On September 7, 1968, a group of women led by the New York Radical Women gathered outside Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey to protest the Miss America pageant being broadcast live inside. The unexpectedly large gathering of protesters, their theatrical antics on the boardwalk, and the publicity stunt that had a small group unfurling a banner inside the pageant proclaiming “Women’s Liberation” gave the growing women’s movement a boost of publicity and turned the Miss America Protest of 1968 into an event that would be remembered for generations. Robin Morgan was one of the organizers of the events that occurred on that hot September day.
In 1968, I was part of a small collective of women called New York Radical Women. There were around 13 of us who had all come out of the anti-war and civil rights movements dominated by the male left. The sexism we were surrounded by in those communities was considerable and very dispiriting, with many of the guys taking a “give me a little of my civil rights tonight, baby” attitude. So we began meeting separately in women’s caucuses.
Rather than conforming to the male leftist jargon where all words should end in “tion” and “ism,” our discussions were more about lived reality. During our meetings, we began talking about our personal experiences, and suddenly we were having all of these magical “You too?” moments, where you realized you weren’t alone and you weren’t crazy. It was out of these consciousness-raising sessions that the phrase “the personal is political” was born.
Around this time, we were discussing the sexist programming that had influenced us growing up, and many of the women mentioned the Miss America pageant. I had never been particularly enamored of the Miss America pageant — I had a very different kind of childhood as a working actor and young writer — but it clearly had had an impact on almost every other woman in the room.
I was coming out of the activist part of the left, so I immediately leapt towards the idea that we needed to stage an action. There was some friction in the group between those who thought we weren’t ready yet because we didn’t have a full theoretical analysis for the protest, and those like me who wanted to dive right in.
My stance was, what theoretical analysis did we need? Clearly the pageant was a symbol of sexism. It was also a symbol of racism: there had never been a black contestant. It tied in with the war because Miss America was sent to Vietnam to entertain the troops. It tied in with commercialism and capitalism because she toured on behalf of the sponsors. And it taught young girls that the important thing in life, even though you might pretend you had a talent, was to get a man, to be sexy, to be superficial.
We activists won the argument, and began to organize the protest. It was the first time we were doing something that we had chosen to do. We had all the skills for organizing demonstrations — we knew how to get permits and order buses and porta-potties — but we’d always done this at the service and under the direction of men on some issue that they had chosen. So it was very exciting to be doing this on behalf of our own cause.
I will never forget arriving in New York City’s Union Square on September 7. We had given a couple of press interviews and leafleted like crazy leading up to the pageant, and I had organized one or two buses to bring us protestors from New York to Atlantic City. But when we arrived at the meeting point, we were shocked to find around 300 women waiting for us. I remember rushing to a phone booth — this was before smart phones, of course — and desperately trying to order more buses, but the only ones I could find at the last minute were the kind that transported Hasidic men from their Brooklyn neighborhoods to the jewelry district in Manhattan. So a number of us traveled to Atlantic City in buses decorated in all Hebrew symbols. I think the Orthodox Jewish drivers were traumatized by the songs the women were singing!
Because of the press coverage, hundreds of women were also waiting for us when we arrived on the Atlantic City boardwalk. I remember bursting into tears of exhausted but ecstatic joy when I saw them. There were women who had driven from California and Wisconsin and Florida. They were black and white. There were a number of them who were in their 40s, which we thought at the time made them “older women.” Most of them, however, were young, and some of them brought their mothers. To this day when you look at the photographs, you see a mix of older and younger women, black and white.
We were astonished and delighted by the turnout. At this point, I had a Rolodex containing the entire radical women’s movement in the United States, and it had one name in it for places like Minnesota. So the networking potential at the protest was enormous.
I remember it was very hot and we were on the boardwalk all day. Women came rushing over to grab a leaflet and the buttons that I had made. Some of the men who walked by would cheer, while others would shout, “Go back to the Soviet Union, you commie, lesbian, dyke, crazy, witch.” Some of the women walked by with their men and said nothing while the men yelled at us, but they would come back quietly later. I’d say, “Weren’t you just…” and the women would quietly respond, “Yes, can I have a button?” And so it was an amazing mix all day long.
I guess I am responsible for a fair amount of the theatricality that took place that day. We placed a huge trashcan decorated with the words “Freedom Trashcan” on the boardwalk, and women were invited to throw in symbols of their oppression ranging from stiletto heels to dishrags and diapers to cleaning tools and corsets. There were bras thrown in, but nothing was ever burned. That was a myth started by a reporter at the New York Post who thought it would make a cool headline. But we never burned bras and never intended to do so.
We did rent a sheep from a nearby farm in New Jersey to represent how the contestants had to obey as they were being paraded around. We treated her very well, and she had shade, straw, and water all day. We also had a huge cutout doll of a contestant, which I’m not sure I approve of at this point because it was kind of a caricature.
The guerrilla theater tactics were a way to draw people in before starting discussions on more serious issues like sexual harassment. I don’t regret including them in the slightest, although I do have some regrets about some of the specific events we staged. For instance, it wasn’t fair to compare the contestants to sheep — the best way to organize is not by insulting the people that you’re trying to organize. And it wasn’t fair to the sheep. My consciousness was not what it should have been at that point about animal rights in parading our ewe around. But in time you learn these things.
While the pageant was being televised live, we sent a little brigade of five or six women inside Boardwalk Hall to pose as members of the audience. We had made a huge banner from three double-bed-size sheets with the words “Women’s Liberation” drawn across them in black. The women changed into little gloves and heels and skirts, and smuggled the banner in under their clothes. They got into the balcony, snapped together the sheets, and hung the banner out over the edge in what has now become a famous photo. It was a huge news event, and that’s the moment that some people claim unfairly, but amusingly, that this wave of the women’s movement was born in the United States. A few women from this brigade were arrested, but the charges were eventually dropped.
The Miss America protest was deemed a huge success. My theory at that point was you could spend six months leafleting on the corner of St. Mark’s Place, which was supposedly the red-hot center of radicalism in Manhattan at the time, but it was more important to have six seconds on the 6 o’clock news. And, in this case, I think I was actually right.
Afterwards, we were all exhausted. The next week, the 13 New York Radical Women met again, but this time, 250 more women showed up. For sheer size reasons, we split into smaller groups, and then those groups began to find their own priorities and strategies along differing political lines, although continuing to work in coalition.
If anybody had asked me 50 years ago on the boardwalk, “Where do you think this will all be in 50 years?” I never would have imagined we’d still be fighting some of the same fights. I thought we’d either be dead in our 30s because Nixon or someone would have killed us as revolutionaries; if we weren’t dead, we would have won. A rather youthful, simplistic prediction.
But we’ve got a helluva movement now. This new breath isn’t even a resurgence, it’s a new incarnation with larger, more inclusive, and diverse numbers, with greater rage, greater impatience, and a willingness to risk that I haven’t seen before. And it understands the power of the ballot. I’m very hopeful. If anybody can turn this country around, it’s women. And it’s women who are in fact stepping up to do that.
I’m now 77, which once would have sounded positively antique to me. But I just came out with my 23rd book, Dark Matter: New Poems, I host a weekly podcast, and I write a weekly blog. I am still intensely an activist. When younger women come to me for advice, I smile. “Get your own torch,” I tell them, “I’m not done with mine yet.”
Robin Morgan is the award-winning author of 23 books, including the just published Dark Matter: New Poems. She hosts the broadcast/podcast “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan.”