The Miss America protest, aka bra-burning movement, was organized by a group of radical women from New York, during 1968 Miss America beauty pageant.
Miss America is perhaps one of the most popular shows in American history. It is a beauty pageant held every year for American women aged 17 to 25.
Its original and most obvious purpose is to judge women based on their looks, but more recently, judgment is also based on talent and interviews that contestants participate in. The pageant originated in 1921, but has not always been without controversy.
Many people have criticized such a competition for implying that a woman’s worth is solely based on her looks. Some people have even protested against the beauty pageant.
The Miss America protest, also sometimes referred to as the No More Miss America protest, which took place in 1968, is the most famous example.
Background of Miss America Protest
The protest was organized by a group called the New York Radical Women, led by Robin Morgan, in 1968. The New York Radical Women was a more radical feminist group formed by a group of young women in their twenties.
The group focused on issues such as the growing antiwar movement and the civil rights movement and how they were male-dominated. The group also was against men who still wanted their wives to stay at home.
The New York Radical Women was a rather small movement and did not really gain any attention until the Miss America protest in 1968.
They organized a protest which was against the Miss America pageant. For the protest, they handed out pamphlets, which based on the following ten tenets, as written in the official press release:
- The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol
- Racism With Roses
- Miss America as Military Death Mascot
- The Consumer Con-Game
- Competition Rigged and Unrigged
- The Woman as Pop Culture Obsolescent Theme
- The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination
- The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity
- Miss America as Dream Equivalent -?
- Miss America as Big Sister Watching You
These ten tenets were the reasons that the authors believed the protest degraded women. The women planned the protest after watching a movie that discussed the negative impact of beauty standards on women, which showed a participant of the Miss America pageant wearing a bathing suit.
They argued that the pageant implied that a woman’s worth is solely based on her physical appearance and not her talents or merit. They said that the protest showcased women to be like cattle, used to be shown off and judged only.
It also placed unrealistic beauty standards on American women, as one could only look a certain way to participate or win the contest.
Racism, Business & More
Only white Caucasian women were allowed to participate in the contest, which was created in 1921. They stated that there had never been a true Miss America, which would have been a woman of Native American background.
This is why the organizers of the protest labeled the beauty pageant “Racism with Roses.”
They also called the protest “Miss America as Military Death Mascot” because of the tour the winner of the competition had to take afterwards which included visiting American troops stationed overseas.
According to the New York Radical Women group, this tour symbolized how American men were fighting for “unstained womanhood.”
The beauty pageant was labeled “The Consumer Con-Game” because the protest organizers believed that it was essentially a commercial for those who sponsored the Miss America pageant.
The “Competition Rigged or Unrigged” label was given to the Miss America pageant because of how if a contestant did not win the contest, they were essentially considered to be worthless.
“The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination” referred to a comparison of the contest to Playboy, and “The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity” referred to how the beauty pageant tended to encourage women to ignore qualities such as intelligence and personality and focus instead on being apolitical and bland.
Miss America as Dream Equivalent To–?
“Miss America as Dream Equivalent To–?” was in reference to how American girls were supposed to aspire to be Miss America one day, basically meaning, their sole goal in life should be to be beautiful, whereas boys were supposed to aspire to be President.
It symbolized how women were judged based on their appearance, and men were instead judged based on their actions.
The pageant was referred to as “Miss America as Big Sister Watching You” because the organizers of the protest believed that the pageant attempted thought control, and wanted to introduce values in young girls such as constant shopping and having “high-heeled, low-status roles.”
The protestors believed that perhaps their protest could introduce the ideas about unfair beauty standards for women and their negative impact on society. Protesting the Miss America pageant at the time was a very bold thing to do, and they believed that it could effectively get their point and beliefs across.
They wanted to show that women were treated negatively in America and that the pageant upheld misogynistic ideals for women.
The protest took place on September 7, 1968, during the Miss America 1969 pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Around 400 feminists traveled to the protest from various parts of the country.
The protest included a march with signs and handing out pamphlets. The pamphlets included the ten tenets of the protest and referred to the protest as “The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.”
During the protest, the women also threw away traditionally feminine products into a trash can to symbolize women’s liberation. Some of the products they threw away included:
- false eyelashes
- pots and pans
- Playboy magazines
- bras, corsets
- high-heeled shoes
The women intended to burn the trash can, but the Atlantic City police department said that it would be hazardous as the protest was held on the boardwalk. The women also, during the protest, crowned a live sheep Miss America, to compare the pageant to a competition for livestock.
Four of the protestors also managed to get tickets to actually enter the hall where the Miss America pageant was taking place. As Debra Barnes Snodgrass, the woman who held the title of 1968 Miss America, gave her farewell address, the four women stood on the balcony and held a bedsheet that had written on it “Women’s Liberation.”
They also shouted “women’s liberation” and “no more Miss America” several times, until they were removed from the audience by the police. While this was not caught on camera, all around the country, newspapers spoke of the protest.
The organizers of the protest also stated that male reporters were not allowed to interview any of the female protesters. Men, overall, were banned from participation.
The outcome of the Miss America Protest
While of course, the protesters did not get what they initially intended- to end the Miss America pageant, as it still continues today- the protest was largely spoken about all across the nation in the aftermath of the pageant.
Nowadays, a part of the pageant includes interviews, and participants are not only judged for their physical appearance, but also for their talent and performance during interviews. Also, women of all races and ethnic backgrounds are allowed to participate.
Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the New York Post, compared the protest to the Vietnam War male protesters who would burn their draft cards to protest the war. This was written before the protest, and suggested that bra burning would take place during the protest.
Therefore, “Bra Burning” became a term that was forever associated with the contest, despite the fact that the protesters were not allowed to actually burn anything. It encouraged women to go braless in protest of the standards placed on women.
The fact that women threw traditionally feminine products into the trash can was heavily covered in the media. The women intended to burn the contents of the trash can, but the police stated that since the protest was held on the boardwalk, burning anything would prove to be hazardous. Despite this, bra burning forever became associated with the contest, and with feminism overall.
The protest overall helped the American public become more aware of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It helped to introduce the topic of feminism to the American people once more.
While the first wave of feminism, which focused more closely on women’s suffrage, took place during the early 20th century, the protest brought along the second wave of feminism, which focused on a more broader spectrum of women’s rights.
Women are still held to very strict beauty standards. While since 1968, the standards for beauty for women have changed greatly, there is still a certain ideal women are expected to live up to, and many women are heavily criticized for their looks.
One of the organizers of the protest, Carol Hanisch, later stated in November of 1968 that they should have planned the protest better.
She stated that their protest came across as being against beauty, which was not their intention- their intention was to show that women are being held to unrealistic beauty ideals and to support all women who suffer from unfair standards.
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