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Beyond Miss America 1968: A Feminist History

Alix Kates Shulman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photograph copyright Alix Kates Shulman; used with permission.

When it comes to marking anniversaries of 1968 and the U.S. women’s movement, the demonstration against the Miss America pageant is perhaps the most frequently cited event. Organized by New York Radical Women (NYRW), the gathering brought several hundred activists to the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the feminine ideal perpetuated by the beauty contest and its corporate sponsors – young, white, beautiful, and a cheerleader for U.S. militarism. Comparing the pageant to a livestock competition, NYRW paraded a sheep down the boardwalk before awarding it Miss America’s crown. The protestors threw girdles and bras into a Freedom Trash Can: although denied a permit to light the receptacle on fire, their act highlighted how advertising and mass media sold unattainable visions of beauty and promoted women’s appearance over their other attributes. Nearby, activists inside the pageant hall draped a women’s liberation banner from a balcony, catching the attention of television cameras. Together the actions inside the hall and on the boardwalk brought widespread attention – both enthusiastic and dismissive — to the women’s movement and propelled to prominence the ideas and tactics favored by many youthful, white radicals.[1]

The collective memory of the Miss America pageant protest stays alive, resurfacing with the yearly contest and as part of 1968 anniversary commemorations. Since 1968, both popular and scholarly depictions have used the Miss America pageant protest to represent the movement in that year – the good, the bad, and, especially, the misunderstood. Indeed, with its iconic status derived partly from a media eager to denigrate the nascent movement, narratives of the event can be corrective and instructive. Activist Jo Freeman summed it up: “The 1968 demonstration … saddled women’s liberation with the myth of bra burning. Forevermore the press would repeat that women burned their bras. They never remembered where this was supposed to have occurred, let alone that it never happened.”[2]

For participants at the protest and later scholars, retelling this history has offered a chance to correct the record and challenge stereotypes that paint feminists as unattractive, humorless, masculine, and man-hating. Like feminism itself, the history of the Miss America protest has changed over time and the meaning of the event has altered to serve political ends. In this regard, the history of the coverage of the Miss America demonstration fits a larger pattern: historians have observed how activists and scholars mobilize feminist history to mark change from one feminist generation (or wave) to the next. Nancy Hewitt, for example, has described the process through which subsequent cohorts have recovered histories of their feminist foremothers, accentuating the shortcomings of previous efforts as a way to establish the righteousness of current approaches.[3]

The changing meanings of the Miss America protest offer a vivid example. Although historical treatments of the event have changed, the pageant protest illustrates the enduring power of a narrative that equates feminism with a brand associated with young white radical activists who coordinated public assaults on traditional femininity, while ignoring the broader array of people, tactics, analyses and agendas that characterized the women’s movement in 1968.

For many historians, including those who documented the event in the moment, the boardwalk protest has constituted a feminist origin story. Starting almost immediately, radical feminists emphasized the significance of the event by sharing written recaps and analyses, including a thoughtful critique by Carol Hanisch, one of the NYRW who conceived the event. Hanisch expressed discomfort that the protest seemed to have become an attack on women – both pageant contestants and others who were forced to, or chose to, fashion their appearance to meet cultural ideals.[4]

Hanisch’s critique was quickly forgotten, however, as was a second protest at the following year’s pageant. Both have been eclipsed by accounts that stressed the positive impact on a movement rapidly growing in size and scope and served by a proliferating feminist press. In 1970 when Robin Morgan (another NYRW member) published her germinal collection, Sisterhood is Powerful, the manifesto “No More Miss America! Ten Points of Protest” appeared within its selection of ‘historical documents.’ Reprinted without annotation or analysis, the “Ten Points” offered an implicit challenge to the event’s status as the origin of ‘bra burning’ and instead stressed its contribution to the development of radical feminist ideas and actions.[5]

Personal Politics, Sara Evans’ 1979 account of the emergence of women’s liberation, described the Miss America protest as the “explosive debut” of the new feminist movement. Evans noted that NYRW organizers’ “sharp eye for flamboyant guerrilla theater” drew media attention and, even though much of that was derogatory, it catalyzed an influx of people into all branches of the movement.[6]

Evans’ argument – there’s no such thing as bad press, essentially – has been repeated by other scholars over the years who similarly credit the protest with bringing feminism dramatic and widespread visibility and awakening the consciousness of thousands of women who quickly found or founded the many new groups that created the movement.

