.
Miss America also loves to tout the scholarships they give to participants (the first Miss America scholarship was given to Bess Myerson in 1945). The winner of the national pageant wins a $50,000 prize, and there are smaller monetary awards for other contestants. The pageant frequently refers to itself as "the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women."
But as John Oliver pointed out in 2014, Miss America doesn’t offer scholarships to women worldwide, only to women who are eligible for and successful in their pageants. The criteria for the pageants (and thus for the scholarships) are restrictive to say the least. Not only can contestants not be married (or ever have been married), they also must never have been pregnant.
In the same segment, Oliver called attention to Miss America’s company line about providing $45 million in scholarships every year. According to the investigation done by Oliver’s team, Miss America gives less than $4 million in scholarships per year.
Miss Teen USA 2007 Contestants visit Universal Studios. Image: Mark Davis/ Getty
American beauty pageants as a whole have suffered some pretty egregious PR flops of late, beyond Oliver’s brief exposé. In the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant , the contestant from South Carolina was absolutely slammed by the public and the media for her (now infamous) response to a question about why so many Americans are unable to locate the U.S. on the map. The contestant, Caitlin Upton responded:
I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, um, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and, I believe that our, I, education like such as, uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.
Steve Harvey, MC-ing the Miss Universe Pageant. Image: Ethan Miller/Getty
Then, toward the end of 2015 during the Miss Universe pageant, the event’s emcee, comedian Steve Harvey misread the winner card, and announced the wrong winner of the pageant. Harvey stated that Miss Colombia had won the crown, which was then placed atop her fabulous updo, only to have it removed moments later when Harvey clarified that it was really Miss Philippines who had triumphed in the pageant. This led to days of ridicule against Harvey, who said he even received death threats after committing the very public error.
There’s hardly any denying that the world of beauty pageants are inherently problematic. The whole idea of pitting women against one another and judging them primarily based on their looks is unsettling in and of itself. The fact that here is overt racism ingrained in the Miss America story adds to the unsettling legacy of American pageants.
On the surface these pageants are about beauty, poise, and a good measure of world peace. There is something mesmerizing about such a multitude of rhinestones, lip gloss, and teeth so white they may glow in the dark. And women in pageants bust their butts on the circuit, working their way up the ranks, but in the end, it’s hard not to cringe when thinking about such an unapologetic parade of not-so-pretty American history.
The representations used by the feminists protesting against the beauty contest involved items associated with traditional gender roles and the objectification of women: household appliances (such as mops and pans) and beauty tools (such as curlers, girdles, bras, and wigs) created to help women fit into artificially promoted beauty standards with no correspondence to reality.
The representations of the Miss Black America contest involved ethnic self-expression on the part of the participating women, e.g., wearing traditional African-style hairdos and doing ethnic dances. The objective was to emphasize and embrace diversity.
Miss Black America: The Pageant Changed History
Vanessa Williams originally became famous as the first African American Miss America (1984).
Almost 20 years prior to Vanessa Williams being named Miss America, the civil rights movement was making it abundantly clear that the Miss America pageant was unfairly restricted to white women. In 1950 the pageant had abolished a rule that excluded black contestants, but the lily-white pageant hadn't changed.
In 1967, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia businessman, found this bias additionally troubling. He had two daughters, both of whom expressed interest in growing up to "be Miss America."
What does a dad do when he knows his daughters are dreaming an impossible dream? He gathers his resources and starts a pageant of his own, Miss Black America.
Bayer Mack and the producers of Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood have created a documentary short to tell the story of the creation of the Miss Black America pageant.
The Pageant Begins
Anderson pulled in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as well as other experts who had run local pageants for black women. This group made a series of decisions: If the next Miss America pageant was to be held in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968, then the Miss Black America pageant would also be held there at that time. Anderson booked the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton.
"We want to be in Atlantic City at the same time that the hypocritical Miss America contest is being held," said Phillip H. Savage of the NAACP to a reporter from The New York Times in 1968 (8-29-1968).
