“It’s especially odd for Miss AMERICA to have a crown, because if it’s a pageant that represents America and American values, then the symbolism is off, and has been for a long time.”
With her new book, Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood (Counterpoint), Margot Mifflin has written a compelling, thoughtful history and exploration of a uniquely American phenomenon. We got together to talk about the story of the Miss America Pageant — sorry, Competition — and its cultural significance (including its racist restrictions), how the pageant has evolved over a century, sometimes reflecting women’s roles in America, sometimes reflecting men’s perspectives of women, the pageant’s heyday of the 1950s and ’60s and its struggles since then, and the 2018 decision to get rid of the swimsuit portion. Along the way, we talk about feminist protests of the pageant, the great life-story of 1951 winner Yolande Betbeze, the history of Atlantic City and its decline, the common elements of most Miss America memoirs, the one winner she wishes she’d interviewed, Philip Roth’s thread throughout her book, and how she’d change Miss America for this era. Give it a listen! And go read Looking for Miss America!
“The feminist protest of 1968 was the point at which second-wave feminism unleashed the phrase ‘women’s liberation’ into the public lexicon.”
“I would keep the scholarships, because that seems to be the real, concrete value of Miss America. . . . It’s benefited lower economic and middle-income women who might not have been able to college if not for these scholarships.”
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About our Guest
Margot Mifflin is an author and journalist who writes about women’s history and the arts. She wrote the first history of women’s tattoo culture, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, and The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Her new book, Looking For Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, is the first feminist cultural history of the Miss America pageant. Margot’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Vice, Elle, ARTnews, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New Yorker.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and other publications.
Margot is an English professor at Lehman College/CUNY and teaches arts journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She’s served as a consultant on exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, The New York Historical Society, and The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and she curated the exhibition “Body Electric” at Ricco/Maresca Gallery.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Margot by someone else. It’s on my instagram.