In 1921, the Miss America Pageant debuted, with a previously taboo activity at its core — ogling women in their bathing suits. Over the past century, the pageant has helped normalize this activity. But this week the event’s new, mostly female leadership announced plans to scrap the swimsuit and evening-gown competitions. Can the organization that helped turn the sexual objectification of women into a national pastime help us end the practice?
Not really. Beauty pageants reinforce the gendered power dynamics in our culture — women are disproportionately judged by appearance — so unless the pageant turns into an essay contest (or radio show), banning swimsuits won’t alter this fundamental premise.
Beauty pageants were not new in 1921, the year that the Atlantic City Hotelman’s Association inaugurated a “Fall Frolic” in the hope of extending the tourist season past Labor Day. In fact, Rehoboth Beach, Del., sponsored a Miss United States Pageant in 1880, but organizers decided it was not profitable enough to continue. For one thing, it was hard to persuade women to participate. For another, middle-class tourists deemed such entertainment too seedy.
Surprisingly, Miss America Pageant organizers — consciously or otherwise — drew their images of what a women’s pageant should look like not from previous beauty contests but from suffrage pageants. Throughout the 1910s, women’s rights activists staged elaborate pageants depicting powerful women throughout history and highlighting the various traits and careers women could aspire to, by having participants wear white sashes emblazoned with words such as “Writer” and “Courage.” Suffrage pageants helped popularize the presence of women in the public sphere and made women more comfortable thinking of themselves as agents of change.
In a strange twist, the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 also made beauty pageants appealing to mainstream audiences. On the same day that the New York Times reported “150,000 See Picked Beauties in One-Piece Suits in Atlantic City’s Fall Event,” another headline declared “Uncorseted [Woman] is Man’s Equal.” As women embraced new opportunities as citizens, elected officials and self-supporting individuals, the Miss America Pageant’s retrograde version of femininity soothed Americans discomfited by the seismic changes taking place.
Initially contestants were divided into two categories: amateur and professional (models, dancers, actresses). But only the amateur contestants could become Miss America. Contestants were also judged harshly for displaying “modern” attributes, such as bobbed hair, smoking or wearing makeup.
The first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, remains the youngest and smallest winner on record. When reporters from the Washington Herald went to inform the then-15-year-old Gorman that readers had selected her to participate in the Atlantic City pageant, they found her at a playground shooting marbles. With her long, dark hair, small stature and lack of professional aspirations, Gorman personified the judges’ — and the nation’s — idea of what an American woman should look like. Labor leader Samuel Gompers praised her selection, proclaiming that “she represents the type of womanhood America needs, strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood.”
Gorman also looked good in her bathing suit. The official pageant photo shows a beaming Gorman in her modified “Annette Kellerman” (named after the swimmer who popularized the one-piece suit, as opposed to the cumbersome swimming dress that had been the standard swimwear for women since the 1870s), with her stockings rolled down below her knees.
Today, one-piece swimsuits are considered chaste. But in 1921 Atlantic City beach codes forbade “Annette Kellermans” and women’s bare legs. Just days before the winning photo of Gorman was taken, Louise Rosine, a 39-year-old novelist from Los Angeles, was arrested for “refusing to roll ’em up” when a police officer ordered her to cover her knees with her stockings. As the Fall Frolic activities revved up, Rosine sat in her jail cell with only her bathing suit and a blanket.
When the mayor announced that the banned one-piece suits would be allowed in the pageant, a horrified Mrs. John W. White wrote to ask how these arm- and leg-baring suits would “now not only be permitted but invited on our boardwalk for thousands to look at.” The League of Women Voters (previously the National American Woman Suffrage Association) lobbied the city to strictly enforce the bathing-attire codes. While the LWV actively supported women’s entry into public life, they feared that drawing attention to women’s bodies could thwart their nascent efforts to have women be seen as full citizens.
And in many ways, they were right. The pageant soared in popularity during the 1920s because it encouraged judging women in their bathing suits, or what one women’s group called the “exploitation of feminine charm by money-mad men.” Not until the 1940s did longtime pageant leader Lenora Slaughter attempt to introduce patriotism and education into the event by transforming it into a scholarship competition.
Over the years, the pageant has confronted challenges over the appropriateness of judging women in their bathing suits. Feminist protesters in 1968 were dismissed as “bra burners,” even though no bras were burned. Subsequently, organizers rebutted opposition to the swimsuit competition with answers about promoting fitness and healthy lifestyles.
Since the beginning, the pageant has struggled to defend its bathing-suit competition from critiques that it encourages the objectification of women. But the bathing-suit competition is just one aspect of the event’s promotion of a type of sexuality. For years the pageant barred women who had abortions, and it still mandates that entrants be single and childless. These policies do not reflect a concern about contestants’ marital or parental status. Rather, they perpetuate the ruse of virginity and a one-way definition of sexuality. While male judges and viewers are invited to have sexual motives, the contestants themselves must remain asexual. (For instance, Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984 and the first African American winner, had her crown rescinded when Penthouse published nude photos it had obtained without her consent.)
In the era of #MeToo, this charade has become untenable. Last year, bold Miss Universe contestants in Peru exposed the tangible link between beauty pageants and harassment and violence against women. Rather than answer the standard questions about their body measurements (as was previously the norm in Miss America Pageants and still is in Miss Universe Pageants), the women shared statistics detailing the extent of violence against women.
In the United States, few women have experienced the highs and lows of beauty-pageant-style objectification more than the new Miss America Organization board chair, Gretchen Carlson, who was Miss America 1989 — and the woman who sued Fox News’s Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment.
Judging women in their bathing suits did not come naturally to Americans; the Miss America Pageant taught us how to do it. Yet eliminating the bathing-suit competition does not mean the event will no longer objectify women. While contestants have long been expected to have career goals, talents and ideas about policy issues, the pageant has, at its core, existed to reward women based on how they look and to inculcate the ideas that a woman’s physical attributes are fundamental to her worth and that others — judges, viewers, commentators — have the right to an opinion about them.
Perhaps the elimination of the bathing-suit competition — together with the recent surge of female candidates and leaders — augurs that equality for women is now within reach, just in time for the suffrage centennial in 2020. But in a world in which men and women are valued equally, it is hard to imagine beauty pageants existing at all.