But the pageant came under fire from religious conservatives, in New Jersey and around the country. “The danger lies in taking girls of tender years and robing them in attire that transgresses the limit of morality,” one church group resolved in 1923. “The saddest feature of the affair is the willingness of a few businessmen to profiteer on the virtues of those tender years.”
So Atlantic City’s town fathers discontinued the pageant in 1927. And when they brought it back, in the mid-1930s, they took pains to emphasize its respectable character. Contestants were prohibited from entering any establishment where alcohol was served. They were also warned that they would be disqualified if they were seen alone with men – including their own fathers.
To demonstrate that the pageant wasn’t just about beauty, meanwhile, officials introduced the talent competition. And in 1945, they began to award educational scholarships. Today, Miss America boasts that its local, state, and national competitions represent the biggest scholarship program for women in the world.
But the pageant would come under attack again in the 1960s, this time from feminists. Protesters burned bras, girdles, and pornographic magazines at the 1968 competition, where they also bestowed the title of Miss America on a sheep. Demonstrations would continue into the mid-1970s, when a New York Times headline captured the essence of the clash: “Miss America Faces Ms.”
In response, the pageant tried yet again to leaven its glitz with more substance. Starting in 1990, every contestant has chosen her own “platform” issue. But most of these matters are relatively non-controversial ones, like eating disorders or bullying; they don’t require you to frame a tough position or defend it against naysayers.
That makes things way too easy for the contestants, who are starting to parlay their Miss America experience into, yes, electoral politics. Miss America 2002, Republican Erika Harold of Illinois, is now making her second bid for a seat in Congress. State pageant winners have also run for office in Indiana, Vermont, and Hawaii. And don’t forget the Miss Alaska runner-up who ended up on the presidential ticket in 2008: Sarah Palin.