In the intervening fifty years, the Miss America protest also has become a trope for the so-called second wave feminist movement and especially a way to understand diversity–or lack thereof–within the larger movement. The earliest accounts of the protest highlighted distinctions between the priorities and tactics of liberals and radicals, as well as a generational gap that allegedly separated these groups. Alice Echols’ 1989 book, Daring to Be Bad, cast the protest as both evidence of, and a cause of, escalating tensions among radical women. Although Echols acknowledged that the event generated attention for radical feminism, its primary impact she claimed was to inflame the conflict “between pro-woman radical feminists who felt the protest conclusively proved the need for continued consciousness-raising and politicos who felt that the movement had finally shown what it was capable of.”[7]

Most recently, historical narratives highlight the racism of the movement and indict accounts that neglect to mention the participation of black activists at the protest, particularly Florynce Kennedy. Sheri Randolph’s biography decisively establishes Kennedy’s influential role gaining the material support of black businesses in Atlantic City and inspiring much of the outrageous and eye catching political theater. Other historians have called attention to Miss Black America pageant that occurred simultaneously and only blocks away. Although noted in coverage at the time, this parallel event largely faded from view until uncovered by scholars interested in intersectional movement building and black cultural politics.[8]

The sustained historical and media attention showcases the event’s continued relevance. Even as the meanings of the Miss American pageant change over time, the protest offers ways to understand feminism’s strengths and deficits, its defining features and its blind spots. This interest is likely to continue thanks to newly available digital archives of documents from and about the 1968 Atlantic City protest. And with the White House occupied by the former owner of several beauty pageants and a well-documented record of misogyny, there is no doubt that the issues of power, consumption and sexism raised by outraged activists in 1968 will continue to resound.[9]

Anne Valk serves as Associate Director for Public Humanities at Williams College. Her essay, “Women’s Movements in 1968 and Beyond,” recently appeared in Reframing 1968: American Politics, Protest and Identity, ed. Martin Halliwell and Nick Witham (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). The author of several books on U.S. women’s history, she is currently working on a transnational history of Reclaim the Night (aka Take Back the Night).

For more on 1968 protest and politics, click here. For more on feminism in the late twentieth century, check out this piece on the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

[1] Broadside, “Slavery Exists!” (1968) via the Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture digital collection at Duke University.

[2] For examples of periodic resurfacing of the Miss America pageant protest, see Kathie Sarachild, “The First Whack at the Miss America Edifice,” Newsday (Combined editions, Long Island, NY), 12 September 1986, p. 89; Christine Stansell, “1968: Lessons Learned,” Dissent, v. 55, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 23-24; Roxane Gay, “Dethroning Miss America,” Smithsonian, v. 48 no. 9 (Jan/Feb 2018): 104-105. For further analysis of the media coverage, see Bonnie J. Dow, “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, v. 6 no. 1 (Spring 2003): 127-149. Jo Freeman, “No More Miss America! (1968-1969).”

[3] Nancy Hewitt, ed., No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010); see also Kelly Suzanne O’Donnell, “Reproducing Jane: Abortion Stories and Women’s Political Histories,” Signs v. 43 no. 1 (2017): 77-96.

[4] Hanisch’s critique originally appeared in Notes from the Second Year (1968) and was reprinted in Barbara A. Crow, ed., Radical Feminism: a Documentary Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

[5] Numerous anthologies focused on the 1960s have included the “Ten Points” document. Placing this document within the context of materials produced by civil rights, New Left, Black Power, and antiwar activists may create (or reinforce) an impression that feminists concentrated on trivial concerns compared to the priorities of their contemporaries who were fighting for political rights, economic justice, or against military and police violence.

[6] Sara Evans, Personal Politics: the Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 213-214.

[7] Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 96.

[8] Sheri M. Randolph, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Paige Welch, “Miss America 1968: When Civil Rights and Feminist Activists Converged on Atlantic City,” 9 September 2016; Georgia Paige Welch, “’Up Against the Wall Miss America’: Women’s Liberation and Miss Black America in Atlantic City, 1968,” Feminist Formations, v. 27 no. 2 (Summer 2015): 70-97.

[9] See, for example, the Miss America Protests Series that is part of the Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture digital collection at Duke University.