The Miss Black America pageant, however, timed their show differently. They established that the Miss Black America contest would begin at midnight. They hoped that when newsmen finished covering the Miss America pageant at the convention center, they might walk the four blocks to the Ritz Carlton afterward. Many did.
In addition to the competing pageants, representatives from the civil rights and feminist movements were in full force in Atlantic City. Two hundred feminists protested the very existence of a beauty pageant for women, likening it to a county fair where livestock is judged.
Florynce Kennedy's Media Workshop group was also on the scene. Kennedy had founded the organization in 1966 to protest the media's representation of African Americans.
Miss Black America Pageant Begins
The pageant got underway at midnight, and at 2:45 a.m. Saundra Williams, a college student at Maryland State College, was crowned Miss Black America. When asked about the significance of the new pageant, the dry-eyed Williams said, "Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful."
When interviewed afterward about her life, Williams said that growing up in Philadelphia, she had never encountered discrimination. Then she went away to Maryland State College, a college that is described by The New York Times as being "predominantly Negro," (9-9-1968) located in Princess Anne, Maryland. Williams didn't find the town welcoming. She and her friends were barred from eating in a local restaurant. She helped organize a group of students called The Black Awareness Movement. They staged a silent protest against the white business community.
"That restaurant is integrated now," Williams told the reporter.
During the Competition
The audience loved Williams's performance of an African dance, and they loved it even more when, during the question-and-answer segment, she said that husbands and wives should do the same amount of housework. Williams also may have gained respect from the judges for having made the long white beaded gown she wore for the pageant's finale.
That year Miss Black America received a one-week vacation to Puerto Rico, a trophy, and a modeling contract.
Saundra Williams is now an actress, known for having appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Alpha House (2013).
Though it took until 1984 and Vanessa Williams for an African American to be crowned Miss America, the color lines loosened very quickly following the creation of the competing pageant and the protests. In 1971, Iowa was represented by Cheryl Brown, making her the first African American competitor in Miss America pageant history. That same year, a young Oprah Winfrey represented Tennessee in Miss Black America. Hear her comments many years later.
Miss Black America Continues
While the Miss America pageant now includes people of color, the Miss Black America pageant continues on. The organization writes that providing a woman with a stage for her talents, a platform for her views, and a pedestal where she can achieve dignity is still of value.
On their website, they note that a reporter from a black newspaper once asked, "Why should there be a Miss Black America pageant since the Miss America pageant now accepts black women?"
The response from pageant representatives was this: "You wouldn't suggest closing your black newspaper simply because a major white daily published a story about a black would you?"
For the story of local black beauty pageants and the growth of Miss Black America, watch this report from Bayer Mack and the producers of Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood: Miss Black America.
Feminism, Peace and Global Justice
The debate over the "military-industrial complex" and widespread deployment of troops around the globe encompasses much more than the Miss America pageant. However, feminist activists believed in constantly calling attention to the many ways women were pressured or used to support powerful men's goals. Historically, powerful men's goals had often resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. Many feminists, such as socialist feminists and ecofeminists, repeatedly linked global injustice with subjugation of women. The Miss America protesters adopted a similar line of thinking when they decried the use of pageant contestants as "mascots for murder."
HOW THE 1968 MISS AMERICA PROTEST DISAPPEARED FROM ATLANTIC CITY
In hindsight: A statue of Miss America has become a defining feature of Atlantic City, but evidence of the 1968 protest of the pageant remains absent from the boardwalk.
On September 8, 1968, a hundred women gathered in Kennedy Plaza in Atlantic City, NJ, directly in front of Boardwalk Hall where that year’s Miss America pageant was being held. The women held signs, chanted, and created “freedom trash cans” into which they tossed items they felt represented female oppression: bras, make-up, and high heels. The original plan had been to burn the items, but the protesters were told by local officials, including the mayor, that doing so could risk another fire on the boardwalk, which had burned earlier that year. The mayor also worried that violence might arise from clashes between protestors, the police, and heckling crowds. The protesters agreed the demonstration would remain peaceful. Speaking to The New York Times, demonstrator Robin Morgan referenced the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and explained, “We don’t want another Chicago.”
