Fifty years ago, a protest against the Miss America pageant kicked off a new phase of the women’s liberation movement. We present a narrative history of that landmark protest, as told by the participants themselves.
By Laura Tanenbaum and Mark Engler
(Published on September 7, 2018 in Dissent)
Fifty years ago—on September 7, 1968—more than 100 women launched a protest at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. The action made national headlines, announcing the arrival of a militant and creative new wave of feminist organizing. More than merely denouncing a single televised event, the protesters connected the pageant with the systemic problems of consumerism, racism, and war—as well as with the routine abuses and humiliations of patriarchy, to which nearly every women in the country could say, “Me too.”
“Every day in a woman’s life,” one organizer argued shortly after the protest, “is a walking Miss America contest.”
The following is a narrative history assembled from the memories of five participants—Peggy Dobbins, Carol Giardina, Bev Grant, Carol Hanisch, and Robin Morgan—who came to the women’s movement from different parts of the country and whose recollections suggest the fuller the range of voices involved in the protest. Sources include archival documents, written testimonials, period articles, and original interviews conducted by Laura Tanenbaum and Mark Engler.
Bev Grant: I grew up in Portland, Oregon.
Carol Giardina: I grew up in my grandmother’s house in Jamaica, New York.
Peggy Dobbins: I grew up in the South, in Texas.
BG: I was a tomboy. We were called that then. I was athletic and spirited and had a lot of fun, rode my bike.
PD: When I was young, I remember that my brother—who was younger—was allowed to jump off the high diving board and I wasn’t. That seemed really unfair and irrational.
I always took the hard courses in high school. I was one of two girls in the physics class, with Mr. Ferguson. The first six weeks I made an A, the next an A-minus, the next a B-plus. My grades went down every grading period. And I began to think, “Is he asking me this question because he is trying to trick me? Am I right that I have the answer?” And then at one point he said, “Well, if you go to Rice,” that was the university nearby, “you’ll be depriving the world of an engineer.”
Carol Hanisch: When I was in college in the early sixties, women were required to wear skirts to class—except when the weather was below zero! Men wore the pants—both literally and figuratively.
PD: At Wellesley College, we were on the honor system. And what would happen is that, if a girl got pregnant, and she went and told the dean she was pregnant, she got kicked out. But if she lied and said that she had mononucleosis, she could take a semester off and come back. In my senior year, I ran for college president on the platform that we shouldn’t have to lie about being pregnant. But I didn’t win the election.
BG: I moved to New York.
PD: A whole lot of us moved to New York at the same time.
BG: I had started a relationship with a drummer. I was trying to be a good partner to him. There were situations in which I was abused. I lived that way for a couple of years, then I finally left and got my own apartment.
CH: No “respectable” woman could think of going to work, to church, to the store, or to most other public places… without a butt binder and tummy flattener (better known as a girdle)… correctly curled or straightened hair (achieved with smelly, toxic chemicals and/or hair curlers often slept on with great discomfort), and, of course, a mask of face powder (to cover a shiny nose), lipstick, mascara, and sometimes false eyelashes. One could be fired from one’s job for ‘inappropriate dress.’
BG: I lost a job because a boss had put his hands on me, and I said quite loudly, so that everybody could hear, “Get your hands off me!” I got fired for that.
CG: I did all of the cleaning and housework, and [my boyfriend] thought great thoughts and read books. Every once in a while he would discuss them with me, but [not as a rule].
BG: I found the women’s movement. For me, it was liberating. It was a time when I began to value myself again and to understand my own self-worth—to get back in touch with who I was as a kid, basically, when I had confidence and was full of life and energy. The women’s movement just touched that and reminded me that that’s who I was.
PD: The first thing that happened [in our group] which is related to the later beginning of New York Radical Women was that there were two guys there, and one of the women said, “No, you need to leave because we’re following the model of the black students in SNCC, who had said there are things we can’t talk about in front of our white friends. And there are things we as women we can’t talk about in front of you guys, even though you’re supportive, so please leave.”
The first meeting of New York Radical Women was at Pam Allen’s house in the fall of ‘67… [W]e would go around the circle and the rule that emerged was, you don’t make a generalization unless you precede it with a personal experience.
