Feminist Takeover at Miss America

By Carol Graham

During the 1992 presidential campaign I was shocked by the vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton by other women. But when she fought back speaking candidly (and somewhat testily) regarding her decision  to pursue a career instead of ‘baking cookies’, the defense strategy of the Clinton campaign managers was equally shocking.

They literally put her in pink in order to placate women who resented that a career woman was about to embody the supreme married woman role model and icon – First Lady.  In symbolic terms First Lady was the married version of Miss America. For that reason I began to think of the anti-Hillary/anti career women as ‘the Miss America vote.’ For me they were women who for whatever reason, felt it appropriate for an organization to talk about offering scholarships to women but requiring them to parade their bodies in swimsuits as a qualification.    

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Now the #MeToo movement is changing the Miss America pageant. Earlier this year Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989 and  #MeToo trailblazer was appointed Chair of the Miss America board. The previous Chair and male CEO plus several board members were forced out  following — you guessed it — a scandal involving inappropriate and vulgar comments about ex female winners’ looks by the leadership. Sound familiar?  

Gretchen Carlson is also the woman whose decision to file suit against the powerful former Fox CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment led to his departure.  Now that she is in charge Carlson has brought on a number of other former winners as well as other women with business and professional expertise. In fact the entire leadership team (including the CEO) are female, former winners and they are making changes.   

Last month the board voted unanimously to ditch the swimsuit competition. As for the evening dresses — optional. Contestants will be able to wear whatever makes them ‘feel confident’ because as Carlson put it, “It’s gonna be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in, when they talk about their social impact initiatives.” As part of the rebranding Carlson also announced  “we are no longer a pageant; we are a competition.” Strong, fighting words for “the Miss America vote.”

Most of us have not associated Miss America with feminism but considering the damage done by the 2016 election to the struggle of women to define ourselves as attractive (if we so wish) without being victimized, this is a welcome development. We need to reach out to all women and the Miss America changes are engaging a part of the culture that has not focused on feminist issues right down to state and local levels.    

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 1.33.25 PMGretchen Carlson is from the (absolutely not our) President’s world of Fox News, Atlantic City AND beauty pageants. To have a card carrying member of #MeToo running Miss America and saying “we need to shine a light on the predators and their enablers” hits home. Once again I give Carlson great credit. She has had to defend the board decision from fierce criticism and it would be foolish to assume that the debate is just about swimsuits, any more than the debate about First Lady candidate Hillary Clinton was about career vs. home.

The real battle was about maintaining control over the role model for women. Well, women don’t need controls. We embrace many roles and have lots to do in order to make our society a better place. The fact that dozens of former winners supported the new initiative may be evidence that the Miss America organization could be an important ally.

We say “not going back!” I think they are saying the casual title ‘beauty queen’ now has a new emphasis on queen — as in a woman is in charge.  

If the Miss America board wants to go ahead and just rename the whole thing The Crown, they have my vote.     

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