Why Aren’t We Protesting Miss America?

“When I was growing up, Miss America was the symbol of what every young girl wanted to be,” author Alix Kates Shulman, one of the organizers of the first Miss America protest in 1968, said in an interview with NPR in 2008. “That was the kind of attainment that everybody yearned for, to be considered beautiful. There was nothing else. That was the biggest thing.”

Fortunately for young girls today, that is no longer true; our dreams for the future aren’t limited to just walking in high heels while wearing a bathing suit, or talking about world peace while modeling an evening gown. Miss America is still around, though, chugging along despite low ratings and channel-jumping. The love-to-hate contest is back on ABC this Saturday, January 15, still objectifying women, albeit in a 21st century sort of way.

Forty-three years ago, 400 budding feminist women stormed the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest Miss America. Jacqui Ceballos, the founder and President of Veteran Feminists of America explained why in 2009:

That whole idea of that Miss America who got up on the stage and said, “All I want to be is a wife and mother.” It just got to me.

That irritation inspired an action that made headlines, caused Pepsi to drop its sponsorship of the pageant and has come to be known as one of the launching points of the Women’s Liberation movement of the era. That infamous stereotype of bra-burning feminists? It came from that protest, even though it wasn’t true. The manifesto titled “No More Miss America,” written by the protesters, has been canonized in the field of women studies. Feminism and the Miss America pageant share a history, albeit a tumultuous one.

So why have we abandoned the good fight against the pageant?

Perhaps it’s because it’s had to change in response to the growing role of feminism in American society. The contestants began to reflect the new understanding of a woman’s role—instead of dreaming of motherhood and housewivery, contestants “were increasingly turning their attention to professional goals.”

Bonnie Dow, author of the 2003 article “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology” in Rhetoric and Public Affairs, explains:

In the last 20 years, the pageant has decreased the importance of the swimsuit score in the overall competition; banned professional hairdressers and makeup artists from the pageant; stopped announcing contestants’ breast, waist and hip measurements; started requiring that contestants choose a social issue for their ‘personal platform’; and even ceased requiring that they wear high heels during the swimsuit segment.

Sam Haskell, chairman of the board of the Miss America Organization, further shields the modern pageant from the criticism of superficiality by explaining:

Our girls require community service and must have a talent. There’s also a requirement to be in college. And we make sure that every single one of our women leave with scholarship money.

The Miss America website is overflowing with phrases like “leading achievement program” and “largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women.” A notable fundraising ad reads, “Some call her a beauty queen, we call her a scholar.”

It seems as if the Miss America Organization is just as good as the pageant queens at hiding flaws or blemishes. No matter what the advertisements claim, the pageant hasn’t been around for the past 90 years because it puts very smart girls on a stage. It’s a beauty/femininity pageant with a pretty good prize, pure and simple.

Miss America still reflects many of the complaints that New York Radical Women made in their original brochure for the Atlantic City protest: The contestants “epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women.” They must be “young, juicy [and] malleable.” Little girls who sit in front of their TV on Saturday night will be taught that “men are judged by their actions, women by their appearance.”

The Miss America pageant still implies that a rigidly stereotyped notion of “beauty,” the ability to put a few words together in a (semi-)coherent sentence and a “talent” are what a woman most needs to succeed. Robyn E. Blumner said it best in an article in 1999 for the St. Petersburg Times:

They want you to think the pageant … is a boon to modern womanhood, a feminist icon, and an equal opportunity benefactor.

Talk about delusional.

The day a woman is crowned who resembles one of this country’s most accomplished never-marrieds, our attorney general, Miss Janet Reno [remember, this was during the Clinton administration], I’ll say they have a point. Until then, the pageant is just another location where fabulous-looking women get rewarded for looking that way. (As if there aren’t enough rewards.)

In one way, those protestors won: Miss America no longer holds a special place in our collective hearts and minds. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory. You still won’t see an average-sized woman anchoring the news or playing a doctor or cop on primetime TV. Instead of abandoning everything Miss America stands for, we’ve embraced it in everything from our celebrities to our politicians. Protesting the pageant would be futile now, because compared to all the other ways society objectifies women, Miss America seems benign.

Do you agree?

Photo from Flickr user IntangibleArts under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. The problem with the recent changes in Miss America is that they've just made it even more difficult for women to live up to their narrow ideas of what a woman should be. Now not only does she have to be "beautiful" (but only in a particular way), she also has to be accomplished, articulate, talented, academically intelligent, etc.

    This is similar to the "progress" we've made in getting women into the workforce. We haven't really gotten women into the workforce so much as added working outside the home to the work society still expects women to do inside the home (you used to have to just wash the dishes, cook dinner, raise the kids, and clean the house… now you have to do all that and be a career woman).