BG: A lot of the women in my group, and who became leaders it the movement, came out of the civil rights struggle so they brought a lot of that consciousness and the skills that they had learned—and also a sense of empathy and identification with oppression.
PD: Before, my relation to the civil rights movement [had been that] I was a liberal… If I felt guilty and it was convenient, I would participate, but it was not my movement. It was not until the women’s movement that I felt like that was about me as well. I felt like the women’s movement was opening up another front, [and] I was radicalized. I became a reliable ally of the civil rights and peace movements, while before I was just a liberal supporter.
Robin Morgan: No matter how empathetic you are to another’s oppression, you become truly committed to radical change only when you realize your own oppression — it has to reach you on a gut level.
PD: Most of the other women at the meeting at Pam’s had been in Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. Those first meetings were about … [whether we were] movement women or a women’s movement.
RM: Some male reactionaries in the Left still think Women’s Liberation “frivolous” in the face of “larger, more important” revolutionary problems. But what is “frivolous”… about a woman who isn’t rich enough to fly to Puerto Rico for an abortion and so must lie on some kitchen table watching cockroaches on the ceiling articulate the graph of her pain?… What is frivolous about the welfare recipient who must smuggle her husband or boyfriend out of the house when the social worker arrives, denying her own sexuality or risking the loss of her sustenance (to say nothing of having her children taken away from her)?… And what is frivolous about the women in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University… new-minted revolutionaries ready to be tear-gassed and busted as well as anybody… only to hear a male SDS leader ask for “chicks to volunteer for cooking duty”?
CH: The idea [of the Miss America protest] came out of our group method of analyzing women’s oppression by recalling our own experiences. We were watching Schmearguntz, a feminist movie, one night at our meeting. The movie had flashes of the Miss America contest in it. I found myself sitting there remembering how I had felt at home with my family watching the pageant as a child, an adolescent, and a college student. I knew it had evoked powerful feelings.
In the 1950s, the Miss America Pageant was at the top of its popularity. We’d each pick who we wanted to win—not much different than American Idol but with a message that this was what was expected of us as a young woman… When the winner cried, so did I, though I’m not sure why.
BG: The pageant, to me, added to my feelings of inferiority as far as having what it takes to be a beautiful woman, as presented by the pageant. I could never be that. I never had big tits, you know? And all of those things that were emphasized.
I thought the action was perfect. It would be a great way to get some of those feelings out and to relate to many more women because it was personal, but it really was deeply political. There were women in the group—Pam, Shulamith Firestone, and others—who went on to write things and to become theoreticians in the movement… I was much more attracted to actually doing things. I liked what we talked about in consciousness-raising groups because it was personal. That whole concept of the personal being political was very clear to me. So the Miss America thing really appealed to me. It was: “Let’s go make some noise!”
RM: [As we planned the action,] each meeting was an excitement “high”: whether we were lettering posters or writing leaflets or deciding who would deal with which reporter requesting an interview, we were affirming our mutual feelings of outrage, hope, and readiness to conquer the world… [W]e were doing this one for ourselves, and we were consequently getting to do those things the men never let us do, like talk to the press and deal with the mayor’s office.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
On September 7th in Atlantic City, the Annual Miss America Pageant will again crown “your ideal.” But this year…[w]e will protest the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us….
Male reporters will be refused interviews. We reject patronizing reportage. Only newswomen will be recognized….
— The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. The Pageant contestants epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best “Specimen” gets the blue ribbon…
— Racism with Roses. Since its inception in 1921, the Pageant has not had one Black finalist, and this has not been for a lack of test-case contestants. There has never been a Puerto Rican, Alaskan, Hawaiian, or Mexican-American winner. Nor has there ever been a true Miss America—an American Indian.
— Miss America as Military Death Mascot. The highlight of her reign each year is a cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad—last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit…
— The Consumer Con-Game. Miss America is a walking commercial for the Pageant’s sponsors. Wind her up and she plugs your product on promotion tours and TV—all in an “honest, objective” endorsement. What a shill.
RM: Where else could one find such perfect combination of American values — racism, militarism, capitalism — all packaged in one “ideal” symbol: a woman. This was the basic reason why the protesters disrupted the pageant — the contestants epitomize the role all women are forced to play in this society, one way or the other: apolitical, unoffending, passive, delicate (but delighted by drudgery) things.
