In a tumultuous year, a demonstration by 100 women on the boardwalk in Atlantic City seemed relatively tame. There were no riots. Some of those protesting the Miss America pageant were briefly arrested for spraying a "noxious liquid," which was actually Toni hair spray (a sponsor of the pageant), but they were free before morning. The women dumped symbols of female oppression—girdles, steno pads, stilettos—into a "freedom trash can." Bras went in, too, but none were burned. That myth began when a sympathetic female New York Post reporter thought that a juicy first line conjuring up comparisons to burning draft cards might get more attention for the event. As the organizers headed home, they had few expectations. How could they know then that their little bit of guerrilla theater helped kick-start a sexual revolution?
Every time Robin Morgan that hears the Miss America protests get credit for taking the women's liberation movement mainstream, she smiles because she remembers how it started so modestly. Morgan was part of a group called New York Radical Women that had been meeting for what would later be called "consciousness raising." Someone came up with the idea of picketing the pageant, which was held over the Labor Day weekend. "I immediately got fired up," says Morgan, an activist and writer. "It seemed to be the perfect coming together in terms of so many things." Miss America was always white and spent the year selling sponsors' products and entertaining the troops, which made her a perfect symbol of racism, capitalism and militarism. And there was what Morgan calls "the ridiculous objectification of women." (As for bra burning, Morgan scoffs: "We were radicals, but we were very elegant," she says. "Burning rubber smells dreadful!")
In 2007, Miss America might seem a paltry target, but back then it was a very big deal. "She represented the pinnacle of beauty outside of the movies," says novelist Alix Kates Shulman, also part of New York Radical Women. The fact that the pageant was televised live made it particularly appealing. Shulman, who would later write the feminist classic "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen," paid $70 for the tickets that allowed about a dozen women inside the convention center. The nation was watching as they unfurled a bedsheet proclaiming WOMEN'S LIBERATION shortly before Miss Illinois, 18-year-old Judith Ford, was crowned Miss America. Now Judi Ford Nash, she has no clear memory of that pivotal moment. "When the spotlight is on you," she says, "you can't see."
At the next meeting of New York Radical Women, hundreds showed up instead of the usual few dozen. Women's liberation groups sprang up in big cities and small towns across America. Once-secure bastions of male power and privilege were forced to open their doors to women—first Yale and Princeton, then medical and law schools, the astronaut corps and the Supreme Court.
Some issues have remained disturbingly contentious. Winning the right to choose an abortion was a major goal of the women's movement, but almost from the moment of the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion activists have been fighting ferociously to get at least portions of it rolled back. Lesbian and gay rights, already on the agenda in 1968, are still the subject of emotional debate. And although rigid beauty standards were a major target of the Miss America pageant, more and more women resort to injecting poison into their foreheads or boosting their bra sizes to make themselves more appealing.
But back to Atlantic City for a moment. The young woman in the spotlight that night never expected to find a crown on her head. She thought of herself as "kind of a tomboy," the only woman on the men's trampoline team at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and the first woman to win a varsity letter there. Miss Illinois officials had told her that her chances of winning were slim because at 18, she was too young and a blonde in a contest dominated by brunettes. Even worse, she says, her talent, the trampoline, was "a little too athletic, a little too masculine because Miss America is not supposed to sweat." Today, Nash, an elementary-school physical-education teacher, is grateful for the Miss America scholarship money as well as the opportunities the pageant gave her to travel and meet all kinds of people. She is especially proud of entertaining the troops in Vietnam. But she also understands the goals of the women on the boardwalk. As a recently divorced single mother in 1987, she struggled to get a credit card in her own name. She has always worked, just as her mother did. "I think the feminist movement has done a lot for women," she says. "We wouldn't be where we are if it hadn't started out that way." Crowned or uncrowned, sisterhood is powerful.