Here’s How Much the Miss America Pageant Has Changed Throughout the Years
For nearly 100 years, the Miss America pageant has reflected the ever-changing American culture.
1921: The beginning of an era
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In its inaugural year, the Miss America Pageant (which was then called the “Inter-City Beauty” contest) drove attention and revenue to the nine East Coast newspapers that founded it. The “Inter-City Beauties” were judged based on their personality and social graces after a day of mingling with judges and the public. The first winner, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, hailed from Washington D.C. Check out these vintage photos of what the Miss Universe pageant used to look like.
1928: Or… the end of an era?
In a 27-3 vote, pageant organizers decided to fold the annual contest due to increasing pressure from women and church groups, as well as imminent financial issues.
1933: Back with a bang
Officials reinstated the annual contest, but this unrest was only a foreshadowing of the controversy it would continue to create over the next 75+ years.
1947: Little polka dot bikini
The pageant reflected the cultural shifts of fashion and modesty; during this year, contestants began wearing two-piece swimsuits. This year was the first and last year that the winner was crowned in her swimsuit. Miss America and Miss USA actually aren’t the same pageant; here is the difference between the two.
1954: Broadcasting live from Atlantic City
As the media landscape shifted from radio to television in the early 1950s, the Miss America pageant also evolved to stay relevant. This year brought the first live TV broadcast of the contest, garnering 27 million viewers. This made the Miss America brand ubiquitous; everyone knew what it was and it became a definition of American culture and beauty.
1960: A household name
Eighty-five million people––an all-time high––tuned into the annual two-hour broadcast of the Miss America pageant.
1968: The rise of unruly women
The ‘60s brought the rise of protests: against war, the government, and yes, even the Miss America pageant. Feminists gathered outside of the competition venue and protested by throwing their bras, girdles, curling irons, false eyelashes and other “instruments of female torture” into a trash can. They claimed that Miss America encouraged unrealistic beauty standards. We wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t learn about this in history class––or about these 9 other incredible women with empowering stories.
1973: Using her platform
The winner of the 1974 pageant, Rebecca King, received nationwide attention for her vocal pro-choice stance on abortion during the divisive Roe v. Wade decision year. Each year, the winner of the contest chooses a cause to champion, but King’s was by far the most controversial. Check out this list of 8 other inspiring women that are changing the lives of women across the world, just like King.
1974: Beauty… and brains
A law student crowned a doctorate student, and the “Modern Miss America” was born. She was smart, sophisticated, and eloquent. She was expected to be beautiful and driven. The common narrative of desiring marriage and childbearing transformed into one that encouraged careers, higher education, and success.
1983: It only took 50 years
Vanessa Williams was the first African-American woman to be crowned Miss America in 1984, but she resigned shortly after Penthouse released nude photos of her to the public. The runner-up, Suzette Charles of New Jersey, became the second African-American woman to be crowned. Be sure to read about these 58 trailblazing women who made history, just like Williams.