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.
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.
Roberts was surprised when it was announced in June 2018 that Miss America was getting rid of the bathing suit competition, and speculated that the decision had more to do with the #MeToo movement than the famous protest in 1968. 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.”