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The Miss America protest was a demonstration at the Miss America Pageant on September 7, 1968 by about 400 feminists and separately, by civil rights advocates. The feminist protest, organized by New York Radical Women, included tossing a collection of symbolic feminine products, pots, false eyelashes, mops, and other items into a trash can on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. They did not burn bras. When the protesters also successfully unfurled a large banner emblazoned with "Women's Liberation" inside the contest hall, they drew world-wide media attention. The demonstration and the media coverage it drew was largely responsible for drawing national attention to the Women’s Liberation Movement. A reporter covering the protest drew an analogy between the feminist protesters and Vietnam War protesters who burned their draft cards, and the bra-burning trope was erroneously and permanently attached to the event and became a catch-phrase of the feminist era.
A less-well known protest was also organized on the same day by Civil Rights activist J. Morriss Anderson. It was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel a few blocks from the Miss America pageant. They crowned the first Miss Black America.
The New York Radical Women, organized in the fall of 1967 by former television child star Robin Morgan, Carol Hanisch, Shulamith Firestone, and Pam Allen, was searching for a suitable way to draw attention to their movement.
Hanisch said that she got the idea to target the Miss America contest after the group, including Morgan, Kathie Sarachild, Ros Baxandall, Alix Kates Shulman, Patricia Mainardi, Irene Peslikis, and Ellen Willis, watched a movie that depicted how beauty standards oppressed women. It included clips of Miss America parading in her swimsuit. "It got me thinking that protesting the pageant might be a good way to launch the movement into the public consciousness," Hanisch said. "Because up until this time, we hadn't done a lot of actions yet. We were a very small movement. It was kind of a gutsy thing to do. Miss America was this 'American pie' icon. Who would dare criticize this?" The group decided to incorporate the techniques successfully used by the civil rights movement and adapt it to the new idea of women's liberation.
The feminists traveled to Atlantic City in cars and rented buses. On September 7, 1968, about 400 feminist-identified women and radical feminists from New York, Florida, Boston, Detroit, and New Jersey gathered on the Boardwalk outside the Miss America Pageant. They protested what they called, “The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol” and American society’s normative beauty expectations. During the protest, they marched with signs, passed out pamphlets, including one titled No More Miss America, and crowned a live sheep, comparing the beauty pageant to livestock competitions at county fairs.
They also symbolically threw a number of feminine products into a "Freedom Trash Can." These included mops, pots and pans, Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines, false eyelashes, high-heeled shoes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, girdles, corsets, and bras, items the protestors called "instruments of female torture" and accouterments of what they perceived to be enforced femininity. Protesters saw the pageant and its symbols as an oppression of women. They decried its emphasis on an arbitrary standard of beauty. They were against the labeling, public worship and exploitation of the "most beautiful girl in America."
Sarachild, one of the protest organizers, reported that "huge crowds gathered for the picketing. People were grabbing our fliers out of our hands."
The dramatic, symbolic use of a trash can to dispose of feminine objects caught the media's attention. Protest organizer Hanisch said about the Freedom Trash Can afterward, "We had intended to burn it, but the police department, since we were on the boardwalk, wouldn't let us do the burning." A story by Lindsay van Gelder in the New York Post carried a headline "Bra Burners and Miss America." It drew an analogy between the feminist protest and Vietnam War protesters who burned their draft cards. A local news story in the Atlantic City Press erroneously reported that "the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women's magazines burned in the 'Freedom Trash Can'" Individuals who were present said that no one burned a bra nor did anyone take off her bra.:4
The parallel between protesters burning their draft cards and women burning their bras were encouraged by organizers including Robin Morgan. The phrase became headline material and was quickly associated with women who chose to go braless. This idea was reinforced by feminists like Germaine Greer. Shortly after she became a member of all-women's Newnham College in 1962, she shocked the faculty with her vocal condemnation of bras at a college event.
At the graduates' table, Germaine was explaining that there could be no liberation for women, no matter how highly educated, as long as we were required to cram our breasts into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses, two stitched white cantilevered cones which bore no resemblance to the female anatomy. The willingly suffered discomfort of the Sixties bra, she opined vigorously, was a hideous symbol of male oppression.... [We were] astonished at the very idea that a woman could speak so loudly and out of turn and that words such as "bra" and "breasts"—or maybe she said "tits"—could be uttered amid the pseudo-masculine solemnity of a college dinner.