BG: I wrote some parodies for the Miss America pageant that we sang on the bus going down:
Ain’t she sweet, making profit off her meat.
Beauty sells she’s told, so she’s out pluggin’ it.
Ain’t she sweet?
I led the singing on the bus going down and that was a spark for me to get back into music. All of a sudden I had these creative skills that I could use in the service of making revolution.
CG: I get there early, and I am standing on the boardwalk… I do not know how many women were in that demonstration, but probably easily more than 100; probably quite a few more than that. Maybe 200 or 300…. I looked down the boardwalk, and here they come with their signs… You can hear these feet on the boardwalk because it is hollow underneath. So there is this huge clopping. They are not stomping; they are just walking, but that number of feet on the wood with this hollow space underneath it is just thundering. It really was quite a feeling.
BG: I think there was a certain amount of euphoria. It was exciting. Here we were, you know? I don’t know how many of us there were… but it was enough to really feel like “we’re here!”
RM: [We] descended on this tacky town and staged an all-day demonstration on the boardwalk in front of the Convention Hall (where the pageant was taking place), singing, chanting, and performing guerrilla theater nonstop throughout the day.
CG: People outside had all kind of signs. I liked mine best, “Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?”
BG: We made a prop for the demonstration—a big puppet—which Peggy then auctioned off as Miss America. Visually, the puppet was a very tall, blonde woman in an American flag bathing suit. She had long eyelashes, her limbs moved, and women were chained to her. Peggy dressed as auctioneer, with a long black coat and striped pants. And she wore these huge galoshes. And she had written a script: “Step right up! How much am I offered for this number one piece of prime American property?! She sings in the kitchen, hums at the typewriter, purrs in bed!”
Another bunch of people got a sheep, put a banner on it, called her Miss America. Somebody else brought a trash can, which we called a Freedom Trash Can, where people threw their symbols of oppression into.
CH: Among the of “instruments female torture” thrown in the Freedom Trash Can were not just high heels, girdles, curlers, Playboy magazine, and bras—but also dish detergent, floor wax, and Good Housekeeping, which represented women’s unpaid work in the home as the caretakers of the family.
BG: This is where the whole mislabelled “burning your bra” thing came from.
CG: I should say just for history’s sake that no bras were burned… you could not light a fire on the boardwalk.
CH: Had the media called us “girdle-burners,” nearly every woman in the country would have rushed to join us.
BG: There were a lot of hecklers there, who were trying to make us feel like we had a problem—that we weren’t beautiful, that’s why we were doing this. And, on the other hand, people were trying to talk—engaging in conversations with the people who were heckling us.
RM: [W]hat is “frivolous” about rapping for four hours across police barricades with hecklers, trying to get through to the women in the crowd who smile surreptitiously but remain silent while their men scream vilification?
CG: The one that stands out in my mind, for some reason, is some man is yelling, “Mothers of Mao!” We sort of were being red-baited, I guess.
BG: There were some younger male kids, maybe 12 or 13 years old, who were picking up on what the grown-ups were doing and giving us the thumbs-down and making faces… There was one guy who was waving “George Wallace for President” brochures. But they were far enough away [that] it just felt… we were super-powerful.
I thought it was really fun. I don’t ever remember feeling that powerful up to that point. Because it was all women. And there was just this sense of, “Oh my god, look what we can do.”
CH: One of our members worked for a bridal magazine and was able to acquire a block of sixteen tickets so we could continue the protest inside Conventional Hall.
BG: I went in. I had a press pass, and so did Karen and another photographer who worked for the Liberation News Service. We were sitting with the press right at the base of the runway. Peggy was in another part of the auditorium. And there were some women in the balcony[.]
CH: When the outgoing Miss America stepped to the microphone to deliver her farewell speech, it was the signal for the four of us who had volunteered to hang the banner to make our move…. We quickly dropped the banner—reading “Women’s Liberation”—over the railing, tied it as securely as we could, and began shouting, “Women’s Liberation,” “No More Miss America,” “Freedom for Women.”
BG: All of it sort of unfolded at the same time. The banner got dropped. The rumor was that a cameraman focused on it and was told, “Get your camera off of it, or you’re fired.”
