The UConn Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Center at Stamford was proud to host a virtual panel with Margot Mifflin, who introduced the contents of her new book, “Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood,” through a lecture and Q&A session. Mifflin’s work delves into the history of the renowned Miss America beauty pageant, whose changing dynamics matched with the changing social periods of the time, including the women’s suffrage and women’s liberation movements. Weaved within the triumphs of social transgression, however, are traces of racism and sexism, which have unfortunately remained since the pageant’s inception.
When the first Miss America pageant occurred in 1921, it was originally established as part of the fall festival in order to expand the summer tourist season, only to coincidentally become one of the biggest beauty pageants in the U.S. By the end of the women’s suffrage movement, women had been liberated from wearing ankle-long dresses and were finally allowed to wear less modest clothing, of which the pageant capitalized upon. Featuring contestants in nothing but swimsuits essentially allowed for objectification disguised as the support of progressive fashion.
While women’s suffrage became a large cultural force that brought the pageant into being, immigration was also one that came with disadvantages. During a time when immigration rates were increasing exponentially, Miss America channeled the developing anxieties of the changing makeup of the country by reaffirming what it meant to be an American woman. Ironically, Native American women were not allowed to participate as contestants, but were allowed to attend the pageant as audience members. This notion of national identity contributed to the idea that to be American, one must be White, and while a few Asian and Latina women were able to compete, there were no Black contestants for the first 50 years. According to pageant officials, they could not judge Black women fairly. In other words, they were unable to consider them beautiful.
The rule that contestants “should be of good health and of the white race” became notoriously known as Rule Number Seven. Although this rule was retired in the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1983 that Vanessa Williams became the first woman of color to be crowned, only to be dethroned due to nude photos being circulated. Rule Number Seven may not have been evident in recent competitions, but the familiar pattern of excluding women of color still continues. The first Asian contestant crowned wasn’t until 2011 while no Hispanic contestant has ever won to this day.
Aside from the issues of racism and sexism in the past, Mifflin also focused on how Miss America has actually benefited its contestants in their career aspirations, but with a caveat.
“The pageant really did give women opportunities in a world of scarce professional possibility, or some women in any case,” Mifflin said.
A rule of Miss America is that contestants must be single and have no children, causing those opportunities to only be exclusive to a certain demographic. In one case, a contestant whose dream was to become a doctor ended up receiving a scholarship that paid for her education.
“But it also excluded many women, and notably today, excludes young mothers who are demographically more in need of scholarships than anyone,” Mifflin said.
When asked about whether pageants today have changed for the better, Mifflin gave an interesting note to end on.
“I think they have,” Mifflin said. “I think it has definitely improved vastly. The scholarship is something that has really helped a lot of women’s lives, and the women I think about [are] the women who couldn’t compete, who couldn’t get the scholarships. What happened to them? You know, they’ve been marginalized from the start. But for those who did, it was a very significant tool of social mobility. So scholarships have changed things and now in the past couple years when it’s evolved, getting rid of the swimsuits for example, that to me seems like progress.”