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Ask Miss America contestants about Syria

The Miss America pageant’s defenders argue it 'empowers' women rather than demeans them. It’s time we put that claim to the test by asking them to speak their minds on controversial issues like Syria, especially as some contestants parlay their pageant experience into politics.

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Gabrielle Hughes, center, and Samantha Phommalyla (right), interview Miss America, Mallory Hagan, left, in a Absegami High School media class on Monday Sept. 9, 2013 in Galloway, N.J. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'If we wish to find out which women are intellectually qualified for this honor [of Miss America], we need to honor their intellects.'

Vernon Ogrodnek/The Press of Atlantic City/AP

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So here’s a question that every finalist should face in this Sunday’s “Miss America” competition in Atlantic City: Should the United States strike Syria?

I’m serious. For years, the pageant’s defenders have been saying that it “empowers” women rather than demeans them. So it’s time we put that claim to the test, by asking contestants to speak to one of our most urgent political issues.

That’s probably not the kind of controversy envisioned by the organizers of Miss America, which is returning to the Jersey Shore after a nearly eight-year hiatus in Las Vegas. But pageant officials can’t have it both ways. If they want Miss America to be more than a beauty contest, they need to challenge the contestants' minds. Anything less will patronize the same women that the Miss America pageant puts on a pedestal.

The first few Miss America competitions didn’t try to look like anything but a battle for the best looks. Starting as a “bathing beauty” contest in 1921, the pageant was sponsored by hoteliers who wanted to keep tourists in Atlantic City beyond Labor Day. What better way than to parade attractive young women up and down the boardwalk, several weeks after the official end of summer?

Only eight women entered the 1921 pageant. But 57 competed the next year, luring more than a quarter-million spectators. “As an advertising campaign, the Pageant was a masterpiece,” declared the Pennsylvania Railroad, which saw its own ticket sales skyrocket as tourists swarmed to Atlantic City.

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