If you’ve disregarded the Miss America pageant as nothing but frivolous cheesecake, you are not alone. But consider taking a closer look at this cultural artifact, which has been around nearly as long as women have had the right to vote. In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, historian Margot Mifflin encourages us to view Miss America as more complicated than just sashes, hairspray and high heels.
If you’ve disregarded the Miss America pageant as nothing but frivolous cheesecake, consider taking a closer look at this cultural artifact.
Miss America has never represented all American women—and that was kind of the point. From its beginnings on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1921, the pageant has rewarded an idealized version of young womanhood: white, childless, unmarried, thin and beautiful (by the beauty standards of the day).
As patriarchal white America ceded its control of women and people of color, Miss America slowly changed along with the culture. The pageant grappled with social revolution regarding women’s “ideal” bodies, sexual expression, sexual orientation, educational opportunities, gender roles and careers. “The pageant has been in constant dialogue with feminism, though rarely in step with it,” writes Mifflin.
Mifflin’s deep research, numerous support texts, nuanced analysis and punchy writing weave an engaging account. (The history of the bathing suit portion of the pageant is especially fascinating.) She interviewed over a dozen past pageant contestants, pageant employees, a judge and others for a comprehensive behind-the-scenes narrative.
Even if you’ve never watched a single Miss America pageant on TV, anyone with an interest in American history would benefit from this deep dive into a complex cultural figurehead.