On September 7, 1921, Atlantic City hosted the first Miss America pageant. Originally created by local businessmen to extend tourism after Labor Day, newspapers held a photo contest that attracted over 1,500 entries each vying to win the “Golden Mermaid” title and cash prizes. Ever since the first pageant, the annual event has become a mainstay in American culture while also provoking protests from various groups.
There were only six contestants competing for the trophy and $100 cash prize at the first pageant. Sixteen-year old Margaret Gorman (“The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America”) from Washington, D.C. won the competition that attracted 100,000 to watch in Atlantic City. Aside from a temporary shutdown due the Great Depression, the pageant has been held every year since 1921. There have been a few changes through the years: In 1938 they added a talent section and required contestants to bring chaperones, in 1940 the name was officially changed to “The Miss America Pageant” and in 1944 they gave out college scholarships in place of “furs and movie contracts.” In 1945, the first and only Jewish American, Bess Myerson, won the title. In 1950, they opened the pageant to non-white contestants, but it wasn’t until 1970 when an African-American woman, Cheryl Browne, competed for the first time. The first African-American, Vanessa Williams, won the title in 1984.
Scandalized by the parading of young women, religious groups had protested the pageant since its inception. In 1968, Miss America attracted a massive demonstration from a new type of critics: the feminists. For their first coordinated national protest, a network of second-wave feminist groups converged in Atlantic City to protest the pageant’s sexism, racism, capitalism, ageism, and promotion of war. They held up signs (“Women Are Enslaved By Beauty Standards” and “No More Miss America!”) and ceremoniously threw items they dubbed “instruments of female torture” (bras, mops, girdles, pots, pans, and Playboy magazines) into garbage cans. Note: It’s a myth that they burned their bras in protest that day.
Despite this high profile protest and criticism, Miss America continues to attract millions of yearly viewers and has adapted with the times. In 2016, the first openly lesbian woman, Erin O’Flaherty (Miss Missouri), competed for the Miss America crown.