The Unlikely Feminist Journey of Miss America 1971

Illustration for article titled The Unlikely Feminist Journey of Miss America 1971
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Photos: AP)

As 21-year-old Phyllis George began her 1970 victory walk in Atlantic City, Bert Parks singing the iconic song “There She Is,” she was the height of fashion in her elegant sherbet gown, with its bejeweled top and flowing chiffon skirt that swept across the stage. But the crown perched on her au courant high bouffant wobbled precariously and then, for the first time and only in the history of Miss America, fell off the winner’s head and down to the runway.

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Displaying a dimpled smile as she laughed, George didn’t miss a beat, simply picking up the damaged crown—a special gold version in honor of the pageant’s 50th anniversary—and carrying it in her hand for the remainder of her celebratory walk. In many ways, it was to be a metaphor for George’s trailblazing career, which mixed sports, politics, business, and, of course, pageantry. What she could not have predicted then, as a small-town girl from Texas growing up in the 1950s, is that she would become an unexpected feminist trailblazer, her experiences illustrative of the ways that 50 years of feminism transformed the lives of American women.

Phyllis George, Miss America 1971, passed away on May 14 from complications of a rare blood disorder. This fall, she was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her infamous crowning, coinciding with a century of the Miss America pageant. But the contest has been postponed due to COVID-19, which seems fitting, as the pageant has lost one of its most beloved and successful winners.

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In September 1968 the New York Radical Women, a group of about 100 women associated with the women’s liberation movement, gathered on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America Pageant. Explaining the motivation for the protest, they wrote, “Miss America represents what women are supposed to be: inoffensive, bland, apolitical. If you are tall, short, over or under what weight The Man prescribes you should be, forget it... Conformity is the key to the crown—and, by extension, to success in our society.” While the component of the protest that has continued to gain the most attention actually never happened—the burning of bras—the event provides a symbolically rich origin story for second-wave feminism. It was a splashy beginning for what became the women’s movement of the 1970s, exploiting the pageantry of heels and rhinestones.

Two years later, the 1968 protest still cast a long shadow at Miss America. In her 2003 memoir Never Say Never, George wrote: “A group of women from the women’s liberation movement were… protesting that we contestants were being exploited, especially by having to parade around in swimsuits. I had mixed feelings about the protest. Even though I’d won the swimsuit competition, I despised that part of it; most of the other contestants did as well. But in spite of those reservations, I saw the pageant as an opportunity, a way to earn scholarship money and a springboard to new possibilities.”

Shortly after crowning her Miss America successor, George was a co-host on CBS’s “Candid Camera.” The same disarming charisma she displayed when her crown fell off soon helped her become a sportscaster with CBS. A year later, she made history when she joined The NFL Today as the first female co-host of a network sports show. Despite harassment, both on set and off, George remained with the show until 1978, when she married. A year after that, she became First Lady of Kentucky when her newlywed husband, John Y. Brown Jr., was elected Governor.

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George was a trailblazer for women in sports journalism, which is still a field dominated by men. But she also paused her career to support her husband’s political ambitions and only saw her life as successful after marrying. The cover story of the June 1, 1981 issue of People begins: “Before she was 30, Phyllis George had it all—the 1971 Miss America title, pioneer status as a nationally successful TV sportscaster, a six-figure income and an East Side condo with a commanding 30th-floor view of Manhattan.” Yet, George explained that her childhood dreams had been molded by Gone with the Wind, so even though she had all achieved so much she “thought of [herself] as a failure... I wondered whether I’d ever have that beautiful house and beautiful baby I’d always wanted.” But two years later, with her husband in the Kentucky Governor’s mansion and the recent birth of her son she proclaimed, “I have my Tara. I have my knight in shining armor. I have my beautiful baby boy.”

Later, when she returned to broadcast journalism in the mid-1980s, hosting The CBS Morning News, George embodied the struggle of many women during second-wave feminism, fighting to find a way to “have it all” as wives, mothers, and professionals. In Never Say Never, she explained that when she was at the anchor desk, she felt her neck and shoulders knot up each morning at 8 a.m.—when her nanny would walk her four-year-old son to school with her one-year-old daughter in tow. A few months later, she moved her kids from New York City back to Kentucky, where she said there was more open space to run around and play; George flew to Kentucky each weekend to be with her family and then head back to New York for the workweek. It was not a sustainable schedule, and just eight months after she started hosting the morning show, George left network television.

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In the 1970s and 1980s, the best a Miss America could hope for was to marry the politician; now Miss Americas want to be the politician. Just last year, Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry ran for Secretary of State, also in Kentucky, narrowly losing in the general election. Pamela Brown, George’s second child born while she resided in the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion, is a leading political journalist. Brown is currently CNN’s senior White House Correspondent, having previously been the network’s Justice and Supreme Court correspondent. She is currently out on maternity leave, following the birth of her second child, a daughter, in February.

Like the gold Miss America crown, Phyllis George, and the women of her generation, were unique, beautiful, and a bit broken at times. Their daughters, like Pam Brown, have picked up where their mothers have left off and are continuing to move forward.

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I should know. The outgoing Miss America who could not quite pin the crown securely to George’s head was my mother, Miss America 1970, Pam Eldred. The crown snafu embarrasses her to this day. She said she just could not get the bobby pins to penetrate the trendy bouffant, enhanced by teasing and a fall wig, and television producers were rushing her along. Still, mom returned to Miss America last year to mark the 50th anniversary of her crowning, where I was reminded again just how far women have come in the past half-century. For example, neither George nor my mother earned a graduate degree, but this year’s winner, Camille Schrier, is pursuing a doctorate in pharmacy.

Clearly the Miss America pageant, and the women and society it seeks to represent, have evolved over the past 50 years. After her career as a major TV journalist ended, George went into business, starting a food company, Chicken by George, later acquired by Hormel, and then a skincare company. She even had an acting career, appearing most notably in Meet the Fockers. Phyllis George never let a dropped crown (real or metaphorical) stop her, and she helped pave the way for the next generation of women and mothers in media, politics, and pageantry.

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Hilary Levey Friedman is a professor in the Education Department at Brown University and she is President of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her book, Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, connects feminism and beauty pageants and will be released in August by Beacon Press.

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There’s a video of the whole episode on YouTube. The crowning snafu starts at about 6:30.