The protestors in Atlantic City abandoned their plans to light up the cans. Nothing was ever set on fire. Yet as time wore on, a myth of “bra-burners” emerged nonetheless. The myth originated with a reporter from the New York Post, Lindsy Van Gelder, who used the phrase in an article. She was attempting to link the protester’s freedom trash cans with the contemporary Vietnam War protest of burning draft cards. She intended for the comparison to be legitimizing. Yet other articles and pop culture references, such as Art Buchwald’s “The Bra-Burners” column in the Post, quickly turned the phrase into an epithet used against those agitating for women’s rights. “Bra-burners” or “bra-burning feminists” were associated with women who were militantly feminist, anti-male, and unattractive. The events of the protest, considered influential inside the feminist movement, became reduced to a cliché.
Articles and pop culture references to “bra-burners” made an event that was considered influential inside the feminist movement become reduced to a cliché.
Past anniversaries of the Atlantic City demonstration have tended to focus on the existence--or not--of incinerated lingerie (see NPR and Smithsonian Magazine). But this year’s anniversary is an opportunity to examine the stories that Atlantic City has chosen to tell about that historic site on the boardwalk. Despite the importance of the protests, no markers or signs exist on Kennedy Plaza or Boardwalk Hall to commemorate it. Rather, a 2018 visitor will encounter a statue of Miss America along with a memorial to Atlantic City workers, a bust of John F. Kennedy, and a mini-golf course.
The Kennedy monument arrived first. In 1964, Atlantic City hosted the Democratic National Convention, and the plaza was renamed in honor of the recently slain president. For thirty-four years the Kennedy bust stood alone. Then in 1998, the local Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO provided the funds for an Atlantic City Worker’s Monument to honor trade workers killed on the job since 1977. The monument wall contained names of the deceased, and in 2004 was joined by a bronze statue of a man holding a hard hat and gazing down at his “fallen brothers and sisters.” Another local union chapter, Local 54, which is part of the international union Unite Here, representing hospitality workers, erected similar markers commemorating unions and the civil rights movement.
The most recent addition to the plaza is a Miss America statue erected by the Atlantic City Alliance in 2014 to coincide with the return of the Miss American Pageant to New Jersey from Las Vegas. The statue is framed by several billboards and a corresponding computer terminal that offers a multimedia tour of Miss America’s past. The statue depicts a slightly larger-than-life woman wearing a crown. She holds another crown under which visitors can pose for a photograph.
Miss America reached the height of its national popularity and television viewership in the 1960s, which helps to explain why demonstrators saw it as a site of protest in 1968.
With the return of the pageant and the erection of the statue, Miss America has come full circle. Ninety-three years earlier, the pageant began as a way to extend the summer tourist season beyond Labor Day in order to generate more revenue. The answer was a beauty pageant that would be christened Miss America the following year. Over the ensuing decades, Miss America became a defining feature of Atlantic City and a representation of a particular version of American womanhood. The pageant reached the height of its national popularity and television viewership in the 1960s, which helps to explain why demonstrators saw it as a site of protest in 1968.
The protest comprised multiple elements. Not only did women gather on Kennedy Plaza, but some managed to enter the pageant and unfurl a banner bearing the words “Women’s Liberation” before being escorted out. “Women’s Liberation” referred to feminists’ desire for greater freedom for women, particularly privileged white women in education, the work force, in reproductive rights, as well as freedom from traditional gender roles and being consigned to the home. Writing for The New York Times on September 8, 1968, journalist Charlotte Curtis described the 100 women as “mostly middle aged careerists and housewives with a sprinkling of 20-year-olds and grandmothers in their 60s,” a contrast to the contestants inside. Down the street, another protest was occurring: the country’s first Miss Black America Pageant. “There’s a need for the beauty of the black woman to be paraded and applauded as a symbol of universal pride,” said organizer J. Morris Anderson to the New York Times.
