In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Margot Mifflin, author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, a nonfiction work that offers a comprehensive look into the evolution of the Miss America pageants alongside its most defining moments, scandals, and contestants.
In September of 1921, a handful of women in swimsuits paraded down the Atlantic City boardwalk for the first ever Inter-City Beauty contest. Intended to drive tourists to Atlantic City, the women mingled with nearly 100,000 audience members and the winner was chosen mostly by applause. That happened to be 16-year old Margaret Gorman from Washington, DC, who won the title of “Golden Mermaid.” The contest was such a success that it returned the following year, with its subsequent winner being crowned as Miss America.
Speaking on its complicated beginnings, professor and author Margot Mifflin notes, “The prettiest, most personable woman won the title and was presented as an example of national pride. This ties into eugenics at that time, which was on the rise. And at the same time, it was progressive in a fashion sense because women were wearing these swimsuits in public, which was something they couldn’t have done twenty years earlier.” Over the past several decades, Miss America has evolved with the times, for good and for bad. Mifflin chronicles its history in her book Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, pointing out key moments such as the 1930s arrival of executive director Lenora Slaughter, who added the talent portion to the competition as well as the scholarship component, and the removal of infamous Rule #7 in the 1950s, which required the competing women to be white. There was also the social issues platform added in 1990 where contestants had to adopt a cause, and most recently the elimination of swimsuits in 2018. “What is it?,” asks Mifflin of Miss America. “Is it a talent show, is it a beauty pageant, is it a scholarship pageant, is it a professional training opportunity? It’s so many different things sort of glommed together, and it’s been so many different things.”
Miss America, however, is nothing without its contestants, whom Mifflin profiles. “Yolande Betbeze was, in my view, the most subversive and interesting Miss America in history,” she says. Crowned in 1950, Yolande Betbeze angered sponsors by refusing to wear a swimsuit for a publicity photo shoot, a tradition in the pageants by then. “She had conveniently forgotten to sign the binding contract, and they couldn’t do anything.” This led to disgruntled sponsor Catalina Swimwear severing its ties with the Miss America organization and creating their own rival pageant, Miss USA. Another contestant Mifflin writes about is 1971’s Miss Oklahoma Susan Supernaw, a Native American woman who had lunch with then-President Richard Nixon and told him how the Vietnam War destroyed her community. “She was just fearless,” says Mifflin. And on Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America, Mifflin points out the hypocrisy of her dethronement due to nude pictures published in Penthouse: “Should she have been dethroned for these photos when the conventional Miss Americas were being asked to walk out on a stage, in front of millions of people, in a swimsuit and heels?”
For all of Miss America’s shortcomings and progress, Mifflin believes it has cemented itself as a key part in American history. “It’s flawed, but its evolution is worth understanding in terms of beauty history, fashion history, racial history, pop culture history, women’s education, patriotism and national identity.”
Who, then, is Miss America? No one, is Mifflin’s answer. “I don’t think there is a Miss America. That’s the problem. We live in a multicultural, gender-fluid nation, and I think the project of naming one person most popular is not a healthy project.”
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Yolande Betbeze. Her name is Yolande, not Yolanda, Betbeze.