On September 7, 1968, 50 women—one representing each state of the United States—prepared to be judged on their beauty by millions of eyes across the country, in the 41st annual Miss America pageant. But this year would be different.
As the contestants walked across the stage, protesters unfurled a bed sheet turned political statement from the rafters that read “Women’s Liberation” in large letters. The women shouted “No More Miss America!” over the crowd in the first ever protest against Miss America. While they didn’t get caught on camera, their words hit print in the next day’s newspapers, dragging the second wave of feminism into the mainstream.
As the protesters shouted from the rafters inside the show, outside hundreds of women took over the Atlantic City Boardwalk, carrying signs that said “Can make-up hide the wounds of our oppression?” and “All Women Are Beautiful.” One woman holding pots and pans and a baby mopped the boardwalk while another chained herself to a puppet giant puppet of Miss America to symbolize how women are imprisoned by beauty standards. The protesters even crowned a sheep to symbolize how the pageant treated women like livestock at a county fair competition to a crowd of laughing and grimacing spectators.
The protesters dumped feminine items they deemed symbols of oppression including “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.” into a giant “freedom trash can” that they intended to set on fire.Though they weren’t allowed to light a fire on top of the flammable boardwalk, the bra burners myth was born later, in a New York Post story on the protest.
The protest was inspired at a meeting of the New York Radical Women. The group of activists discussed a film about the role beauty standards play in women’s oppression. The movie used the swimsuit competition as an example. That’s when feminist activist, Carol Hanisch, decided taking on the nearly 50-year-old iconic pageant might be the perfect way force this conversation around beauty into the public eye.
In the months before the pageant, the protesters advertised their demonstration as a change to stand up to “an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.” They also issued a press release that included 10 reasons for their hatred of the pageant, as an open invitation to women in August.
The group condemned the consumerism around sponsoring the program and how it valued women’s beauty before her personality. They felt the contest reinforced “the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” Also drawing their ire were the pageant’s racist standards that kept women of color from wearing the crown. The protesters also rejected the double standard that demanded that the women be “sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” Worst of all, they felt the pageant stripped the contestants of their voices, pushing women to be “inoffensive” and “bland.”