About 100 protesters flocked to the Atlantic City boardwalk in the summer of 1968 to protest what they called a sexist “cattle auction.”
That cattle auction was the Miss America pageant — the Super Bowl of beauty at the time; almost two-thirds of all televisions in use were tuned to the competition.
“It popped into my head that the pageant might be something good to protest because it was very popular at the time and helped set appearance standards for all women,” recalls Carol Hanisch, also a member of New York Radical Women.
It was the perfect event.
The protest was the movement’s first big media moment, and it was carefully planned.
On Sept. 7, 1968, protesters came from New York by bus, but they also traveled from Washington; Gainesville, Fla.; Detroit; and Bancroft, Iowa. Most of the women were in their 20s and early 30s, but some were accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. The group included lawyer Flo Kennedy and other black activists.
Bev Grant, who would become a musical performer and remain an activist, took photos and shot film. Peggy Dobbins created a life-size Miss America puppet and strutted along the boardwalk like a carnival barker: “Yes, sirree, boys, step right up. How much am I offered for this No. 1 piece of prime American property? She sings in the kitchen, hums at the typewriter, purrs in bed.” Their signs read “Up Against the Wall, Miss America” and “We Shall Not Be Used.”
In Atlantic City, women threw — but, contrary to lore, did not incinerate — bras. (Officials prohibited having a fire on the boardwalk.) Also girdles, makeup, high heels, girlie mags, all deemed “instruments of female torture.” They were tossed into the “Freedom Trash Can.” The protesters passed out leaflets — mimeographed literature was a hallmark of the movement — while a large crowd gathered; some taunted the protesters, though Morgan recalls “how friendly the bystanders were.”
But the myth of bra-burning stuck. Critics jumped all over the idea, labeling the women hairy-legged and humorless. But the participants had a ball. “It felt very joyous and free,” Helen Kritzler says.
The protesters rented a sheep, which sported a “Miss America” banner and bow. (It was a boom time for barnyard animals: A week earlier at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Yippies nominated a pig, dubbed Pigasus, for president.) They refused to speak to male reporters, viewing the protest as an opportunity for female journalists to get the byline on a story of consequence, something that didn’t run in the society pages.
The pageant is again under fire, 50 years after the protests. In 2017, former Fox News host and 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson took over the organization at the height of the #MeToo movement. She saw the swimsuit portion as the crux of the competition’s perceived sexism problem and cut it from the pageant, beginning this year. Several Miss Americas and state pageant directors questioned Carlson’s leadership and have called for her to step down.
The 1968 protest of Miss America “was a way of reaching the whole country,” says activist and writer Alix Kates Shulman, to show what the pageant represented: “The objectification of women, treating them as meat, treating them as sex objects. And the racism in the pageant.”
In the 1930s, the Miss America pageant instituted a rule that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Though the rule didn’t appear after 1950, almost two decades later the pageant had yet to include a single African American contestant.
A few blocks down the boardwalk, Philadelphia promoter J. Morris Anderson sought to remedy the injustice by producing the first Miss Black America pageant. “It was an act of protest. Black people had been brainwashed that black was ugly. We wanted to turn that concept around,” says Anderson.
“It was a time we came together as a community to fight for justice and economic and racial pride,” says Saundra Williams-Stovall, who was crowned the first pageant winner. (In 1970, two years after the protest, the first black contestant would compete in Miss America. The Miss Black America pageant is still in operation and celebrated its 50th anniversary in August.)
Meanwhile, to get into the Convention Hall, the protesters “dressed up in high heels, the very sort of shoes we had thrown in the Freedom Trash Can,” Kathie Sarachild says. While reigning Miss America Debra Dene Barnes delivered her farewell address, a dozen protesters seated in the balcony unfurled a “Women’s Liberation” banner inked on a bedsheet and began yelling “No more Miss America!” (The banner didn’t appear on television: NBC’s cameras never turned from the runway to capture the unscripted moment.)
A beauty pageant, of all places, would be where the phrase “women’s liberation” first gained national attention.
Inside the hall, Dobbins sprayed Toni Home Permanent, a hair product made by a pageant sponsor, “on the floor at people’s feet” and was arrested. “I watched the end of the pageant from jail with women who have been arrested for demanding cash for sexual services.”
Most of the protesters were elated. “It put us on the map in a way that was much larger than we had been before,” Shulman says. “I thought it was a triumph.”
“The best fun I can imagine anyone wanting to have on any single day of her life,” Kennedy, now deceased, wrote in her 1976 memoir. “It was very brazen and very brash.”
But at least one demonstrator had regrets. “One of the biggest mistakes of the whole pageant was our anti-womanism,” Hanisch wrote weeks later, a view she still holds. “Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of as our sisters who suffer with us.”