    • snobographer says:

      Exactly. Obviously we want women and girls to value their minds and their accomplishments over their appearances, but that originally feminist goal has been twisted by the male-gazey media as just more marriageability standards to be piled onto the old ones.

      The fact that there's still a nationally syndicated contest for Best Woman in America is depressing. Ironically, at this point, it's probably one of the least overtly misogynist things on television. I won't watch it, but it seems silly to protest Miss America when there's such a thing as Bridalplasty.

    • Rebecca G. Pontikes says:

      Totally agree with your point, and let me also add this one: the “accomplishments” that they require are really not all that much intellectual power. The non-looks part can’t be as rigorous because these women have to spend so much time at the gym, buying makeup, dying their hair etc, that they don’t have as much time for academics, community service, etc.

      BTW, what kind of community service are we talking about? Because another issue I’ve always had with this pagent is that it promotes the sort of wealthy philanthropy for non-controversial causes that is fine, but not always that effective. When was the last time one of these women wanted to make the world safe for women to have abortions and receive birth control and proper sex education?

      • That would be me, Rebecca. Miss Illinois US Beauties 2009-2010…my platform was titled "Our Bodies, Our Futures" and it drove home the importance of quality female reproductive health care, focused on preventing abortions through full access and knowledge of contraceptives, and I even came forward as the first beauty pageant queen in history to tell my own abortion story in an effort to help end the nasty stigma and silence that surrounds abortion. You can read all about it at http://www.miss-illinois.com There may not be many beauty queens like me (yet), but they are out there! Hopefully I started a catalyst to usher in this change.

  2. Elliot R. Goldstein says:

    Ms. Litman accurately and beautifully chronciles womens' fight for equality. I think she sees hope for continuing improvement in the lot of women in America. Perhaps she should expand her writing to cover the plight of women in other countries.

  3. Yes, I agree! That message of which women are the most desired and therefore rewarded has not changed one whit!! Sorry to see that is what my granddaughters will see in the contest…and everywhere else! Sincerely, Dr. Granny (Doctor of Educational Leadership and Change). At least one of them attended my doctoral graduation this past summer. She will know that being educated and continuing to learn your whole life is something I value!!

  4. I completely agree that Miss America still completely perpetuates the notion that both boys & "Little girls who sit in front of their TV on Saturday night will be taught that “men are judged by their actions, women by their appearance.”

    Regardless of the great things these women may stand for, so many of them still look like cookie-cutter versions of each other, perpetuating the 'importance' of what women look like in order to attain success, ….. and acceptance.

  5. I absolutely ABHOR beauty pageants! They make young girls believe that they have to be these nearly-rail-thin, perfectly polished little Stepford Wives in order to be considered beautiful! We ladies come in ALL shapes and sizes. I don’t believe that I have to look good in a swimsuit, or weigh less than a feather to be a worthwhile person. Pageants are, and always have been demeaning to women EVERYWHERE.

  6. I don't feel like protesting Miss America is terribly useful. What are you protesting? The girls? The pageant production squad? The television station who owns it? (The thing is falling so out of fashion it's all ready been shoved to side network.) Or are we protesting the possible parents who suggested girls be pageant queens when they were little? or THEIR parents? or the rest of the country that wants to watch? the rest of the country that supports this presentation of women. Or the outrageous tuition girls have hanging over their head that make a beauty pageant with a scholarship sound appealing?

    And when you protest how do you think these women feel? It's like taking away a little girls barbie "for her own good". Well….your ethics are suspect. You're heart may have been in the right place but you're still making that child cry.

    I think there are more constructive ways of illuminating the suspect nature of these contests than just protesting the Miss America Pageant.

  7. I don't like beauty pageants one bit, but they don't play the prominent role they once did. It used to be a "can't miss" TV night for people decades ago, but now it struggles to find an audience. It has bounced from network to network, and audiences have become so diffuse. And the thinly disguised T&A side of the pageant is far outdone by thousands of cable/satelite and internet options, with many young women now looking to porn stars for ideas about women's sexuality. Honestly, a protest of it would prove that feminists are stuck in the past. Protest Miss America while far cruder things that draw more young women are all over the place?

  8. Marena Groll says:

    "Protesting the pageant would be futile now, because compared to all the other ways society objectifies women, Miss America seems benign."

    I take the point that there is worse out there in terms of graphic degradation of women. However, this pageant has become one of the quientessential symbols of the sexual objectification of women in America.

    We should protest.

  9. If women are your concern…why not focus on protesting Islamic mysogyny (hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women) and its human rights abuses of women.

    The pageant is comprised of free women pursuing their individual goals with passion while having the liberty to do so. That reality can be celebrated by all. Let each individual woman decides what's best for herself.

    But ranting about the pageant while staying silent on real women's issues represents the upside down morality of today's "feminists".