Burn up the corsets! ... No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.
Author and feminist Bonnie J. Dow suggested that the association between feminism and bra-burning was encouraged by individuals who opposed the feminist movement. "Bra-burning" created an image that women weren't really seeking freedom from sexism, but were attempting to assert themselves as sexual beings. This might lead individuals to believe, as she wrote in her article "Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology," that the women were merely trying to be "trendy, and to attract men."
Women associated with an act like symbolically burning their bra may be seen by some as law-breaking radicals, eager to shock the public. This view may have supported the efforts of opponents to feminism and their desire to invalidate the movement. Since then anti-feminists have used "bra burning" and "braless" to attempt to trivialize the feminist movement.
The demonstration was largely responsible for bringing the Women’s Liberation Movement into the American national consciousness. The event “‘marked the end of the movement’s obscurity’ and made both ‘women’s liberation’ and beauty standards topics for national discussion.”
It listed ten characteristics of the Miss America pageant that the authors believed degraded women.
It said the Pageant contestants epitomize the "Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol." The runway parade is a metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the animals are judged for teeth, hair, grooming, and so forth, and where the best specimen is awarded the blue ribbon. The authors derided the contest as "Racism with Roses" because since its inception in 1921, only Caucasian contestants have been accepted as finalists. They criticized the "cheerleader" tour taken by Miss America to visit troops in foreign countries as "Miss America as Military Death Mascot." Her support of troops personifies the "unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for."
The pamphlet said that Miss America is a walking commercial for the pageant's sponsors, making her a primary part of "The Consumer Con-Game." It deplored the win-or-you’re-worthless competitive disease, which it described as "Competition Rigged and Unrigged." The authors criticized "The Woman as Pop Culture Obsolescent Theme," which they described as the promotion of women who are young, juicy, and malleable, but upon the selection of a new winner each year, are discarded.
It compared the Miss America Pageant to Playboy's centerfold as sisters under the skin, describing this as "The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination." The writers accused the Pageant of representing the goal of women to be inoffensive, bland, and apolitical, ignoring characteristics like personality, articulateness, intelligence, and commitment. They called this "The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity." The pamphlet said the pageant was "Miss America as Dream Equivalent To," positioning itself as the penultimate goal of every little girl, while boys were supposed to grow up and become President of the United States. Men are judged by their actions, women by appearance.
The authors said that the pageant attempted thought control, creating the illusion of "Miss America as Big Sister Watching You." It attempts to enslave women in high-heeled, low-status roles, and to inculcate values in young girls like women as beasts of buying.
Along with tossing the items into the trash can and distributing literature outside, four women bought tickets and entered the hall. While the outgoing 1968 Miss America, Debra Barnes Snodgrass, was giving her farewell address, the protestors unfurled a bed sheet from the balcony that said "Women's Liberation" and began to shout "women's liberation!" and "no more Miss America!" They got out a half-dozen shouts before they were quickly removed by police. While television cameras at the event didn't show them, newspapers all around the country covered the protest. "I think it kind of made the phrase 'women's liberation' a household term," Sarachild says. "The media picked up on the bra part," Hanisch said later. "I often say that if they had called us 'girdle burners,' every woman in America would have run to join us."
Outgoing Miss America Snodgrass said that the protesters were diminishing the hard work of thousands of competitors who were attending school and had put a lot of effort into developing their talents.
Also on September 7, 1968, in Atlantic City, a separate civil rights demonstration took place in the form of a beauty pageant as African Americans and civil rights activists gathered to crown the first Miss Black America. The winner, nineteen-year-old, Philadelphia native, Saundra Williams had been active on the civil rights scene prior to the competition. As a student at Maryland State College, she helped organize The Black Awareness Movement with her classmates and staged a sit in at a local restaurant, which refused to serve African Americans.
Born to a middle-class family, Williams aspired to a career in social work and child welfare. She explained her motivation for running in the pageant: “Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful.... There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it. But now we’re finally coming around.”
The competition, organized by civil rights activist J. Morris Anderson, was held at the Ritz Carlton a few blocks from Convention Hall, where the Miss America pageant took place the same evening. The Miss Black America contestants, prior to competition, rode in a convertible motorcade through the streets of Atlantic City and were greeted with cheers and applause, especially from members of the Black community.
Feminist protestor and organizer Robin Morgan said, “We deplore Miss Black America as much as Miss White America but we understand the black issue involved.”