History Stories

Inaccurate coverage of the 1968 protest gave rise to the ‘bra-burner’ stereotype used to malign women’s rights activism.

This week, the Miss America Organization announced that it’s eliminating the swimsuit competition in an effort to focus less on women’s appearances. It’s not clear what, exactly, the beauty pageant will be about now that it’s trying to deemphasize the “beauty” part. In any case, the decision coincides with the 50th anniversary of a feminist protest that criticized the contest as a sexist “cattle auction.”

The Miss America pageant has courted controversy ever since it began as a 1921 newspaper “bathing beauties” contest and marketing scheme for Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the beginning, the controversy stemmed from conservative critics who thought that women should cover their bodies when they appeared in public.

“Early on, people are critical of this contest because it was not really seen as an acceptable thing to have women stand around in swimsuits and be judged,” says Blain Roberts, a history professor at Fresno State University and author of Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South.

To counter the perception that the contest was just about “bathing beauties,” it added a talent competition in the 1930s and started awarding scholarships to finalists after World War II. Despite this, the point of the pageant was still to crown one woman as the most beautiful. Critics continued to take issue with the pageant into the 1960s. But by that point, the criticism wasn’t coming from conservatives worried about women’s propriety anymore—it was coming from liberal, second-wave feminists who considered the contest demeaning.

Miss America 1968 Protest

A demonstrator carries a poster that reads ‘I Am A Woman, Not a Toy, Pet, or Mascot’ with a live sheep on a leash as she protests the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 7, 1968. (Credit: Bev Grant/Getty Images)

The most public example of this criticism was a protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Women carried signs with messages like “Welcome to the Miss America cattle auction” and “All women are beautiful.” In a ten-point statement, organizers argued that the pageant judged women like animals at a county fair (and to emphasize the point, protesters crowned a live sheep as “Miss America”). Its second point, titled “Racism with Roses,” accused the pageant of adhering to a racist standard of beauty by only crowning white women.

“It’s not that they wanted the pageant to somehow tweak itself—you know, change the categories or change the rating system,” Roberts says of the organizers’ motives. “They wanted the entire thing to go away.”

The protest didn’t lead to any immediate change to Miss America. However, its widespread coverage did draw public attention to the women’s rights movement. Some of this coverage inaccurately reported that women had burned bras at the protest, giving rise to the “bra-burner” stereotype used to malign women’s rights activism and belittle feminists’ concerns. Although the protesters did have a “freedom trash can” into which they could throw bras, mascara and other supposed symbols of oppression, they did not burn any of these.

Miss America 1968 Protest

Demonstrators from the National Women’s Liberation Movement picketing the 1968 Miss America Pageant. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Roberts was surprised when she heard Miss America was getting rid of the bathing suit competition, and speculates that the decision has more to do with the #MeToo movement than the famous protest 50 years ago. The chair of Miss America’s board of directors is Gretchen Carlson, whose allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News led to Roger Ailes’ firing in 2016.

“We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition,” Carlson announced on Good Morning America this week. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge.”

Roberts is skeptical that the change will have a major cultural impact.

“It seems to me to be too little too late,” Roberts says, noting that the show isn’t something most Americans watch. “I don’t know that the impact of this is going to be as big as it might have been back in the 1960s or ‘70s. I just don’t think that the ritual itself of the Miss America pageant is as salient and relevant in American culture, the way that it was back then.”

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