Ask Miss America contestants about Syria
The Miss America pageant’s defenders argue it 'empowers' women rather than demeans them. It’s time we put that claim to the test by asking them to speak their minds on controversial issues like Syria, especially as some contestants parlay their pageant experience into politics.
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
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I’m serious. For years, the pageant’s defenders have been saying that it “empowers” women rather than demeans them. So it’s time we put that claim to the test, by asking contestants to speak to one of our most urgent political issues.
That’s probably not the kind of controversy envisioned by the organizers of Miss America, which is returning to the Jersey Shore after a nearly eight-year hiatus in Las Vegas. But pageant officials can’t have it both ways. If they want Miss America to be more than a beauty contest, they need to challenge the contestants' minds. Anything less will patronize the same women that the Miss America pageant puts on a pedestal.
The first few Miss America competitions didn’t try to look like anything but a battle for the best looks. Starting as a “bathing beauty” contest in 1921, the pageant was sponsored by hoteliers who wanted to keep tourists in Atlantic City beyond Labor Day. What better way than to parade attractive young women up and down the boardwalk, several weeks after the official end of summer?
Only eight women entered the 1921 pageant. But 57 competed the next year, luring more than a quarter-million spectators. “As an advertising campaign, the Pageant was a masterpiece,” declared the Pennsylvania Railroad, which saw its own ticket sales skyrocket as tourists swarmed to Atlantic City.
But the pageant came under fire from religious conservatives, in New Jersey and around the country. “The danger lies in taking girls of tender years and robing them in attire that transgresses the limit of morality,” one church group resolved in 1923. “The saddest feature of the affair is the willingness of a few businessmen to profiteer on the virtues of those tender years.”
So Atlantic City’s town fathers discontinued the pageant in 1927. And when they brought it back, in the mid-1930s, they took pains to emphasize its respectable character. Contestants were prohibited from entering any establishment where alcohol was served. They were also warned that they would be disqualified if they were seen alone with men – including their own fathers.
To demonstrate that the pageant wasn’t just about beauty, meanwhile, officials introduced the talent competition. And in 1945, they began to award educational scholarships. Today, Miss America boasts that its local, state, and national competitions represent the biggest scholarship program for women in the world.