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How A Century of Miss America Helped and Hurt Women’s Progress

By BETH HARPAZ

The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921, one year after women won the right to vote. Just as the suffragists wore sashes to their marches, so did the bathing beauties of Atlantic City wear sashes in their parade. They also wore swimsuits so daring that a local law against the baring of women’s knees had to be suspended for the spectacle to take place.

But the first winner, a 16-year-old who stood just 5-foot-1, did not exactly represent the bold women of the 1920s who cut their hair short, flew airplanes, ran for office, and used birth control. This paradox of Miss America being both out of step with women’s progress while simultaneously pushing women forward (whether through body-liberating swimsuits or scholarship money) has been a hallmark of the pageant since its inception, writes Professor Margot Mifflin (Lehman College, Newmark Journalism School) in her engaging new book Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood.

“It’s always had this push-pull momentum,” Mifflin said in an interview with the Indoor Voices podcast. And while Miss America remains the country’s largest nonprofit source of women’s scholarship money, “there’s the added irony” that winners must put their education on hold to fulfill their year of appearances.

Miss America has also always mixed prudishness and prurience. Contestants had to be unmarried and childless (read: virginal) but were judged on looks. In the 1960s, the pageant required knee-length skirts and swimsuits with modesty panels long after they’d fallen out of style. But in the ‘90s, TV ratings relied on sex appeal with high heels, surgery-enhanced curves, and revealing attire. And yet, the first Black Miss America, singer Vanessa Williams, was “dethroned” in 1984 when Penthouse published her nude pictures. (Black women couldn’t even enter the contest until the 1950s.)

Miss America recently abandoned bathing suit and evening gown requirements, but its “talent” competition remains, resulting in absurdities like this one Mifflin describes: a Harvard grad heading for a neuroscience Ph.D. reciting a poem.

Even the contest’s honorific, Miss, is now an anachronism — not to mention, as Mifflin puts it, “is there anything less American than a crown?” Meanwhile, the number of entrants in local qualifying contests has plummeted to 4,000 from 80,000. The pageant has also been scuttled from Atlantic City to a Connecticut casino amid falling ratings and a scandal over derogatory emails about winners that led the CEO to resign.

COVID-19 canceled this year’s pageant, but whether the event’s centennial takes place next year remains to be seen. Mifflin says the pageant was “trying to evolve when all this happened” by focusing less on beauty and more on achievement. But the biggest problem? “Requiring women to dress up and compete against each other for scholarships, something men don’t have to do,” Mifflin says, “doesn’t speak to the women of our current moment.”

Mifflin’s book was featured in The New York Times.