First Protests at the Miss America Pageant

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Members of the National Women's Liberation Party hold protest signs in front of Convention Hall where the Miss America Pageant will be held tonight in Atlantic City, N.J. on Sept. 7, 1968

Eleanor Fischer produced the above report on September 8, 1968 in the wake of a tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the coincident police riot against demonstrators. Fischer references the DNC protest several times, covering all the bases: the protestors, the onlookers, the new Miss America, the new Black Miss America and the pageant's chief representative. It was a time of ongoing cultural conflict, when both white and African-American women were struggling against the establishment as well as the male-dominated anti-war protest movement.

The pageant protest was organized by New York Radical Women, a group active in the civil rights, anti-war, and New Left movements. Garnering most of the attention at the event was the "Freedom Trash Can," a bin in which protestors deposited false eyelashes, dish washing detergent, copies of women's homemaker magazines and Playboy, high heels, curlers, wigs and girdles. They also threw bras into the bin. Although nothing was burned, a rumor spread that the underwear had gone up in flames and reporters promulgated the phrase "bra burners" to describe the protesters. It was no doubt seen by the meme makers as women adopting the, now iconic, image of male draft card and flag-burning anti-war demonstrators. They drew an audience of some six hundred largely unsympathetic men, a few of whom can be heard in Fischer's report.

At her press conference, the new Miss America, Judith Anne Ford, a gymnast and trampoline champion, is noted for being "the first blonde to win the title in eleven years." She indicated that if 18-year-old men are expected to fight and die for their country then they should have the vote. Ford also said it was okay for a "Negro" to be Miss America "as long as she's the prettiest," but not "just because she's a Negro."[1]

In contrast we hear from Saundra Williams, the first Miss Black America. She was described at the time as a 19-year-old from Philadelphia who wears her hair natural, "does African dances and helped lead a student strike at her college last spring." Williams won over seven other competitors in a contest held four blocks from the long-running pageant as a protest to the all-white contest. She told reporters, "Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful." [2]

The war in Vietnam along with the assassinations of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy combined with the evolving civil rights, student, black power and women's movements set the context to 1968 event. With this in mind, Fischer's closing is a bit disappointing. But to be fair, there's nothing quite like hindsight for a clearer perspective on events which can sometimes be hard to fully fathom in the midst of historical moments. 

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[1] Curtis, Charlotte, "Along With Miss America," The New York Times, September 9, 1968, pg. 54.

[2] Klemesrud, Judy, "There's Now Miss Black America," The New York Times, September 9, 1968, pg. 54.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Starkey.

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