The Miss America pageant has returned to Atlantic City in an era of when the women’s movement has enjoyed a rebirth due to the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement. In 1968, the protest at the Miss America pageant sought to transform the public conversation surrounding women’s rights. A monument to commemorate that event fifty years later would demonstrate that we are starting to hear what those women were saying.
Margaret “Maggie” Strolle is one of two inaugural History Communication Fellows at the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest.
 Charlotte Curtis, “Miss America is Picketed by 100 Women,” New York Times, September 9, 1968.
 Ariel Levy, “Lift and Separate,” New Yorker, Published November 16, 2009, accessed February 28, 2018.
 Art Buchwald, “The Bra Burners,” New York Post, September 12, 1968.
Protesters disrupt the Miss America Pageant - HISTORY
Carol Hanisch was interviewed by Fran Luck for the Joy of Resistance feminist radio show, broadcast on WBAI in New York City in July 2003.
This interview brings out some of the details of the history of the protest, touches on issues that are still important today such as the question of what oppresses women now, the backlash against feminism, the difference between empowerment and having real power, and how to deal with different views among feminists. What follows are excerpts from the interview.
Fran: September 2003 marks the 35th Anniversary of the legendary 1968 protest of the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City. Flashed on the news across the country and worldwide, the protest denounced the fake ways women were expected to look and act, and announced the arrival of a new movement, Women's Liberation.
What happened at this legendary action in 1968, in the convention hall and on the boardwalk, outside the Miss America Pageant?
Carol: Well, there were more than 100 picketers there, we picketed all afternoon. We did some street theatre which included throwing 'instruments of female torture' as we called them, into a freedom trash can. This is where the bra-burner myth started, by the way, but we weren't allowed to burn anything, including bras. We did throw in some bras, and we also threw in high heels, nylons, girdles, corsets, garter belts, hair-curlers, false eyelashes, makeup and Playboy and Good Housekeeping magazines. And that evening some of us went inside to disrupt the pageant and we hung a large banner over the balcony and we yelled things like "Women's Liberation!" and "No More Miss America!" and that started to bring some change in the uncomfortable dress codes that were in place then, and it also let the world know that a women's liberation movement was underway.
Fran: You got a lot of attention to that protest, plus the appellation "bra-burner."
Carol: I like to say that if they'd called us "girdle-burners" every woman in America would have come and joined us.
Fran: This is the 35th anniversary of that action, and I understand you're going to be doing a "Freedom Trash Can" tour?
Carol: Well, I'm hoping to offer a speech telling about what happened then and . women can throw articles of female torture of today-whatever they see that to be-into a freedom trash can. to try to get all of us thinking again about how women are oppressed in 2003.
Fran: The Freedom Trash Can tour, coming to your city soon.
Carol: And trash what's still trashing women.
Fran: That's very exciting, I wonder what women would throw into a freedom trash can today.
I want to go back to some of the articles that you threw into this freedom trash can. Some young women of today would say that some of these items are part of our expressing our sexuality. Corsets, high-heels, these things seem to be making a comeback, and they seem to be being touted as feminist expression. I would like to know what you think of this turn of events.
Carol: I think this is an example of how the Women's Liberation movement has become depoliticized. Women using the power of their sexuality goes way back to Jezebel and before, and it's not a real challenge to male supremacy because it doesn't demand that men change how they think about us or treat us, and it seems to me it supports the status quo.
Men are all too happy to see us competing with each other over who's the sexiest. It helps keep women in their place. And in my view, women's place is not in front of the mirror.
Sexual competition divides women, just as beauty pageants divide women and there are all kinds of race and class and age divisions going on. I think it's true that all of us have to play the game to some degree to even survive in the world, and we have to be careful about condemning each other for doing that, but to take the trappings of our oppression and try to redefine them as liberating I think is really reactionary.
