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People & Events: Lenora Slaughter Transforms the Pageant

Lenora SlaughterFrom its inception, the Miss America Pageant wrestled with its image. In the 1920s, pageant organizers worked to make it a sophisticated event. But critics such as women's clubs and religious groups abhorred the display of the female form in public; it was not considered respectable behavior. Although Victorian values had relaxed, new freedoms for women -- from the expression of more direct sexuality to winning the vote in 1920 -- led to a general anxiety about women's apparently loosening morals. To make matters worse, most of the women who flocked to the pageant came with hopes of landing a Hollywood or stage career, cashing in on their good looks but raising questions about their morality. The growing criticism caused pageant officials to shut down the event in 1928.

The economic depression of the 1930s brought a more conservative understanding of "proper" femininity. The ideal of the frugal homemaker replaced that of the flapper. Before the pageant could be revived, organizers had to create an event that had a higher moral tone. In 1935 Lenora Slaughter was hired to produce an event that was respectable and legitimate.

Lenora Slaughter, a Southern Baptist and businesswoman, had made a name for herself in St. Petersburg, Florida, by working tirelessly at the Chamber of Commerce to put that town on the map. Slaughter came to the Miss America Pageant on a six-week leave of absence from St. Petersburg. She ended up staying, and in time would become director of the pageant, in a reign that lasted until 1967. The pageant became her passion. She would bring the most significant and lasting changes to its structure.

The newly revived pageant of 1935 marked the beginning of a concerted effort to attract an appropriate "class of girl" to represent the nation with the title of Miss America. Unfortunately, Slaughter's early years were plagued with scandal and notoriety. In 1935, a sculptor unveiled a nude statue of that year's Miss America, Henrietta Leaver. Later, Miss America 1937, eighteen-year-old Bette Cooper, changed her mind about becoming Miss America and escaped in the middle of the night.

Slaughter initiated an all-out crusade to improve the pageant's image. First, she banned contestants who held titles that represented commercial interests, such as newspapers, amusement parks and theaters. Contestants were required to carry the title of a city, region, or state. This distanced the pageant from the crass practices of other pageants where the connection between money and women displaying themselves in public was obvious. The contestants now had to be between 18 and 25 years old, and never married. And while in Atlantic City, they had to observe a 1 am curfew and a ban on bars and nightclubs. Slaughter initiated the talent competition in 1938, introducing the idea that the contestants could be judged on more than beauty.

Slaughter did not stop there. At the time, theaters, swimming pools, state fairs, and amusement parks ran local pageants. She persuaded local Junior Chambers of Commerce (Jaycees) to become sponsors, allowing parents to feel their daughters were in safe hands. Further still, Slaughter persuaded socialites from Atlantic City's upper strata to act as hostesses and chaperones for the young women when they were in Atlantic City. A pageant judge once asked Slaughter what to look for in a winner. "Honey," she said, "just pick me a lady."

Slaughter's most significant legacy is the Miss America scholarship program. "I knew that the shine of a girl's hair wasn't going to make her a success in life," she wrote in her autobiography. Prizes before Slaughter consisted of such things as a fur coat, a Hollywood contract, or the chance to earn money modeling. In offering opportunities for advancement through education, Slaughter fashioned a pageant that appealed to middle-class sensibilities. Slaughter sat down and personally wrote about three hundred letters to businesses asking for college scholarship money that could be offered as the prize for the Miss America title. She initially raised $5000, and in 1945 the Miss America Pageant became one of the first organizations in the country to offer college scholarships to women. Lenora Slaughter died in December 2000 at the age of 94. By the time of her death, the Miss America Organization was the single largest contributor of scholarships to women in the United States.

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