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The Miss America Protests at 50

Fifty years ago today, the outrageous Miss America protests in Atlantic City brought second-wave feminism into Americans’ living rooms. Here are five reasons why the protests changed the world.

AP

On September 7, 1968, about four hundred women activists converged on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the hall hosting the Miss America Pageant. It was the inaugural media event of the women’s liberation movement.

Some had traveled to New Jersey from as far away as Florida and Michigan. Women gathered on the boardwalk under the hot autumn sun, picketed in an oval, and remained there from midday through midnight.

Over the following decades, feminists would go on to create a dense, well-funded liberal apparatus that focused on eliminating gender discrimination in public policy, the law, and the workplace. This was a formidable, heroic task, one that remains incomplete.

But in 1968, the feminists who organized the Miss America protest were thinking bigger and bolder.

They not only called out the pageant’s objectification of women’s bodies, but tried to imagine a different society altogether. Fifty years down the line, it’s worth recalling the activist imagination, creativity, and ferocity on display that day at the Boardwalk.

Here are five feminist lessons from Atlantic City, 1968.

Feminism was fun.

A flyer announcing the protest urged women to bring their love, joy, anger, hope, excitement, and fury to the boardwalk. The protesters brought it all and then some.

They carried signs that read “Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction” and crowned a live sheep. Someone built an effigy of Miss America — a large, blonde-haired marionette wearing a red, white, and blue bathing suit. One woman performed a skit in which she mopped the boardwalk while holding a baby along with pots and pans, a reenactment of women’s never-ending, uncompensated household and reproductive labor.

Most famously, the women created a freedom trash can, where they discarded what they called “instruments of female torture,” including girdles and bras, make-up and hair curlers, women’s fashion magazines, and high-heeled shoes. (Contrary to popular myth, there was no bra burning at the protest). A smaller cohort of women entered the pageant hall and unfurled a bedsheet from the balcony that read “women’s liberation” just as the prior year’s winner was delivering her farewell address.

These actions were inspired in part by the Yippies, the counterculture group whose members believed in the political power of outrageous, absurdist public acts — what they called “zap actions.” Three months earlier, Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had nominated a pig for president at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Feminists brought this same spirit of artistry, ferocity, irreverence, and fun to Atlantic City and made it their own. They knew how to channel their rage against sexism into the creation of something new, joyful, and genuinely exciting in the public sphere.

Feminism was black.

Members of the radical feminist group New York Radical Women (NYRW) came up with the idea of protesting the pageant after screening an avante-garde Swedish feminist film called Schmearguntz that included a clip from a beauty pageant. After the screening, members recalled how watching the pageant on television had been a family ritual, and NYRW activist Carol Hanisch suggested that protesting it could be a gutsy way for the movement to gain visibility.

But crediting the protest to the white leadership of the NYRW alone is a mistake. As historian Sherie M. Randolph has shown, black feminist radical attorney Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was crucial to the protest’s planning and ultimate success. She was on the boardwalk that day, where she chained herself to the Miss America marionette to highlight how women were enslaved by beauty standards.

Kennedy also recruited other black women to attend, and she enlisted the help of a local black-owned resort to provide protesters with a safe place to rest, eat, and change clothes. Finally, she represented in court the few protesters who were arrested.

Why was Kennedy’s role in the protest overlooked? The problem started with the journalists who were covering the story, who tended to gravitate toward the movement’s younger, white members. But this initial erasure has been reproduced in subsequent historical accounts.

Kennedy’s neglected role at Atlantic City tells us something important about the thorny question of race and feminist politics. Much ink has been spilled over the claim that 1970s feminism was compromised by racist exclusion, and there is no doubt truth to this. After all, white feminists came of age in a deeply segregated postwar society, and it would have been miraculous had they emerged from that society without bringing racial bias with them.

But the preoccupation with racism among white feminists has had the unfortunate consequence of erasing the crucial role that black women actually played in the feminist revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Black women like Florynce “Flo” Kennedy were on the vanguard. They were the feminist trailblazers.

Feminism was anti-racist and anti-militarist.

Had protesters arrived at Atlantic City only to call out the emotional, psychological, and social toll of living in a society that objectified women’s bodies, that alone would have been enough. But the protesters leveled a broader charge against the pageant: it was complicit in US racism and militarism.