In the early days of the women's liberation movement we talked about the appearance issue in terms of comfort and fashion and how beauty concepts divide women. I think what we were really challenging was this uniform of women's inferior sex-class status, these high heels and skirts and all these female trappings that were not only physically inhibiting and painful, they were right out there reminding both men and women of women's inferior position. And I think that's why this issue remains so entrenched in our culture and in our sexual politics. It's part of a backlash that's hounded the movement since the early 1970's.
I don't think we need feelings of empowerment, what we need is real power.
Fran: that's an amazing statement because you hear the word "empowerment" all the time and it really has come to replace the power analysis, the analysis of how power works that feminists and many other groups of the 1960s were putting across. . Could you elaborate?
Carol: Power is having the power to change things and to have power over our lives to make them better. The whole empowerment issue is oriented only towards individuals, an individual person feeling empowered, which isn't totally a bad thing, but when it takes all the focus, it's not a good thing.
Fran: This issue of women's sexual expression being put across as a feminist practice-to be very overtly sexual, often in ways that actually mimic the porn culture-being said to be feminist is really dividing a lot of feminists from each other and I wonder how we can straighten all that out.
Carol: I think one thing we need to do is discuss it. We need some consciousness-raising, and we need to be honest. We need to look at it and see what does it really means for women, not just the individual woman at the time she's doing it, but for women as a group in the long term. What does this do to how men look at us and how we feel about ourselves in terms of that.
Fran: I mean it certainly does take guts to walk around looking sexual in this society because of all the catcalls and comments you get. So I suppose it's easy to confuse that with bucking the system, because you're taking on this reaction and you have to be very brave to do it. But it also seems to me that you're playing into the system when you do that.
Carol, there's so much talk about Third Wave and Second Wave, it seems that the entire movement has been divided up into these two camps, I want to know what you think of these terms as useful or not useful for how we think of feminism and our struggle at this point.
Carol: I think it's a very false division because women are always struggling for their liberation. We get oppressed, we rise up, the backlash pushes us backwards, we build it up again. So there are all these waves constantly. I think "Third Wavers" only tend to think in terms of time, and of generations, and they think their take on this appearance issue, and on many others, is new, when it's not. What we really have here is not a generational division, but a division of competing political lines that have been around for a long time. The individual lifestyle, individual struggle line dominates the political movement line right now.
Fran: Could you define that, the individual struggle line vs. the political movement line?
Carol: The individual struggle line is best summed up in the idea that what a woman really needs to do is stand up for herself, and that will bring her liberation. And the political line is that women need to unite and fight, as a group, to win their liberation, and it has to be for all women.
Fran: So you see the emphasis on how we look, and lifestyle, is taking us away from uniting politically?
Carol: When it's called feminist, yes. There's been this move among some people that anything a woman does is feminist and I think we have to struggle over defining what feminism is and what our movement is and what we want.
Fran: So, not necessarily anything that someone feels is feminist is necessarily feminist.
Carol: That's right. You have to look at it in terms of its results. And there are women of all ages on all sides of these issues and there always have been. There are young feminists out there who understand this and who are trying to rebuild the political movement. If we want more real change in our lives we are going to have to organize across generations of those who want to return to this real political movement, and who are willing to struggle for the liberation of all women. Sometimes that struggle even needs to be against each other.
Fran: In other words, it's OK to debate.
Carol: Absolutely, not only is it OK, it's absolutely necessary.
Fran Luck is a member of the Joy of Resistance radio collective, which produces a feminist radio show at New York's "Peace and Justice" radio station, WBAI 99.5 (www.wbai.org) She is a member of Redstockings Allies and Veterans and a prime motivator in the New York City-based Street Harassment Project. She can be reached at [email protected]
This interview was transcribed and originally published in the alternative paper Iguana:
Although written more than 40 years ago, this article still explains concepts important for feminist organizing today.
What Can Be Learned: A Critique of the Miss America Protest
By Carol Hanisch
The protest of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in September of 1968 told the nation that a new feminist movement is afoot in the land. Due to the tremendous coverage in the mass media, millions of Americans now know there is a Women&rsquos Liberation Movement. Media coverage ranged from the front pages of several newspapers in the United States to many articles in the foreign press.
