About 100 protesters flocked to the Atlantic City boardwalk in the summer of 1968 to protest what they called a sexist “cattle auction.”
That cattle auction was the Miss America pageant.
“It popped into my head that the pageant might be something good to protest because it was very popular at the time and helped set appearance standards for all women,” recalls Carol Hanisch, also a member of New York Radical Women.
On Sept. 7, 1968, protesters came from New York by bus, but they also traveled from Washington; Gainesville, Fla.; Detroit; and Bancroft, Iowa. Most of the women were in their 20s and early 30s, but some were accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. The group included lawyer Flo Kennedy and other black activists.
Bev Grant, who would become a musical performer and remain an activist, took photos and shot film. Peggy Dobbins created a life-size Miss America puppet and strutted along the boardwalk like a carnival barker
In Atlantic City, women threw — but, contrary to lore, did not incinerate — bras. Also girdles, makeup, high heels, girlie mags, all deemed “instruments of female torture.”
But the myth of bra-burning stuck. Critics jumped all over the idea, labeling the women hairy-legged and humorless. But the participants had a ball.
The protesters refused to speak to male reporters, viewing the protest as an opportunity for female journalists to get the byline on a story of consequence, something that didn’t run in the society pages.
The pageant is again under fire. In 2017, former Fox News host and 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson took over the organization at the height of the #MeToo movement. She saw the swimsuit portion as the crux of the competition’s perceived sexism problem and cut it from the pageant, beginning this year.
The 1968 protest of Miss America “was a way of reaching the whole country,” says activist and writer Alix Kates Shulman, to show what the pageant represented: “The objectification of women, treating them as meat, treating them as sex objects. And the racism in the pageant.”
In the 1930s, the Miss America pageant instituted a rule that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Though the rule didn’t appear after 1950, almost two decades later the pageant had yet to include a single African American contestant.
A few blocks down the boardwalk, Philadelphia promoter J. Morris Anderson sought to remedy the injustice by producing the first Miss Black America pageant.
In 1970, two years after the protest, the first black contestant would compete in Miss America. The Miss Black America pageant is still in operation and celebrated its 50th anniversary in August.
A beauty pageant, of all places, would be where the phrase “women’s liberation” first gained national attention.
Inside the hall, Dobbins sprayed Toni Home Permanent, a hair product made by a pageant sponsor, “on the floor at people’s feet” and was arrested.
Most of the protesters were elated. “It put us on the map in a way that was much larger than we had been before,” Shulman says. “I thought it was a triumph.”
“The best fun I can imagine anyone wanting to have on any single day of her life,” Kennedy, now deceased, wrote in her 1976 memoir. “It was very brazen and very brash.”