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
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.
Heather Whitestone, who had serious hearing loss, became the first Miss America with a disability. This transformed the narrative that Miss America had to be able-bodied in order to be a role model for other Americans.
2000: Changing cultural landscape
Angela Perez Baraquio was the first Asian-American woman to be crowned Miss America. As a competitor, she probably needed a lot of motivation to move through the challenging competition. Check out these 20 confidence-boosting quotes from impressive women in history.
2013: Fostering an accepting environment
Nina Davuluri was the first Indian-American Miss America and represented her cause, cultural diversity.
2016: LGBTQ+ equality
Erin O’Flaherty became the first openly lesbian contestant in the pageant. Her presence in the pageant represented another big step toward achieving equality and inclusivity.
January 2018: The aftereffects of #MeToo
Gretchen Carlson, a political journalist and former Miss America winner, was named Chair of the Board of Trustees. A handful of other women were elected to the board, replacing men after the explosive and revealing #MeToo movement in 2017. Since their election, the organization has undergone rapid (and welcomed) change.
June 2018: Bye, bye bikini
Gretchen Carlson called for the end of the swimsuit portion of the competition––which has been an integral part of the pageant structure since its creation. In a press release, the Board of Trustees wrote, “In its place, each candidate will participate in a live interactive session with the judges, where she will highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America.” Regina Hopper, President and CEO, unveiled the new mission statement of the competition: ‘To prepare great women for the world, and to prepare the world for great women.’ Now, find out what Miss USA looked like the year you were born.