The pageant has always been deeply invested in protecting the status quo in the face of women’s progress. No amount of tweaking over the decades, from adding scholarships to mandating philanthropy, could obscure its bottom line: Regardless of how smart or talented a woman is, she’s a loser without the one thing she can’t control or achieve: beauty. (The primary purpose of beauty pageants, historian Lois W. Banner has written, is “social discipline and not social advance.”) The patriotism is mere drapery, framing good looks as an American accomplishment and ogling as an act of national pride.
The Miss America pageant took shape a year after women’s suffrage, in what now looks like a spasm of anxiety about the prospect of newly empowered voters claiming their independence. When the first eight contestants hit the beach in Atlantic City’s East Coast “Inter-city Beauty Contest,” which would become the pageant, the women — girls, really — wore “bathing costumes” that were not just scandalously skimpy, but also illegal, requiring the temporary suspension of a ban on revealing beachwear for the length of the event.
It appeared to be an honest skin show. But the pageant directors complicated it, insisting that the contestants be both unmarried and consummately marriageable — that is, wholesome, white and native-born. These criteria alleviated unease about immigration and invoked the specter of eugenics, which had inspired baby contests of the 1910s that led to “Fitter Family” competitions held in the service of “better breeding” and building American families. Miss America concentrated the focus: What better way to gauge national fitness than through a pageant evaluating the quality of the breeders themselves?
The problem then, as now, was the swimsuit. Many early contestants wore the “Annette Kellerman,” a form-fitting one-piece created by a champion swimmer, designed for speed and intended to be worn with skintight stockings instead of traditional bloomers to cover their legs. The very concept of public swimwear for women was still new: Until the turn of the century, women swam in heavy woolen dresses. Some even rented “bathing machines,” mobile changing rooms that were wheeled into the water to deliver them into the sea unseen.
The pageant directors justified these one-pieces, which inspired gasps and applause by onlookers, as the best way to display the beauty of the female form. They bore no relevance to swimming then, nor do they now, though their alleged purpose was to show women’s “fitness.” So the enduring (and defining) paradox of the pageant was forged: exposing women’s bodies while denying their sexual and physical power — a double standard dramatized when a contestant was arrested on the beach for wearing the swimsuit she’d competed in the day before.
When Lenora Slaughter became the first female director of the pageant in 1941, she transformed it from a seaside diversion into a national phenomenon, introducing many protocols that survive today. She preserved the contest’s traditional values — modesty, cultural conformity and heteronormative femininity — while adjusting its format to present Miss America as a woman of substance. “First thing,” she said, “I had to get Atlantic City to understand that it couldn’t just be a beauty contest.”
Slaughter added judging for intellect and personality, arranged for winners to be crowned in evening gowns instead of swimwear (prompting a walkout by the disappointed press), appointed escorts to supervise the contestants during pageant week and inaugurated the scholarship program that, to this day, cloaks this public peep show in the mantle of merit.
But during her more than two-decade tenure, she perpetuated a deeply conflicted paradigm of American womanhood. In 1945, she was visionary enough to push for Bess Myerson’s crowning as the first Jewish Miss America, but also pressured her to Anglicize her name. She recognized Myerson’s remarkable talent as a concert pianist, but insisted that she start her tour year playing the vaudeville circuit in a swimsuit for whistling men.
And it was under her leadership that the notorious contest rule No. 7 surfaced: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Whatever Miss America represented under Slaughter, it wasn’t democracy.
By the time Slaughter retired in the late 1960s, the pageant was a stubbornly reactionary, nationally televised institution. In 1968, a year of historic social and political upheaval, Cinderella was its theme. Recognizing the pageant’s irrelevance to the youthquake generation it targeted, Pepsi pulled its sponsorship.
Women rallied on the boardwalk outside to protest its sexism in the first public demonstration — ever — by second-wave feminists. The same day, black women, backed by the NAACP, walked in the first Miss Black America pageant. Winner Saundra Williams told the audience: “Miss America does not represent us. … With my title, I can show black women they, too, are beautiful.” The pageant wasn’t integrated until 1970, and it took another 13 years for a black winner, Vanessa Williams, to be crowned.
In the 1990s, as its TV ratings plunged, Miss America became a punchline. Americans increasingly watched the hoary spectacle in the spirit of kitsch, on the lookout for butt-glue mishaps and comical cry-faces.
But if the pageant had finally lost any semblance of cultural cachet, it had cultivated something more important: scholarships. For many winners from low-income families, from actress Lee Meriwether (1955) to Nina Davuluri (2016), it offered the only route to college and a career. (Meriwether entered after her father’s death, when her mother advised her: “If you want to continue on with school … go to Atlantic City.”) With a new rule stipulating that contestants embrace a social issue, winners chose causes from domestic violence to literacy to AIDS outreach, and Miss America became a philanthropist as well as an educated woman.
Still, 40 percent of her worth, by pageant standards, hinged on her appearance.
Today, as much as the Miss America Organization tries to modernize — allowing a tattooed contestant in 2013, adding STEM scholarships in 2014 and including the first out lesbian in 2016 — its belated efforts highlight the time warp it’s perpetually trapped in. (Was pageant culture so timid that it took the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage for a lesbian to become a contender?)
At this turbulent moment in Miss America’s history, the email scandal isn’t the key force eroding its integrity and tarnishing its symbolism. With the #MeToo movement exposing the ways women are diminished, exploited, assaulted and professionally disfranchised because of their gender, it will be difficult this fall to stomach a national ritual in which contestants are asked to show their bodies in exchange for an opportunity.
What failure of American democracy explains how a beauty contest accounts for the largest scholarship fund, about $6 million, for women in the United States? What might the thousands of losers have achieved with access to scholarships that didn’t require spending a year preparing for a public audition to get one? And should a woman have to be pretty, thin, single and — yes — childless to win a scholarship?
The rhinestone crown may be the popular symbol of Miss America, but in the end, the sash is far more significant. Public pageantry was a powerful tool for the suffragists, conveying the movement’s coherence and camaraderie, with sashes as their pussy hats: They expressed solidarity with the National Woman’s Party through their colors (purple, white and gold) and through their motto, “Votes for Women.”
But Miss America flipped the script. Draped across the bodies of beauty queens, the sashes denoted local affiliation and individual, apolitical aspiration. The Miss America pageant was not about women; it was about Woman. And these winners walked alone.