    Or has this blog ever posted on those human rights issues experienced by hundreds of millions of women?

  10. Scholarship?
    The day we see hunky men parading around stage in g-strings to obtain a scholarship is the day this will look evenly remotely normal. (Even if those hunks profess some type of talent other than their beautiful bodies!)
    Let's face it:. the Miss America pagent is totally ridiculous, and it certainly DOES give the WRONG message to our young girls and boys about women's worth. We should not accept it.

  11. When I heard that the latest Miss America is 17 and plans to study politics at Patrick Henry College, I was nauseated. At least my teenage sons have grown up thinking that this and other "pageants" demean and oppress women. It isn't that marriage, home and family are poor choices or options for women, it is when those are the only respectable, or the only possible options. A culture that promotes judging beauty and talent based on bikinis, heels, ballgowns, and piano playing is far from enlightened. It is still worth protesting, perhaps with humor, like my old favorites, Ladies Against Women. Next year? Count me in!

  12. I'm a card carrying member of NOW, and so is my husband.
    But I still CHOSE to stay at home for a year and a half after my daughter's birth.
    There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a wife and a mother or a stay-at-home mom, and picking that over professional development isn't anymore wrong than a pretty girl enjoying being told that she's pretty.
    If this was a sports contest, you'd be okay.
    But in both cases it is a natural gift that some have and some don't.
    Sports contest, beauty contest. Let them be proud of being beautiful. It's not like it's the only thing they are proud of.
    And they are beautiful.

  13. I happened to catch the recent show on tv while changing stations – the women were walking around in bikinis for the "swimsuit" portion in the evening and it looked like they were out in their underwear. Gross, and not a good image for my daughter to see.

  14. The talent portion and speaking on topics parts are just ways of giving the pageant "legitimacy." They are still selecting women purely on beauty. If you hear Miss America pageants speak about politics or play piano, and then compare them to women out there who truly are passionate about those things, it's obvious that those are not the real criteria for why certain women end up there.

  15. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I can tell you that it is an organization made up of tremendous and incredibly high-achieving women.

    True feminism represents the ability of the modern woman to choose her own path, to avoid being limited in the decisions she is able to make for herself, and to feel that she may do so without the judgment or criticism of those around her. I want to be Miss America and I'd like my MBA. I plan on doing both, as well as raising a family. Furthermore, that "silly crown" has afforded me all types of opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise had, and has given me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of students about the benefits of being involved in service activities, the importance of respecting ourselves and those around us, and the terrible injustices women face around the world. I appreciate that this isn't the path you might have chosen for yourself or to advocate for your particular cause, but please respect that many women do choose it for themselves, feel empowered by that decision, and they are no less respectable because of that.

    • Hi Kaitlin,

      I get to talk to hundreds of young women about important issues too. I get to teach them writing and publishing skills and do projects with young women that help them think critically about the world, the media, etc. I didn't need to become Ms. America to do this. I started up my own magazine. I didn't have to do that, either. Volunteering would have been enough.

      So being a role model for young women is not the reason you chose to enter the pageant. Nor is getting a scholarship. Those are available in many other contexts. Can you explain why you felt the need to be judged the most beautiful woman in America? What exactly does that do for you? Why do you need to be judged more special in some way than all other women? What's the appeal in putting all the work and money into being beautiful?

      • Hi Rachel,

        I know you posted this 2 years ago, but has it occurred to you that perhaps pageants are a way many girls are first exposed to service and volunteerism? Pageants, especially Miss America, opens a lot of doors for many girls and can expose them to a lot of positive experiences and fantastic community projects. Just because pageants are not the way you specifically got involved with community service doesn’t mean it is not a valid gateway for other people. Or are you claiming that any community service ever done by a pageant girl is somehow not as worthy as say, what you are doing for your community? Also, I don’t remember the last time Miss America was ever seriously referenced as a contest to find the most beautiful woman in America. I think that’s equivalent to a soda machine saying their drink is the best in the world. It’s words. Obviously not all of America isn’t going to agree that Miss America is the most attractive woman in the country. I don’t understand why that is even a point in your argument.

        “Why do you need to be judged more special in some way than all other women?”
        If you understood the way the judging and point system works, you would know that the contestants compete against themselves. The scores tabulated during the competition are never compared against another contestant. That means that the scores are calculated the same way someone gets grades in high school or college. So what’s wrong with being valedictorian?
        “What’s the appeal in putting all the work and money into being beautiful?”
        On one hand, you could make the argument that if genders were truly equal, both genders would look androgynous all the time. There would be no distinction between male and females and humans would be denying natural, evolutionary, and biological traits. Whether or not that would be a healthy society would then be up for debate. On the other hand, there is a sense of pride and confidence that comes with looking attractive. Men feel this too. Can you explain what is inherently wrong with looking attractive? Even if neither gender went through any kind of external alteration (temporary or not) there would still be some people who would look more attractive than others based on genetics.

