Fifty years ago, the swimsuit-wearing beauties of the Miss America pageant were confronted with a spectacle on the Atlantic City boardwalk: 100 feminists throwing bras, girdles, curling irons, false eyelashes and other “instruments of female torture” into a trash can labeled “Freedom.”
They were condemning what even then they saw as an antiquated institution, which had mostly male judges scrutinize women’s bodies, women of color at one point not allowed to compete, and three in four American households watching it all happen.
“Everybody tuned into Miss America back then — this was like the Oscars,” said author Alix Kates Shulman, 85, one of the organizers of that 1968 protest.
Fifty years later, it appears that #MeToo has done what a protest could not: eradicate the most derided aspect of the competition, the swimsuit.
The Miss America organization — whose chief executive resigned in December over lewd emails and whose new chairwoman, Gretchen Carlson, once sued Fox News for sexual harassment — on Tuesday announced it would scrap both the swimsuit and evening gown portion of the competition, replacing them with “a live interactive session with the judges” in which a contestant “will highlight her achievements and goals in life.”
Carlson, the 1989 Miss America, said in an interview that her aim was to “make the event more inclusive” and described it as a “competition,” not a “pageant.” The organization’s new motto is “To prepare great women for the world, and to prepare the world for great women.” And its website indicated a broad rebranding effort: “Miss America 2.0. Coming soon: New website. New show. New experience.”
The changes will take effect at the national finals in September. State and local competitions will follow suit after that, but they are likely to continue including swimsuits during the current season.
Carlson said the decision was made in March by a unanimous vote from the organization’s leadership committee. This, of course, is Miss America’s new leadership committee, the one appointed after chief executive Sam Haskell was ousted and replaced by a woman, and a new board was reappointed. Seven of the nine board members are women.
“Listen, I’ve talked to tons of young people who’ve said to me, ‘I’d love to be a part of that program, but I don’t want to parade around in a swimsuit,'” Carlson said. “And I get it.”
“From the moment I had to put one on and compete, I knew I wasn’t going to be the winner of the swimsuit competition,” she added. “I’m 5-3 and have struggled with my weight my whole life. I’m not a model. But it was 10 percent of my points. This was something that I was thinking about 30 years ago.”
Miss America has long touted itself as much more than a beauty pageant. (Anyone seen “Miss Congeniality”?) Contestants take part in community service, and the organization said it awarded more than $2 million in scholarships last year.
But swimsuits have for at least as long defined the pageant — and been at the heart of the debate over its place in American culture.
“Speaking for myself, when I competed 20 years ago, I found the swimsuit competition oddly empowering, because once I could walk across the stage in a two-piece swimsuit and high heels I could do just about anything,” said Kate Shindle, the 1998 Miss America who is now a board member of the organization. “But I also don’t think I processed everything at the time. It’s strange — it gives strangers a kind of ownership over your body that you don’t quite anticipate.”
The Miss America competition began in Atlantic City in 1921 — one year after women gained the right to vote in the United States — as a way to extend the summer tourist season beyond Labor Day.
It “was, literally, about the use of women’s bodies to sell a product — or a place,” author Jennifer Weiner recently wrote in a column in The New York Times.
At the time, it was not only rare to see a woman in a swimsuit in public, it was illegal — and so the event, with eight contestants, required the temporary suspension of a ban on revealing beachwear.
It was all beauty pageant until 1936, when a talent portion was added. The competition was limited to never-married women ages 18 to 28. Until 1940, it was written in the guidelines that they must be “of good health and of the white race.” The organization would not have its first African-American winner until Vanessa Williams earned the 1984 crown.
“The Miss America state and national process was — and maybe still is — the single largest source of scholarship money for women in the U.S., yet the crucial requirements were physical, not intellectual,” legendary feminist Gloria Steinem said in an interview Tuesday. “If the same were true for men, people would be saying, ‘No wonder China is winning!'”
“It’s not just the bathing suits, it’s physical appearance, irrelevant talents and, until very recently, being white,” Steinem added. “It’s also less about being unique than conformist.”
In 1950, pageant winner Yolande Betbeze was among the first to break the mold, causing a ruckus when she refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign. (“I was an opera student and didn’t have good legs,” she explained at the time.) In 1992, Catherine Ann Lemkau, a runner-up, announced that she would like to see the swimsuit competition eliminated.
And in 1995, Miss America encouraged its viewers to call a 1-900 number to say whether swimsuits should be scrapped: two out of three said no.
Appearing on ABC News to announce the change Tuesday, Carlson declared, “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance.” But it is hard to imagine what Miss America could be without conventional beauty standards at its core.
The 2017 Judges’ Manual lists the qualities and attributes required of titleholders, in this order: “beautiful, well-spoken, intelligent, talented, able to relate to young people, reflective of women her age (she should not be a 35-year-old trapped inside a 20-year-old body), charismatic, dynamic/energetic — that ‘IT’ quality that is so hard to define, mature enough to handle the job and all of its responsibilities, comfortable ‘in her own skin,’ manageable, punctual and flexible.”
“The American public has an expectation that she will be beautiful and physically fit,” the manual continues. “This is the same expectation they have for all of their celebrities, from music and film to sports, and Miss America is no exception. You must look at her physical beauty as well as her physical fitness.”
Margot Mifflin, an English professor who is writing a cultural history of the pageant, wrote recently in The Washington Post that Miss America “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,” she said. “Regardless of how smart or talented a woman is, she’s a loser without the one thing she can’t control or achieve: beauty.”
Tuesday’s announcement was quickly added to the long list of stunning changes across Hollywood, politics and workplaces around the world in the wake of #MeToo. It was a ripple effect, one that expanded the conversation from sexual harassment to the larger way we view women’s bodies.
Still, it seemed like a small step to some.
“If Miss America wants to get out of the sexism game, it should probably end Miss America,” writer Jill Filipovic posted on Twitter.
“Sure, it’s a relatively good thing that in 2018 this organization has realized it’s dehumanizing to compare and judge women’s bodies in front of a vast, international audience,” said Julie Zeilinger, the founder of a feminist blog called FBomb. “But when Gretchen Carlson says we are ‘not going to judge you on your outward appearance,’ the implication is that the competition will still judge women — just not by measures of blatant physical objectification.”
As for the women who threw bras and girdles into the garbage can on the Atlantic City boardwalk a half-century ago — unveiling a giant bedsheet from the balcony that read “Women’s Liberation” — they watched with wonder, and a healthy dose of skepticism.
“What can I say?” said one of them, Robin Morgan, the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nonfiction, including the 1970 anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful.” “After 50 years, this is a start.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.