(WOMENSENEWS)--The Miss America Pageant has always revealed the nation's attitude toward women. Originally a bathing suit contest on the beach, it began in 1921 as an attempt by Atlantic City businessmen to attract tourists to the New Jersey resort after Labor Day; 1921 was less than a year after U.S. women won the right to vote. So two currents ran side by side from 1921 until now: a valuation of women for what white men judged as "beauty," and the expansion of female possibilities for respect and fame into uncharted realms.
The first Miss America was Margaret Gorman, a baby-faced 16-year-old with blond ringlets from Washington, D.C. By the 1930s, contest winners looked like the buxom Mae West. But as World War II ended, women having proved competent on the home front and abroad, the mold was broken. For the first time, the terms of the competition were expanded beyond bathing suits to include talent and poise. Also for the first time, the winner received a college scholarship.
Bess Myerson, Miss America of 1945, was a tall, willowy brunette, an accomplished pianist, a Hunter College graduate and a Jew, the first and still believed to be the only Jew to win the title. The 21-year-old daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants had grown up in the Bronx, N.Y., hoping to become a musical conductor. Her coronation was hailed by the public as a statement of the United States' post-war rejection of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
Myerson herself had staked a strong claim to her ethnic identity, rejecting the pageant director's suggestion that she change her name to the more neutral Beth Merrick. That she was chosen in spite of a rule restricting contestants to women "in good health and of the white race" was seen as a landmark in the Jewish community's progress from outsiders to insiders in American culture.
Yet the contradictions that plagued the contest also plagued Myerson. Sponsoring companies withdrew their support from her post-pageant tour. Some venues refused to let her appear. Audiences often booed her and, at one appearance, demanded she play the piano in a bathing suit. Almost abruptly, she turned her back on entertaining appearances and began to talk about prejudice, leading to many decades of activism with the Anti-Defamation League.
Afterwards, Myerson became a television personality, then a consumer advocate, surviving personal woes, cancer and corruption charges in New York City, but remaining a crusader against bigotry. From feminist protests in 1968 to the first African American winner in 1983, Miss America pageants continued to mirror changes in the culture.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at email@example.com.
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"September 1968: Women Protest Miss America":