  16. Women aren't protesting Miss America because they're working 2 or 3 part-time jobs with no benefits to survive. Feminism in other developed countries has focused on PAY EQUITY. In the US the women's movement has been elitist from the outset, focusing on philosophy, literature, women's studies courses in colleges rather than concentrating its efforts on what the average woman needs–parity on payday. Freedom means financial freedom in this country. If one way a girl can get some money and power is by prancing around on a stage wearing a cheesy tiara, I say good for her.

  17. laillapalooza says:

    I think my problem with beauty pageants is that their definition of beauty is quite narrow. Traditional concepts of beauty are racist (straight hair over "nappy" hair), generally unhealthy (super skinny, sun-tanned, etc = beautiful), and sexist (smooth, hairless legs = more feminine and beautiful). So it's important to examine where these concepts come from. Why are certain traits considered more attractive or desirable than others. Pageants don't do that, they reinforce those standards. So while I appreciate that some women can benefit from pageants, I don't think I could ever really support it. I do however agree that there are more pressing issues out there that merit our attention.

  18. DrDiscrepancy says:

    The problem with the pageant is that it is a beauty pagent for one. When you make beauty a competition then you are making beauty hierarchical which is part of patriarchy–domination versus the feminine trait of dominion. It is a patriatized process for females.

    Honestly, I cannot believe they still use the swimsuit contest and call it about health. Numerous studies have touted the fact that what your body looks like, weight or otherwise does NOT equal health. If they want a competition on health, then see if they can run, climb or move physically. This is a beauty pageant, beauty is not equivalent to health, and when beauty is paired with patriarchy, the linear, dominating, competing function there will no peace for women in their bodies.

  19. The Miss America pageant is not even called a “beauty” pageant. It is called a scholarship pageant because the Miss America Organization is a scholarship organization. Contestants are college students and/or graduates. They earn scholarship money at every level: local, state, national. They do not have to win to receive scholarship; there are scholarship awards for placing and sometimes just for entering … so the person who said it is a “beauty pageant for one person” is uninformed. I know these women and I have to agree with the contestant who said she was allowed many opportunities, mostly from networking. And the magazine owner who said she didn’t need to be in a beauty pageant for motivation to start her own magazine, maybe she didn’t need scholarship money. Actually the Miss America Organization is a way of empowering, not exploiting, women. The partnership with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals as well as their own personal platform is an avenue for community service; I work in middle and high schools and I meet only a handful of students who are interested in community service, which gives us a bigger picture of the world and others’ needs. Someone else mentioned that “beauty pageants” have a narrow definition of beauty, but beauty is actually never mentioned. The four points are: service, style, success and scholarship. Most of the comments here come from people who do not have an understanding of the organization. It’s not Donald Trump or Toddlers and Tiaras. THAT’S a beauty pageant … gone awry.

    • Are you kidding me? You think that beauty doesn’t factor in? That explains why the contestants all look like supermodels, spend months dieting and toning their bodies, tanning, and practicing doing their hair and makeup and strutting around in bikinis.

      Please. Get real.

      No one is denying that there are rewards for women who participate in the Miss America pageant. We’re saying it’s problematic that women are still rewarded on the basis of beauty, and how well they fit into a patriarchal ideal of what a woman should be. No one is faulting women who freely choose to honor those values, but it’s a problem when all women are expected to conform to those values to be rewarded the title of “Miss America”—supposedly the embodiment of the perfect American woman.

      Which women does the organization “empower”? Only the ones who already enjoy unearned privileges on the basis of their looks. Even then, I wouldn’t call it empowerment, because they’re scrutinized through an oppressive lens of “what a woman should be.” And God forbid they stray from that conservative path. Past contestants have been publicly shamed and had their crown revoked when details of their private life were discovered.

      I don’t care if “beauty is never actually mentioned.” The pageant clearly revolves around image, and one need only have eyes to see it.

  20. oh, and … to Rachel, you mentioned the need to be “the most beautiful woman in America.” what does that mean? Do YOU think the winner is “the most beautiful woman in America?” that is not Miss America, that is your perception. You traveled one road to your success, other people travel other roads. I work with young women as well … young women who have been abused, neglected, and raised by addicts. Some Miss America contestants have worked with these high risk young women and helped to influence their abilities to determine and achieve their goals, encouraging self confidence and lending support. These are the type of women who compete in Miss America Organization.

  21. What they call “talent” is ridiculous. Should girls do erotic Bollywood dancing to win scholarships? Here in India men don’t respect women as and are taken as “item girls”. Everyone is aware that Bollywood is responsible for India’s rape culture. Now America is going this way.

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