In an August press release about the upcoming protest, the NYRW condemned the pageant as “racism with roses,” pointing out that the contest had never had an African-American, Mexican-American, Native-American, Puerto Rican, Alaskan, or Hawaiian finalist. (In fact, up until 1950, a pageant rule had explicitly excluded women of color).

They also charged the pageant with abetting the immoral, disastrous US military intervention in Vietnam. Each year, Miss America traveled overseas to entertain the troops, and the protesters decried this conscription of winners into the role of “military death mascots.”

“Last year she went to Vietnam,” the press release read, “to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons, and husbands into dying and killing with a better spirit.” One protester carried a sign that read “Girls Crowned/Boys Killed.”

Protesters grasped that sexism, racism, nationalism, and militarism were part of a single, interconnected system of violence. This same system objectified the white woman’s body, devalued the black and brown woman’s body, and remade both the Vietnamese civilian’s body and the soldier’s body into fodder in an illegal war.

Feminism was anti-capitalist.

Radical feminists understood that sexism in the United States could not be disentangled from the capitalist system, and they condemned the pageant as a consumer con game. “Miss America is a walking commercial for the Pageant’s sponsors,” read the press release. “Wind her up and she plugs your product on promotion tours and TV — all in an ‘honest, objective’ endorsement. What a shill.”

From the beginning, beauty pageants had been moneymaking ventures. The earliest pageants were intended to increase the circulation of newspapers, which featured photographs of the contestants. On September 7, 1920, the first pageant was held on the Atlantic City boardwalk so that businesses and resorts could keep making money past Labor Day. By 1968, the Miss America Pageant had emerged as a major annual television event. First televised in 1954, it soon routinely ranked as the highest-rated television show of the year, making corporate sponsorship very lucrative.

Activists understood that the pageant was a place where women’s bodies were being turned into merchandise in order to sell merchandise. The protesters attacked corporate sponsors like Pepsi and Oldsmobile by name, accused them of trafficking in women’s bodies in order to widen their profit margins, and called for a boycott of their products. Protesters recognized that the sexist objectification of the female body was part and parcel of a society ruled by the endless drive for profit.

Feminism was met with resistance.

As the protesters marched under the sun, large crowds began to gather, and some people grew hostile. They heckled the women, calling them communists and lesbians, and accused of them of only being there because they were too ugly to win a beauty contest.

The protesters remained calm. As participant Alix Kates-Schulman recalled, “We were very orderly, talking to people who were heckling us trying to make them understand.” Many of the hecklers were presumably encountering feminism for the first time that day, and their anger gives us a sense of how threatening women’s liberation could be.

Also striking is how quick the counter-protesters were to associate what they saw with communism. Hecklers told protesters to “Go Back to Russia” and accused them of being the “Mothers of Mao.”

By 1968, the darkest days of McCarthyism had passed and the pervasive anti-communism of the postwar period was finally lifting as the Cold War consensus fell apart. But the charges leveled by the hecklers made clear that well into the late 1960s, redbaiting remained a powerful weapon for discrediting radical social movements, including feminism. The legacy of anti-communism, its extraordinary reach throughout US culture, shaped the trajectory of feminism in ways that historians are only beginning to grasp.

A Furious, Joyful Feminism Today

The fiftieth anniversary of the Atlantic City protest comes at a moment of global feminist revival, as women throughout the world are mobilizing to bring renewed attention to many issues first raised by feminists in the late 1960s: the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment, domestic violence, the wage gap, and threats to women’s reproductive freedom. More than at any time since the 1970s, feminist movements are again on the move.

And just like the activists on the boardwalk five decades ago, we are confronted with the question: what kind of feminism is adequate to addressing the acute political, economic, and social crises of our time?

Fifty years on, the protest can help us begin to answer that question. The women who came to Atlantic City grasped that the pageant was never about gender oppression alone. They understood that being asked to choose between fighting for gender justice, racial justice, or economic justice was in the end no choice at all. These audacious sisters recognized that ending sexism required an analysis that grasped its intimate relationship to racism, militarism and nationalism, and to the capitalist system as a whole.

That recognition seems well worth affirming today — as does the call to bring your fury and your joy.