PD: We had these little vials of Toni Home Permanent… Growing up, my mother would hold my head down in the sink and pour this stinking stuff down over my head, which was Toni Home Permanent. That was a sponsor of the show… So we were going to go up the aisles and sprinkle the stinky smell along the floor of the auditorium. We said we were bringing the sponsor home. I thought it was wonderful in terms of experimental theater: We were introducing the politics of smell as a mode of communication!
It was the most wonderful celebratory mood… We knew we were on the right track.
BG: [When it was] time to get stink bombs out, [my friend] unscrewed her atomizer and accidentally—because she is quite a nervous person—squirted me with it. So we decided we had better leave. So we got out and Peggy got caught.
PD: I was arrested. I just remember a big guy sort of grabbing me. And then I remember being in the jail and watching the end of the Miss America pageant. We didn’t have to stay in our cells, we could come out and sit in this little common room. So here we were watching the end of the pageant. And the other women with me were prostitutes. So when we had to go back into our cells, I wrote on the wall beside my cell bed: “Whores of the world unite. We have nothing to lose but our pimps!” Because I do think that under capitalism, you know… we’re all whores. If we survive, we’re selling ourselves; we have to sell ourselves to survive.
RM: Women’s Liberation immediately set up a Legal Defense Fund for those busted in Atlantic City — bread and supportive letters poured in to help these sisters.
BG: Peggy ended up having to go down for arraignment.
PD: My lawyer was Flo Kennedy, and she said, “They charged you with emitting a noxious odor.” That was a law put on the New Jersey books — it was an anti-racketing law that was used against guys who were trying to shake down laundries and they would throw a stink bomb into a laundry. And so I’m convicted of emitting a noxious odor. I think maybe I was fined or something.
BG: I think we were all just feeling pretty proud of ourselves and gleeful. Although, in retrospect, there was concern about the focus of our demo in attacking Miss America — the contestants—rather than the institution.
RM: [O]ur leaflets, press statements, and guerrilla-theater actions didn’t make clear that we were not demonstrating against the pageant contestants (with whom, on the contrary, we expressed solidarity as women exploited by the male system), but that our adversaries were the pageant organizers and the pageant concept and process itself.
CH: We didn’t say clearly enough that we women are FORCED to play the Miss America role—not by beautiful women, but by men we have to act that way for and by a system that has so well institutionalized male supremacy for its own ends.
The leaflet that was distributed as a press release… [was] too hippy-yippee-campy. If we are going to reach masses of women, we must give up all the “in-talk” of the New Left/Hippie movements—at least when we’re talking in public[.]
Also, crowning a live sheep Miss America sort of said that beautiful women are sheep. However… the grandmother of one of the participants really began to understand the action when she was told of the sheep, and she ended up joining the protest.
CG: What else can I say about it? Oh, I get fired. I tell the welfare [department] that I am taking annual leave and that I was going to be in a demonstration. I asked if that was all right. They said, “Well, yes. You are going to be in New Jersey.” Little does anybody know that this is going to be like the shot heard around the world. I come back, and I am in deep trouble… There is a big to-do about it—the ACLU is going to fight them on my firing. They get hold of my personnel file, and here are all these newspaper clippings of me at the protest and all this write-up about how I have to be gotten rid of because of this protest… This is also in my university file… that I was unemployable because I had subversive friends… and that I sabotaged the Miss America pageant. Sabotaged! I mean, the closest thing to sabotage is Peggy’s spraying this stupid hair stuff all over the place [laughter].
PD: The media caught it, and that was the blessing. You know, I have to hand it to Robin, because I was very against playing to the media, and I was wrong.
BG: It was the first time, I think, that we really had a national presence where the media came out and actually covered it. Much of it was covered with ridicule, with a paternalistic view, but it still had a pretty big impact.
CH: When we read the morning papers, we knew our immediate goal had been accomplished: alongside the headline of a new Miss America being crowned was the news that a Women’s Liberation Movement was afoot in the land and that it was going to demand a whole lot more than “equal pay for equal work.” We were deluged with letters, more than our small group could possibly answer, many passionately saying, “I’ve been waiting all my life for something like this to come along.” Taking the women’s liberation movement into the public consciousness gave some women the nudge they needed to form their own groups. They no longer felt so alone and isolated.
