There she is -- Mrs. America. There she is -- our ideal, all-new, improved, modern American woman. The NEW Mrs. America, that is, not the one lionized for her recipes and household tips. Now, in keeping with the times, Mrs. America can talk, work and look fantastic.
The old contest had its ups and downs. In 1954, the judges decided contestants didn't have to wear bathing suits, and instead, as an alternative competition, were closeted with their families in identical model homes near Daytona Beach, Fla. "While the husbands and children are playing, wives will be working away," wrote one reporter, "... judges will be free to burst in on the beauties... at any unannounced time to see how they are doing. First of all, the contestants will have to arrange the furniture in the houses. The one who shows the most poise and dignity while pushing chairs around will be off to a good start toward the title and a free trip to Europe."
But times change. "In the turbulence of the '60s,... it became less than fashionable to deal with motherhood and the American flag," producer David Marmel explained. The original Mrs. America contest passed away amid charges that it discriminated against blacks, among others.
Cindy Roberts, the current "new" Mrs. America, did not get enormous loot as did, for example, Miss America. Roberts did get about $2,000, some clothes and an offer of a swimming pool. (Since she lives in Alaska, she swapped the pool for cash.) She also got a new Toyota and some appliances and is paid for any traveling she does as Mrs. America. (Since it is so expensive to fly someone from Alaska, she hasn't had as many offers for personal appearances or commercials as she might have, producer Marmel said.) "Prospective advertisers looked at her geographic location with horror," he said. She and husband Malcolm paid their own ways to Washington.
In the old Mrs. America contest that went out of business in 1968, the winner got things like a two-week vacation in Fort Lauderdale, a complete kitchen, sterling silver service for 12, an organ, a set of kitchen utensils, water-softening equipment and a tour of South America with her husband, according to a 1959 report.
"It's not just another beauty pageant," said Marmel. "It's the only pageant that doesn't discriminate against married women... we formed a brand new organization hopefully sensitive to the liberated-woman concept. The contemporary American woman has made such phenomenal strides in all areas. She wants to demonstrate her versatility and compete. This is a tribute to America's greatest natural resource."
The new Mrs. America pageant is not nearly as well known as its single counterpart, but Marmel has great hopes for the future. This year he has lined up a "network at the state level" to produce preliminary pageants, and while last year the 90-minute pageant was telecast late in the evening, Marmel is confident that before long it will be on a network in prime time.
"Women comprise 53 percent of the population, and two out of three over 18 are married," Marmel said. "We got those figures from Washington, so they must be true... Sponsors feel she's everyone's consumer target, and while they're not exactly beating down the door, we have had a faster beginning and a more successful start than any other pageant in the world."
Mrs. America is chosen by a panel of judges for her appearance (30 percent in evening gown, 30 percent in swimsuit) her personality (30 percent) and talent (10 percent). She is "that woman which best personifies the complete married woman." She must be "able to communicate." She is someone who "has responsibility in the home," yet is "active in her community." Academic achievement is valued (but not as much as beauty), and so is a career, if she has one.
The first new Mrs. America, selected in Las Vegas in 1977, was Ruth Johnson of Long Beach, Calif. She was 47, a grandmother, a "card-carrying member of N.O.W.," and "she looked darn good in that bathing suit," as the current Mrs. America, Cindy Roberts, put it.
Cindy Roberts, 32, is from Anchorage, Alas. She won the Mrs. America title over 50 other contestants, including a lady dentist with four children, a country-western singer and Mrs. Texas "who was really a foxy lady," she said.
Her talent was a three-minute show of photographs she had taken (she has a small business of fashion photography in a home studio). She has two children, Cheyenne, 7, and Bret, 5, and a B.A. in physical geography from the University of California at Berkeley. She has worked as a model in Alaska for several years aided by a dazzling smile, a mop of shiny brunette hair (with a few strands of gray) and a slim but not scrawny 5-foot-9 frame.
"I come out very long-legged," she said. "That's something you look for in bodies."
She went on a crash diet for about a week before going to Las Vevas. "I don't have time to go to the gym and keep the ole thighs down," she said. Nonetheless, she walked past the judges in her bathing suit with a great deal of confidence and poise. "When I got to the end I sort of shrugged my shoulders. They were dying with laughter... I think I got 10 points just on humor."
Her question from the judges was "if a single woman were to ask you what you give up by being married what would you say?" Her answer: "Flexibility."
Cindy Roberts firmly supports the Equal Rights Amendment, the right of a woman to have an abortion and measures to encourage women who want to have both a career and a family. Her husband is public-relations consultant in Anchorage, and for years was an aide to former Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel. He worked on Hickel's losing race for governor last year, and recently took a little time off to travel with his wife to Washington to talk to legislators about the family and to talk to publishers about writing a magazine column.
"I'm not Gloria Steinem," Cindy said. "Women can identify with me. I cook dinner and change diapers, yet I've got a dual career situation. People think of beauty queens as empty heads; I'm using the title to be a spokesperson for what's out there. We're trying to find people working on family issues. People need to know that the whole world isn't working against the married situation. They can't feel like they are an endangered species. They need to know there are people who are married who have solved a piece of the puzzle."
Their visit to Washington, she explained, was part of a desire for "outreach." Having worked in politics in Alaska, she said, "we're transferring our contact frame into people who are problem-solvers."
Her husband described himself cheerfully as "Cindy's aide." "This is her priority time," he said. "I will help and support her in any way. It's not limited to just making arrangements, but being, as well, a mental foil to wrestle with her ideas."
"I think the key is if both people are committed to the growth of the other.... I think Cindy is pioneering new ground in terms of what the person with that title (Mrs. America) is doing."
He was asked if he helps with the housework. "I could be better at it," he said. "I haven't done as much as I should..."
You've been fabulous recently," his wife added. "Listen, if a person is working 18 hours a day, I'm just not going to ask him to do housework."
They met at an environmental conference in Portland. He proposed 48 hours after meeting her; she accepted a few days later.
"I was not in love when I said yes," she said, "but I knew what I was looking for in a husband. He wasn't in love either, but he knew himself. He was 10 years older. The romance has been ever since..."
They are both Republicans. "I like the Republican philosophy on economics and helping people," Cindy said. "They want to give them a chance to get their own sense of direction, find their own way, rather than get government help."
After graduating from college, Cindy got a job with Georgia Pacific Paper Co. At the time she was 23 and had hair down to her waist. "I was a front man for Georgia Pacific and other (wood products) companies. They were worried about environmentalists and Earth Day without even talking to them. I had some background in the radical world because of going to Berkeley, and I knew what student demonstrations could do in terms of bad press. I could talk to everyone -- students, rednecks and these corporate guys. I got on my soapbox."
The new Mrs. America doesn't have to prove her worth by reciting recipes and arranging furniture. She proves her worth with 30 percent evening gown, 30 percent personality, 30 percent swimsuit and 10 percent talent.
"There is almost a stigma that once a woman puts on a wedding ring she's a frumpy dowdy old lady," Marmel explained when asked why America's greatest natural resource had to be judged in a bathing suit.
"Look, for an event to be interesting enough to network television, there has to be some element of show business to it. We try within the framework of taste and dignity to present a positive image of American women.... A pageant is a pageant...."