In September of 1999, the Associated Press reported on a shocking national development: The Miss America Pageant would lift its long-standing ban that disqualified contestants who'd been divorced or gotten an abortion.
Since 1950, the Miss America Organization (MAO) had required entrants to sign a contract stating that they had never been married or pregnant. Forty-nine years later, the organization's newly appointed CEO Robert Beck sought to overturn that ban, instead requiring contestants to assure that they weren't currently married, pregnant, or the "natural or adoptive parent of any child."
The change reportedly came at the recommendation of an attorney, who advised that the policy could be in violation of New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws. (The pageant is held annually in Atlantic City.) But despite this seemingly logical rationale, the proposed changes were met with swift and decisive backlash: "Miss America has a long history of high moral standards and traditions, and I'm opposed to anything that changes that," Libby Taylor, the president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants, told the AP. Several current and former contestants publicly lamented that lifting the ban would change the pageant for the worse, and somehow deprive Americans of good role models.
The individual state chapters of MAO sued their parent organization in an effort to maintain the ban, and the national organization acquiesced, delaying the policy change for a year. Then, two weeks later, Robert Beck was fired.
Although the Miss America Pageant wouldn't confirm that Beck's firing had anything to do with the abortion-and-divorce policy, speculation was rampant. "Beck was fired after one year on the job because he had the audacity to ask the board to get rid of the archaic ban," read an op-ed published in The Central New Jersey Home News one day after his termination was announced . (Four years later, the AP reported that Beck was awarded $80,000 in severance after suing MAO over his firing. The Miss America Organization told Broadly that they have no comment regarding Beck's termination.)
The pageant board later "shelved" the policy changes, according to the AP, and it's not exactly clear where they stand now. A spokesperson for Miss America told Broadly that married and divorced women are still prohibited from competing in the pageant. "Miss America must be childless," she said. When asked directly about women who have had abortions, however, she responded, "We do not ask."
The Miss America pageant, which has been criticized as a "modern relic," was originally founded in 1921. At the time, contestants were judged based on "their general appeal in appearance, personality, conversations with the judges, and interactions with the crowds," as the official Miss America website puts it, somewhat sheepishly. ("The pageant was a product of its times," they later add.)
"Miss America must be childless."
Since then, Miss America has tried to rebrand as the "nation's leading advocate for women's education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States," championing its role in empowering women. But critics remain skeptical, arguing that the Miss America Organization has spent nearly a century projecting an antiquated image of the ideal woman—one that's necessarily coded as virginal and traditional.
Dr. Kimberly Hamlin, a professor of history and global intercultural studies at Miami University, has argued persuasively that the Miss America Pageant gained popularity starting in 1921 precisely because it challenged American women's newfound political power. "In the 1920s, when the Miss America pageant as we know it began, women's place in American life was rapidly changing," Hamlin tells Broadly. " Women were voting and running for office, serving on juries, working in an expanded number of professions, and enjoying new freedoms in many aspects of life."
The first-ever winner of the Miss America pageant was Margaret Gorman, who was just 16 at the time. The Miss America website calls her "girlish and wholesome-looking;" Dr. Hamlin notes that she was "barely five feet tall when she was crowned." A contemporary New York Times article praised her for looking "strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and motherhood."
"From the outset, the Miss America pageant has celebrated and popularized a more retrograde image of American womanhood," says Hamlin, "even as it bills itself as a scholarship program for women and even though many contestants today go on to notable careers."
It's true that the pageant has changed with the times, and there have been several progressive contestants throughout the contest's existence. Rebecca King, the pageant winner in 1974, was outspoken in favor of abortion rights during her reign, and in 1989—a full decade before the controversy over abortion and divorce—32 of 51 contestants identified as pro-choice. Still, the uproar over the proposed policy changes in 1999 underscores the fact that the pageant remains contingent on a very narrow view of idealized femininity.
Hamlin emphasizes that the pageant's abortion rule was probably less of a political statement about the right to choose and more of a reflection of the organization's preference "that contestants be virgins, at least plausibly"—which is, of course, troubling in its own right.
"Contestants are not supposed to be too sexy, or to be people who have obviously had sex before," she adds. "Being a mother, being married, or having had an abortion is a pretty good indication that one is no longer a virgin."