The action brought many new members into our groups and many requests from women outside the city for literature and information. Many letters said, &ldquoI've been waiting so long for something like this.&rdquo So have we all, and the Miss America protest put us well on our way.
But no action taken in the struggle for our liberation will be all good or all bad. It is necessary that we analyze each step to see what we did that was effective, what was not, and what was downright destructive.
At this point in our struggles our actions should be aimed primarily aat doing two inter-related things: 1) awakening the latent consciousness of women about their own oppression, and 2) building sisterhood. With these as our primary immediate goals, let us examine the Miss America protest.
The idea came out of our group method of analyzing women's oppression by recalling our own experiences. We were watching Schmearguntz, a feminist movie, one night at our meeting. The movie had flashes of the Miss America contest in it. I found myself sitting there remembering how I had felt at home with my family watching the pageant as a child, an adolescent, and a college student. I knew it had evoked powerful feelings.
When I proposed the idea to our group [New York Radical Women], we decided to go around the room with each woman telling how she felt about the pageant. We discovered that many of us who had always put down the contest still watched it. Others, like myself, had consciously identified with it, and had cried with the winner.
From our communal thinking came the concrete plans for the action, We all agreed that our main point in the demonstration would be that all women are hurt by beauty competition&mdashMiss America as well as ourselves, We opposed the pageant in our own self-interest, e.g. the self-interest of all women.
Yet one of the biggest mistakes of the whole pageant was our anti-womanism. A spirit of every woman &ldquodo her own thing&rdquo began to emerge. Sometimes it was because there was a conflict about an issue. Other times, women didn't say anything at all about disagreeing with a group decision they just went ahead and did what they wanted to do, even though it was something the group had definitely decided against. Because of this egotistic individualism, a definite strain of anti-womanism was presented to the public and harmed the action.
Posters which read &ldquoUp Against the Wall, Miss America,&rdquo &ldquoMiss America Sells It,&rdquo and &ldquoMiss America Is a Big Falsie&rdquo hardly raised any woman's consciousness and really harmed the cause of sisterhood. Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of as our sisters who suffer with us. A group decision had been made rejecting these anti-woman signs.
A few women made them anyway. Some women who had opposed the slogans were in the room when the signs were being made and didn't confront those who were making the anti-woman signs.
A more complex situation developed around the decision of a few women to use an &ldquounderground&rdquo disruptive tactic. The action was approved by the group only after some women said they would do it anyway as an individual action. As it turned out, we came to the realization that there is no such thing as an &ldquoindividual action&rdquo in a movement, We were linked to and were committed to support our sisters whether they called their action &ldquoindividual&rdquo or not.
It also came to us that there is at this time no real need to do &ldquounderground&rdquo actions. We need to reach as many women as possible as quickly as possible with a clear message that has the power of our person behind it. At this point women draping a Women's Liberation banner over the balcony that night and yelling our message was much clearer. We should have known, however, that the television network, because it was not competing with other networks for coverage, would not put the action on camera. It did get on the radio and in newspapers, though.
The problem of how to enforce group decisions is one we haven't solved. It came up in a lot of ways throughout the whole action. The group rule of not talking to male reporters was another example.
One of the reasons we came off anti-woman, besides the posters, was our lack of clarity, We didn't say clearly enough that we women are FORCED to play the Miss America roll&mdashnot by beautiful women, but by men we have to act that way for and by a system that has so well institutionalized male supremacy for its own ends.
This was not too clear in our guerilla theater either. Women chained to a replica red, white and blue bathing-suited Miss America could have been misinterpreted as against beautiful women. Also, crowning a live sheep Miss America sort of said that beautiful women are sheep. However, the action did say to some women that we are viewed as auction-block, docile animals. The grandmother of one of the participants really began to understand the action when she was told of the sheep, and she ended up joining the protest.