RM: The week before the demonstration there had been thirty women at the New York Radical Women meeting; the week after, there were approximately a hundred and fifty.
CH: The protest was so successful because we had struck a chord in most women’s lives by understanding our own.
BG: I don’t know that I had ever thought that the Miss America beauty pageant shouldn’t exist before that. I think I didn’t question its existence. I just thought of it as something that I could never do. And I think that was important. It raised [the question], “Why is there this thing that divides us according to how we look? Why should we be given an advantage because of our looks, or a disadvantage?”
RM: Possibly the most enduring contribution of that protest was our decision to recognize newswomen only… not because we were so naive as to think that women journalists would automatically give us more sympathetic coverage but because taking this stand made a political statement consistent with our beliefs. Furthermore, we estimated correctly that it would raise consciousness about the position of women in the media — and help more women get jobs there (as well as helping those who were already there escape from the ghetto of “the women’s pages”). It was a risky but wise decision that shocked many but soon set a precedent[.]
CH: Surprisingly and fortunately some of the mass media ignored our mistakes and concentrated on our best points… Shana Alexander wrote in a Life magazine editorial that she “wished they’d gone farther.”
BG: [Afterwards] my interests broadened out, and I saw my oppression as a part of a larger thing that was happening: I became anti-imperialist; I became a revolutionary in my own feelings. I felt that we had to make a revolution, we had to change the society. It’s not just making life better for women, but it’s for everybody.
CH: Looking back, I don’t believe we totally understood the depth of the Miss America Protest or what we called “the appearance issue.” We had talked about it in terms of comfort, fashion dictates, and how beauty competition divides women. But more importantly, we were targeting and challenging… the uniform of women’s inferior class status. After all, what really lies beneath this “appearance thing” is male prerogative and control. It’s not only about sexual attractiveness versus comfort; it’s about power.
BG: I guess what I’m struck by [today] is not how far we’ve come, but how far we haven’t come… how racism continues and raises its ugly head again in a more overt way now that we have the Trump administration. Same as with sexism. Same as with anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim, anti-immigrants… We thought we were making a revolution back in ‘68. I seriously thought we were. And there was a period of time it when felt like, “Okay, things are a little better now.” But then… look what we got. There are still a lot of issues out there.
CH: As a whole, feminism today is too focused on glass ceilings and the individual getting ahead in a corrupt and unequal system, and not enough on making life better for all women. There’s not room at the top for everybody, so we have to change the structure if we want real liberation.
PD: I would like women to revive, to resist being victims of and exploited by racist, imperialist, stereotypes of desirability and aware that these stereotypes that we find ourselves torturing ourselves to realize—false ideals of beauty—that we’re manipulated by them, and we’re manipulated by them in order to extract profits that don’t come back to us. I guess I’d like them to remember that it was Toni Home Permanent, that the whole Miss America pageant was sponsored by a corporation that sold products to us. The corporate sponsorship of women’s oppression stank then and stinks still.
CH: It is crucial that women know and acknowledge that it was the power of women organized and working in groups in the Women’s Liberation Movement that made our lives change for the better. It is only the persistence and stronger organization of both that movement and the groups that comprise it that can make the change last and expand.
PD: The #MeToo movement is the best sort of mass “picking up the baton” from what I thought and hoped we were doing at the time of the Miss America protest: “If it’s about me, it’s about you.” “I’m not the only one.” And [we can] all together say, “We’re not gonna take it anymore.”
BG: I think [the protest] was a groundbreaker. It helped. It took a long time. Jesus, it’s 50 years. And we’re still fighting the same battles, right? We integrated the help-wanted ads, and we made some changes. But there’s still a long ways to go.
Read the companion to this article in the Nation.
Bev Grant and Peggy Dobbins: Original interviews.
Carol Hanisch: Original interview, as well as The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation (1998, 2007) and her 1968 article, “What Can Be Learned: A Critique of the Miss America Protest.”
Robin Morgan: “Women Disrupt the Miss America Pageant,” 1968, as reprinted and expanded in Going Too Far (1977).
Press release from the Redstockings archive.
A footnoted version of the article is available by request to firstname.lastname@example.org.