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Two pageants

“Did you watch the Miss America Pageant when you were growing up,” I asked my partner Linda.  “It was on the television but I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t about the kind of woman I was encouraged to be,” she replied.

Growing up, I watched it just once, as I remember, when we happened to visit my grandfather, (my mother's father), who was a fan and said that I could be a contestant

when I grew up. A strange comment, I thought, given that I looked nothing like the women parading in swimming suits on the black-and-whit-television screen.

Fast forward to our November 2023 road trip to Atlantic City to visit two women’s history landmarks: A statue representing an iconic woman—civil rights and anti-poverty activist Fannie Lou Hamer (see blog post Nov. 16, 2023), and a larger-than-life statue representing an iconic event—the Miss America Pageant.  (Both statues are by New Jersey sculptor Brian Hanlon, who has created eleven statues representing a woman or a related event.)

The seven-and-a-half foot bronze statue was installed on April 28, 2014, on the boardwalk across from the entrance to the Convention Halll. It includes facial features of two Miss America winners from New Jersey, Bette Cooper an Suzette Charles. The outstretched hands holding the crown are a lure for tourists to step underneath for a photo. (Click to enlarge images.)

Seeing the bronze statue representing Miss America prompted me to reflect on the 1968 pageant, a historically significant event for two reasons:  Both reasons were presented side-

by-side in a newspaper, The Montreal Star (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), Sept. 9, 1968, p. 38, with the headlines—“Negroes hold own pageant” and “Miss America pickets carry ‘Freedom trash can.’” The side-by-side photos are l-r (click to enlarge): runner-up Linda Johnson, Miss Black America Saundra Williams and Miss America Judith Ann Ford. (Note the byline on the Miss America article—Charlotte Curtis, a pioneering journalist and the first woman whose name was on the masthead of The New York Times.)

The September 7, 1968, women’s protest on the boardwalk outside the Convention Hall in Atlantic City was organized by the New York Radical Women, small collective of 13 activist women who had come together tired of dealing with the sexism in the anti-war and civil rights movement. Hundreds of women showed up in response to their press release inviting women to protest the Miss America image that “oppresses women.”

On the boardwalk in front of the Convention Hall, women held up signs with handwritten declarations, including: “All Women Are Beautiful.” Florynce Kennedy, an outspoken black feminist lawyer, chained herself to a puppet of Miss America “to highlight the ways women are enslaved by beauty standards.” A “freedom trash can” was filled with objects that women threw away as oppressive—“bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes. . . .”  Nothing, however, contrary to a pernicious myth, was ever burned. The mayor had asked the organizers not to burn anything and risk setting fire to the wooden boardwalk. (A journalist started the bra-burning-by-feminists myth that has been repeatedly used to discredit the women’s movement.)

Several women changed into dresses and high heels and entered the convention hall, smuggling in a huge banner made of bed sheets with the words “Women’s Liberation.”

Shortly before midnight and the announcement of the winner, the stealth women unfurled the banner from a side balcony and started shouting “Women’s Liberation,” garnering nation-wide publicity during the live broadcast. 

Judith Anne Ford, of Illinois, was crowned Miss America. Charlotte Curtis reported that Ford, “a striking platinum blonde with blue eyes,” had won the earlier talent contest “with a masterful trampoline exhibition that had the Convention Hall audience on the edge of its seats.”

Synched to the finale at Convention Hall, the first Miss Black American Pageant was held at the nearby Ritz Carlton Hotel.  J. Morris Anderson, owner of a Black talent and production agency, whose daughters aspired to becoming a Miss America, and a civil rights group from Philadelphia sponsored the event.

A parade in the afternoon led by four motorcyclists and bongo players traveled down the boardwalk and through the Black neighborhood. Two convertibles carried the gown-clad contestants, waving to the crowds lining the route. Shortly before midnight, Miss Black America was announced—Saundra Williams, a student at Maryland State University. The contest, she said, “shows that black beauty is equal to that of the white women.”

Here are links to a brief video and an oral history about the history-making event: “The 1968 Miss America Protest”

“I Was There: The 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest,”   Oral history by organizer Robin Morgan as told to Allison McNearney

Note: The 2024 Miss America Pageant is January 6-14 in Orlando, Florida.

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I greatly enjoyed reading this! My family were big pageant fans so I watched Miss America a lot. I was a bit too young for the 1968 event so that was enlightening! I have been a huge fan of Robin Morgan since my undergraduate days, though! So glad to see she is still fighting!

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I loved trafing your comment! Thank you!

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