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People & Events: The 1968 Protest

protestIn 1968 feminists targeted the Miss America Pageant for protest. They staged a theatrical demonstration outside of the Atlantic City Convention Center on the day of the pageant. The protest was one of the first media events to bring national attention to the emerging Women's Liberation Movement. Over the next decade, the women's movement would rival the civil rights movement in the success it would achieve in a short period of time.

1968 was a year of great upheaval in the United States. It was a year of shocking events, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The country also was in the midst of the Vietnam War , which caused great internal division in the country. The violent antiwar demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic National Convention that year offered evidence of how divided the country was.

The pageant protest was organized by the New York Radical Women (N.Y.R.W.), a group of women who had been active in the civil rights, the New Left, and the antiwar movements. Their experiences in those movements had offered them conflicting messages. As organizers and civil rights activists they were dedicated to working for freedom, yet these organizations were also plagued with their own sexism towards women. Women volunteers, for example, who came to work in the South during the Freedom Summer voter registration project in 1964, were automatically expected to cook and clean in the houses where volunteers lived. Among the first groups to press for a separate women's rights movement was the N.Y.R.W.

One of the protest's leading organizers was 27-year-old writer and editor Robin Morgan. In the group's manifesto written to explain the protest of the Miss America Pageant, "No More Miss America!," Morgan took direct aim at what she called "the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol" so prevalent in the media. Morgan attacked the "ludicrous 'beauty' standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously." She also attacked the pageant's beauty standards as racist. As of 1968, no African American woman had taken a place among the contest's finalists.

Morgan went on to condemn "the unbeatable madonna-whore combination" and the mixed messages women were socialized to accept. "To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy or should we say [ill-tempered] ... Miss America and Playboy's centerfolds are sisters under the skin." In addition, in sending pageant contestants and winners to entertain troops in Vietnam, the women served as "death mascots" in an immoral war. Morgan asked, "Where else could one find such a perfect combination of American values -- racism, militarism, capitalism -- all packaged in one 'ideal' symbol, a woman."

Close to four hundred protesters gathered on the boardwalk on September 7, 1968, the day of the pageant. Protesters waved signs with slogans: "No More Beauty Standards." "Miss America is Alive and Well -- in Harlem." "Welcome to the Cattle Auction." "Girls Crowned -- Boys Killed." While Bert Parks was inside the Atlantic City Convention Center rehearsing with contestants, he was being hung in effigy by protesters outside.

At the center of it all, and attracting the most media attention, was the "Freedom Trash Can" -- a receptacle where women would toss items such as dish detergent, false eyelashes, wigs, curlers, copies of magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Playboy, high heels, and girdles. They also threw bras into the can. Rumor spread that the items had been set on fire, though in actuality, nothing was burned. The law-abiding protesters had not been able to get a fire permit. Still, reporters coined the phrase "bra burners" to characterize the protesters, capitalizing on the image of the draft card and flag burning of antiwar protesters. A larger crowd of about six hundred, mainly unsympathetic young men, gathered to watch, and to suggest that the women throw themselves in the "freedom trash can."

For the women's movement, the protest was a major success. The Miss America Pageant was an ideal magnet for media attention. The protest attracted attention from every major newspaper in the country. Often reportage was derisive of the women's movement, trivializing its goals. But after that event, the women's movement gained momentum and the media increasingly took it seriously. The late 60s annual telecast of the Miss America Pageant was one of the highest-rated programs of the year, carrying nearly two-thirds of the night's television audience. That year, with media coverage of the protest, a wider audience than ever before became aware of the women's liberation movement.

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