How Are There Still Beauty Pageants When Feminists Have Been Protesting Them for 50 Years?

A protest against the Miss America Pageant on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, 1969. (Santi Visalli Inc./Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Progress can sometimes be infuriatingly slow. Take the continued existence of beauty pageants. For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to forget they exist. It’s not quite as easy to do that now that the President of the United States is someone who once owned three pageants, and we’re often reminded that he allegedly sexually harassed contestants. Still, I find the perpetuation of this anachronistic tradition hard to believe, especially when you consider that feminists have been protesting them for 50 years.

In the January issue of Smithsonian, Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay writes about one of the earlier protests, when radical feminists from New York descended on Atlantic City in 1968, to protest the Miss American Pageant. The article appears in the wake of a recent sexist email scandal that has led to new management of that pageant — the #MeToo moment having its effect on Miss America, but not enough of one to shut down the whole enterprise.

Gay reports on the sexist and racist history of the pageant — for which only white women were initially eligible as contestants — and of the 1968 protest.

The 1968 uprising was conceived by a radical feminist named Carol Hanisch, who popularized the phrase, “The personal is political.” Disrupting the beauty contest, she thought, in the summer of that year, “just might be the way to bring the fledgling Women’s Liberation Movement into the public arena.”

She also puts the protest into greater context, shedding light on its lasting impact.

While the 1968 protests may not have done much to change the nature of the Miss America pageant, they did introduce feminism into the mainstream consciousness and expand the national conversation about the rights and liberation of women. The first wave of feminism, which focused on suffrage, began in the late 19th century. Many historians now credit the ’68 protest as the beginning of feminism’s broader second wave.

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