There She Was. There She Goes.

A kid of my generation doesn't forget those rare occasions when she was permitted to stay up until midnight. I remember the Jiffy Pop rattling like maracas on the stove, a pitcher of Kool-Aid the incandescent pink of Barbie-brand plutonium in the fridge. I remember the ventriloquist's dummies and the shrieking arias, the tulle and the French twists

and Bert Parks, who had a man tan before man tan came in a bottle, crooning, "There She Is." And there she was, with the unsteady crown and the bouquet of roses and the teary smile. Miss America. Your ideal.

Feminism killed off Miss America, but instead of leaving us with our memories, the pageant organization is presiding over a slow sad demise, like a deathbed with a talent component. Recently the people who run the franchise announced that they were reincarnating the preliminary rounds as a reality-TV show. This follows the ignominious slink from network coverage to Country Music Television, the ill-conceived casual wear and civics quizzes, and a round of rotating hosts, all the outcome of years of tumbling ratings.

Let it go. Just let it go.

Feminism killed off Miss America, but not in the way originally intended or predicted. It didn't manage to overthrow unrealistic and bizarre standards of female beauty; if it had, Hollywood wouldn't be chockablock with bobblehead starlets who think an oyster cracker is an entree. And it didn't succeed in liberating women from being seen as sex objects, not when porn star Jenna Jameson can natter away on television about her career as though she were a bank manager.

But the revolution offered women many more outlets for the pursuit of power and prominence, outlets in which they didn't have to walk around in the truly strange combo of swimsuit and stiletto heels. And make no mistake: the pageant was about the single-minded pursuit of power and prominence at a time when women had to pretend little interest in either. (Apparently the pageant folks ditched the Miss Congeniality title because all the contestants voted for themselves.) When I was a kid, Miss America had clout. Schools and hospitals and rubber-chicken dinners jockeyed to get her to come and say a few words. Incredible as it seems today, everyone knew her face. Like Paris Hilton, but with white gloves. And clothes.

But Miss America was supplanted by her sisters, who carried briefcases instead of roses and preferred a suit to a maillot-and-heels ensemble. All those schools had other options for their assemblies: Sally Ride, if they had connections, or just the first woman county commissioner. Little kids would drag their moms in for careers day: she's a dentist, she's a doctor, she's a manager on the assembly line.

Who needed Miss America, whose biggest claim to fame was that she could answer a question about advice to America's youth with some variation of "Be yourself," or "To thine own self be true" if she was an English major from the Northeast? Still, the pageant tried to keep up. The contestants were supposed to adopt a platform, breast cancer or drug prevention, but they were competing with Elizabeth Taylor, and then Angelina Jolie. Either Sallie Krawcheck, the CFO of Citigroup, or Andrea Jung, who runs Avon, could walk across a stage in an evening dress with aplomb after a very full day of real juggling. A corporate jet sure beats flying coach to county fairs with a chaperone.

Reality TV didn't do Miss America any favors, either. From watching "Dr. 90210," Americans knew you could buy the clean profile and waist-to-hip ratio that might wow the judges. "America's Next Top Model" took over the terrain of beautiful women willing to kill to make the cut; "The Apprentice" featured carnivorous careerists. The pageant limped from its ancestral home of Atlantic City to Las Vegas, a place that resembles the Emerald City of Oz, only less realistic. Now it will hopscotch from town to town. Miss America has become a woman without a country.

There are better contests today, with much better prizes. Katherine Anne Couric, from the great state of Virginia, wins the anchor seat at CBS and a reported annual salary equal to the gross national product of an emerging nation. Hillary Rodham Clinton, resident of New York, waits in the wings (or at least the Senate) for a possible stint as the leader of the free world. Granted, both require tap dancing and fixed smiles. But the white gloves are off and there are no dummies involved.

Some institutions simply run their course, falling beneath the wheels of progress. It happened to Schrafft's, and John Wanamaker's. But at least they died with dignity and aren't hanging around, trying to remake themselves as McDonald's with mac and cheese, or Old Navy with a tearoom. The people who run the pageant are embarrassing themselves and all the Miss Americas who were Miss America when Miss America meant something, although no one was entirely clear what it was. Kids get to stay up until midnight all the time now. Jiffy Pop goes in the microwave. And Miss America is cooked. Let it go. Just let it go.