The Politics of Miss America

So here's a question for Miss America's organizers: Why do the contestants receive only 30 seconds to answer your questions?

Witness the most recent pageant, which returned to Atlantic City after a nearly eight-year hiatus in Las Vegas. The winner, New York's Nina Davuluri, received a fairly easy question about plastic surgery; meanwhile, Miss Oklahoma had to keep a straight face while fielding a softball about Miley Cyrus. But other contestants got hard questions about Syria and domestic poverty, and — surprise! — they couldn't say anything of substance in half a minute.

It's time to change that. 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 at greater length about important public issues.

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 over a quarter-million viewers. "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.

But the pageant would come under attack again in the 1960s, this time from feminists. Protesters burned bras, girdles, and pornographic magazines at the 1968 competition, where they also bestowed the title of Miss America on a sheep. Demonstrations would continue into the mid-1970s, when a New York Times headline told the whole story: "Miss America Faces Ms."

In response, the pageant tried yet again to leaven its glitz with more substance. Starting in 1990, every contestant has chosen her own "platform" issue. But most of these matters are relatively non-controversial ones, like eating disorders or bullying; they don't require you to frame a tough position or defend it against naysayers.

That makes things way too easy for the contestants, who are starting to parlay their Miss America experience into, yes, electoral politics. Miss America 2002, Erika Harold of Illinois, is now making her second bid for a seat in Congress. State pageant winners have also run for office in Indiana, Vermont, and Hawaii. And don't forget the Miss Alaska runner-up who ended up on the national ticket in 2008: Sarah Palin.

Do these examples show that the pageant gives women a leg up, instead of simply showcasing their long legs? Perhaps. Or maybe our modern political campaigns have become beauty pageants in their own right, melding vapid sound-bites and tweets with really good makeup and hair.

If the Miss America pageant wanted to prepare women for real political participation and leadership, it would make them field hard questions — like the ones about Syria and poverty — and also give them sufficient time to frame reasonable answers. To make Miss America more than just a beauty contest, we need to challenge the contestants' minds. Or, we can just go back to talking about how awesome they look in bathing suits.

This story was reported through a news coverage partnership between and

Contact Us