Miss America Protest

Feminists at the Miss America Pageant

Demonstrators Picket Miss America Pageant
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Miss America Pageant that took place on September 7, 1968 was no ordinary pageant. Hundreds of feminist activists showed up on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to enact their “Miss America Protest.” They distributed publicity materials titled “No More Miss America!”

Organizers

The group behind the Miss America Protest was New York Radical Women. Prominent feminists who participated included Carol Hanisch, who originally had the idea to protest the pageant, as well as Robin Morgan, and Kathie Sarachild.

What Was Wrong With Miss America?

The women who came to the Miss America Protest had several complaints about the pageant:

  • It judges women on impossible standards of beauty. The protesters called the standards “ludicrous.”
  • The pageant objectifies women and thereby harms all women.
  • The protesters disliked the hypocrisy of the pageant, specifically the double standard of the Madonna/whore fantasy, in which men irrationally demand that women be innocent and beautiful, while also satisfying the men's lust.

The feminists had other political disagreements with the pageant as well. 

  • They considered the pageant racist, for never having had a black Miss America.
  • The activists opposed the Vietnam War and felt the pageant supported it by sending the Miss America winner to Vietnam to entertain the troops.
  • There was a blatant inequality in encouraging girls to grow up to become Miss America. The standard line in the United States to any boy was that he could grow up to be president. Why not women? Why was Miss America supposed to be their equivalent dream?

    More on these:  What's Wrong With Beauty Pageants? A Feminist Critique

    Rampant Consumerism

    The women at the Miss America Protest also criticized the consumer aspect of the pageant and the sponsors who used the contestants to promote their products. At the protest, the feminists of New York Radical Women announced a boycott of the companies that sponsored the pageant.

     “Cattle Auction”

    The Miss America Protest began in the afternoon on the boardwalk. There at least 150 women marched with signs of protest. Some of their slogans called the pageant a cattle auction, for parading women around to judge them on their looks, the way men would judge cattle to decide the animals’ worth.

    The protesters nominated a sheep for Miss America and even crowned a live sheep on the boardwalk.

    Paying Attention to Liberation

    At the end of the evening, when the winner was crowned, several of the protesters who had sneaked inside unfurled a banner from the balcony that read “Women’s Liberation.”

    Miss America was a highly anticipated and widely watched event in 1968, so much of the nation tuned in to the live broadcast. The protest received media attention, which in turn attracted more women to the Women’s Liberation movement. The protesters asked the media to send female reporters to cover their demonstration, and demanded that if there were any arrests that they only be made by women police officers. 

    Bras on Fire?

    The Miss America Protest apparently gave birth to one of the greatest myths of the women’s rights movement: the myth of bra burning

    The protesters at the Miss America Pageant threw items of their oppression into a “freedom trash can.” Among these items of oppression were girdles, high-heeled shoes, some bras, copies of Playboy magazine, and hair curlers.

    The women never lit these items on fire; throwing them out was the symbolism of the day. It has been reported that the women attempted to get a permit to burn the items but were denied because of the danger fire would pose to the wooden Atlantic City Boardwalk.

    The intent to set them on fire may have been what sparked the rumor that bras actually were burned. There is no documented instance where 1960s feminists burned their bras, although the legend persists.

    No More Miss America?

    Feminists protested Miss America again in 1969, although the second protest was smaller and did not receive much attention. The Women's Liberation Movement continued to grow and develop, with more protests occurring and the more feminist groups being formed over the next few years. The Miss America Pageant still exists; the pageant moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas in 2006.