On Sunday, the Miss America contest will take place without a swimsuit competition for the first time in the pageant’s nearly century-old history.
The new Miss America Chairman Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host and 1989 Miss America, announced the change in June, in an effort to revamp the event for the #MeToo era.
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But the move has caused controversy among those who say the swimsuit portion is a storied tradition, while critics have been saying for decades that the event is a paramount symbol of the objectification of women.
From the pageant’s start in 1921, the swimsuit competition, and the pageant as a whole, has been a contentious event. The first pageant was launched by Atlantic City hotel owners who wanted to extend the lucrative summer season past Labor Day.
Petite Margaret Gorman, 15, of the District, won the first Miss America award, and newspapers touted her long tresses at a time when modern women were bobbing their hair, according to Kimberly H. Hamlin’s essay, “Bathing Suits and Backlash: The First Miss America Pageants, 1921-1927.”
“From descriptions of her appearance and small stature, it is apparent that the judges were not interested in celebrating the new, emancipated women of the 1920s but in promoting images of the girls of yesterday: small, childlike, subservient and malleable,” Hamlin writes.
Yet the pageant toed the line between propriety and titillation by allowing Gorman and two other contestants to roll down their bathing stockings below the knee.
At the time, female bathers on Atlantic City beaches were required to wear stockings to avoid any display of bare skin, according to Hamlin. In addition, the new “Annette Kellerman” swimsuits, which were named after a famous swimmer who ushered in a more form-fitting suit than the bloomers and baggy outfits women wore at the time, were also banned.
Gorman’s outfit was considered “quite risque at the time,” Hamlin said in a phone interview. A few days before Gorman was photographed with her rolled-down stockings, Louise Rosine, a 39-year-old novelist from Los Angeles, was jailed in Atlantic City for appearing on the beach in much the same garb. In a New York Times article with the headline, “Bather Goes to Jail: Keeps Her Knees Bare,” Rosine argued, “the city has no right to tell me how I shall wear my stockings. It is none of their darn business.”
The 1921 pageant was an enormous success and became a template for all beauty pageants to come. It set the precedent of contestants parading in swimsuits, which was the dramatic core of the contest. And it also created a tension between crowning an idealized model of wholesome American womanhood while at the same time allowing a certain amount of titillation to please the crowd.
During the 1920s, the early pageants sought to stay free of commercialism by offering a token small award for the winners. Women were supposed to take their crowns, go home, get married and not parlay the title into commercial success.
But that changed when Fay Lanphier was crowned Miss America in 1925. Lanphier was the first Miss America from the West, the first to make a Hollywood movie and the first to profit financially from the title, earning $50,000 on a 16-week personal appearance tour, Hamlin writes, an enormous amount for the 1920s.
By 1927, the complaints about Miss America’s growing commercialism reached a peak, with groups including the League of Women Voters and the Atlantic County Federation of Church Women protesting the pageant’s lack of morals and “exploitation of feminine charm by money-mad men,” according to Hamlin’s essay.
In 1928, Atlantic City officials temporarily suspended the pageant, caving in to the protests.
The pageant was revived in 1935 as Lenora Slaughter, an executive secretary for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce in Florida, took the reins. The swimsuit portion continued to be the heart of the pageant but Slaughter reformed the event from a resort-town peekaboo contest into the modern Miss America we know today.
At the height of the Great Depression, Slaughter encouraged Miss Americas to sign Hollywood contracts and profit from their titles, while continuing to maintain rules to preserve an idealized image of American womanhood. She established familiar tropes of the pageant such as having contestants wear heels with their bathing suits as they strutted across the stage.
In 1945, the Miss America Organization offered its first scholarships, with Bess Myerson, the pageant’s first Jewish contestant, receiving $5,000 toward her education.
With the advent of scholarships and the chance for contestants to earn real money, Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist and expert on beauty pageants who teaches at Brown University, said the pageant raised the question: What are you willing to go through to earn it?
“The Miss America Organization says it’s about scholarships,” Levey Friedman said. “To have to walk in a bikini and six-inch heels to get that is problematic.”
“There’s an absurdity involved in wearing a bathing suit with heels,” Hamlin said. “Are we supposed to actually do something in a swimsuit or just look good?”
The next swimsuit commotion was in the 1947 pageant, when contestants wore two-piece bathing suits for the first time.
During World War II, women gained more independence and empowerment working at jobs that the GIs left behind. But once GIs returned, so did social restraints on women’s independence, and public opinion was that the two-piece suits went too far.
In 1949, just two years after the two-piece scandal, contestants were back to wearing one-piece suits. And for the first time the winner was crowned in an evening gown instead of a swimsuit. As Myerson quipped, Miss America leader Slaughter “picked the pageant up by its bathing suit straps and put it in an evening gown.”
Yet, controversy over swimsuits continued. Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze, refused to make her official appearances in a swimsuit. Educated in a convent and trained as a soprano, Betzbe said, “I’m a singer, not a pinup.”
Pageant sponsor Catalina swimwear was so incensed by Betzbe’s act of rebellion that it broke away from Miss America and started the Miss USA pageant, which was later bought by Donald Trump.
Brown University professor Levey Friedman is in favor of pageants in general since she is no stranger to them: Her mother, Pam Eldred-Robbins, was Miss America 1970. Friedman taught a course at Brown on beauty pageants.
“I don’t want to disagree with my daughter,” Eldred-Robbins said in a phone interview. “But I felt confident wearing a bikini and heels and didn’t have a problem with it. It’s part of your act.” Eldred-Robbins was a ballet dancer at the time and was used to performing in public in just a leotard.
“You wouldn’t normally be wearing a bathing suit with high heels in real life, but if you’re an opera singer, you wouldn’t be wearing your costume either,” she said.
Eldred-Robbins won $10,000 toward her education, which was “an enormous amount of money in 1970,” she said, and it helped her earn an undergraduate degree at University of Detroit Mercy.
She won the swimsuit competition that year, just two years after the famous protests against the pageant by feminist groups. She said that she faced numerous protests at her Miss America appearances over the course of 1970. “It was intimidating for me. I was only 21 and had never experienced anything like that,” she said.
Hamlin said the 1968 protest articulated growing social tensions that pageant organizers wanted to downplay. “The protesters were pointing out that it’s a charade that it’s a scholarship competition,” Hamlin said. Even with the money, “it’s still about objectifying women.”
But Eldred-Robbins agreed with the goals of the feminists. “We all were after the same things,” she said. Education, a career and financial independence “were things I also wanted,” she added. “We just went about it in different ways.”
“I’m disappointed they took away the swimsuit competition this year,” she said. “People don’t tune in to see who’s the Rhodes Scholar. They tune in for the show.”