Miss America protest 1968

(WOMENSENEWS)–On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., bathing beauties had been cavorting and competing for a title, a tiara and some cash since 1921.

In 1968, young members of a group called New York Radical Women focused on the enormously popular Miss America contest, with its runway parade mimicking the judging of animals at a county fair, forced competition for male approval and ludicrous beauty standards as a symbol of American women’s oppression.

After alerting the media, over 100 women went to Atlantic City on Sept. 7, planning an afternoon of sloganeering–"women are not meat," for one–and street theater on the boardwalk. Into a large "Freedom Trash Can" they flung "instruments of female torture," including make-up, high heels, Good Housekeeping magazine, girdles, garter belts and bras. A jeering crowd of several hundred surrounded the protesters, along with newspaper and television cameras. Later, while the "show" went on in the convention hall, a few demonstrators dropped a banner over the balcony railing. It was the nation’s first look at the words: "Women’s Liberation."

Bra Burners

The bras stuck in the public imagination. Although the plan had been to set fire to the objects in the trash can, authorities withheld a permit to do so. Nonetheless, "bra burners" became the derisive shorthand for women’s liberation, partly because reporters had been told everything would burn and partly because, escalating protests against the Vietnam War featured draft card burning. The phrase seemed to some a gender equivalent.

The demonstration and its coverage inspired some women in simple ways–no more leg shaving, for example. Others responded to the larger political message and went in search of a women’s liberation group.

For several decades, in many parts of the country, beauty contests continued to be the targets of feminist protestors. Actions against Miss California pageants, for example, came to include thousands of people and theatrical touches such as a protestor’s dress made of bologna skins.

While Miss America was losing her home grown commercial appeal–the show was dropped from national television because of failing viewer interest–international beauty pageants thrived, along with those for children like Jon Benet Ramsey and a spate of make-over and plastic surgery shows hit the airways. By the time Atlantic City asked Miss America to leave town, as they did this year, she seemed less like a piece of meat than a lady with a demure tea-cup left over from a bygone era.

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." To contact her, send an e-mail to [email protected] and we will forward it.