In 1968, four hundred women gathered at Atlantic City’s Miss America Pageant to protest what they called “ludicrous beauty standards” perpetuated by American culture. In front of television cameras ready to film the pageant as a major media event, Miss America Protesters seized the opportunity to criticize the “Madonna-Whore” messaging symbolized by the beauty pageant.
In “No More Miss America!” Robin Morgan, one of the founding members of Redstockings, a Racial Feminist organization and think tank, describes the pageant as instructing women to “be both sexy and wholesome,” and she points out this beauty paradox not only objectifies women but the pageant, like Playboy magazine, exploits women. They called the pageant a “cattle auction.”
There is a rumor that women burned their bras at the Miss America Protest. In fact, they did not. They assembled a “Freedom Trash Can” where protesters discarded symbols of their sexist oppression: wigs, false eyelashes, girdles, and copies of Ladies Home Journal magazine.
Watch: “Up Against A Wall” (Documentary Trailer, Third World Newsreel, 1968)
Ironically, at the same time a few blocks away, the first Miss Black America pageant was underway. It was a celebration black women and another kind of protest against the Miss America Pageant’s exclusion of racial diversity. This coincidence demonstrates the necessity to conceptualize feminist movements and its intersections with civil rights movements.
The United States sent Miss America pageant contestants to entertain the troops during the nationally divisive Vietnam War. For Morgan, this practice, like the absence of racially diverse contestants, was the “perfect combination of American values—racism, militarism, capitalism—all packaged in one ‘ideal’ symbol, a woman.”
The Miss America Protest attracted major media attention and it sparked new awareness about the beauty standards that inform American sexual politics. It is often credited as an inaugural moment of Second Wave Feminism.
Susan Benet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (1999)
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (2002)