There is as great a need for clarity in our language as there is in our actions. The leaflet that was distributed as a press release and as a flyer at the action was too long, too wordy, too complex, too hippy-yippee-campy. Instead of an &ldquoin&rdquo phrase like &ldquoRacism with Roses&rdquo (I still don't know exactly what that means), we could have just called the pageant RACIST and everybody would have understood our opposition on that point. If we are going to reach masses of women, we must give up all the &ldquoin-talk&rdquo of the New Left/Hippie movements&mdashat least when we're talking in public, (Yes. even the word FUCK!) We can use simple language (real language) that everyone from Queens to Iowa will understand and not misunderstand. Most swear words are anti-woman, and that's probably one reason why our mothers objected to them so much.
We should try to avoid the temptation to say everything there is to say about what is wrong with the world and thereby say nothing that a new woman can really dig into and understand. Women's Liberation itself is revolutionary dynamite. When other issues are interjected, we should clearly relate them to our oppression AS WOMEN.
We tried to carry the democratic means we used in planning the action into the actual DOING of it. We didn't want leaders or spokesmen. It makes the movement not only SEEM stronger and larger if everyone is a leader, but it actually IS stronger if not dependent on a few. It also guards against the time when such leaders could be isolated and picked off one way or another. And of course many voices are more powerful than one.
Our first attempt at this was not entirely successful. We must learn how to fight against the media's desire to make leaders and some women's desire to be spokesmen. Everybody talks to the press or nobody talks to the press. The same problem came up in regard to appearances on radio and television shows after the action. We theoretically decided no one should appear more than once, but it didn't work out that way.
The Miss America protest was a zap action, as opposed to person to person group action. Zap actions are using our presence as a group and/or media to make women's oppression into a conscious social issue. In such actions we speak to men as a group as well as to women. It is a rare opportunity to talk to men in a situation where they can't talk back. (Men must begin to learn to listen.) Our power of solidarity, not our individual intellectual exchanges will change men.
We tried to speak to individual women in the crowd and now some of us feel that it may not have been a good thing to do. It put women on the spot in front of their men. We were putting them in a position which we choose to avoid ourselves when we don't allow men in our discussion groups.
It is interesting that many of the non-movement women we talked to about the protest had the same reaction as many radical women. &ldquoBut I'm not oppressed,&rdquo was a shared response. &ldquoI don't care about Miss America,&rdquo was another. If more than half the television viewers in the country watch the pageant, somebody cares! And many of us admitted watching it too, even while putting it down.
It's interesting, too, that while much of the Left was putting us down for attacking something so &ldquosilly and unimportant&rdquo or &ldquoreformist,&rdquo the Right saw us as a threat and yelled such things as &ldquoGo back to Russia&rdquo and &ldquoMothers of Mao&rdquo at the picket line. Ironically enough, what the Left/Underground press seemed to like best about our action was what was really our worst mistake&mdashour anti-woman signs.
Surprisingly and fortunately some of the mass media ignored our mistakes and concentrated on our best points. To quote from the Daily News, &ldquoSome women who think the whole idea of such contests is degrading to femininity took their case to the people. &hellip During boardwalk protest, gals say they're not anti-beauty, just anti-beauty contest.&rdquo Shana Alexander wrote in a Life magazine editorial that she &ldquowished they'd gone farther,&rdquo Together, Life and the Daily News reach millions of Americans.
We need to take ourselves seriously. The powers that be do. Carol Giardina of Gainesville, Florida was fired from her job because of her activities in women's liberation and her participation in the protest. Police cars were parked outside the planning meeting one night. The next day we got a call from the mayor of Atlantic City questioning us about just what we planned to do. Pepsi Cola is withdrawing as a sponsor of the pageant. They produce a diet cola and maybe see themselves as next years special target.
Unfortunately the best slogan for the action came up about a month after the contest when Ros Baxandall came out on the David Susskind show with &ldquoEvery day in a woman's life is a walking Miss America contest.&rdquo We shouldn't wait for the best slogan we should go ahead to the best of our understanding. We hope all our sisters can learn something from our first foray. We did.