Winner of the Popular Culture Association’s Emily Toth Best Book in Women’s Studies Award
From an author praised for writing ‘delicious social history’ (Dwight Garner, The New York Times) comes a lively account of memorable Miss America contestants, protests, and scandals–and how the pageant, nearing its one hundredth anniversary, serves as an unintended indicator of feminist progress
Looking for Miss America is a fast-paced narrative history of a curious and contradictory institution. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change–the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This ever-changing institution has been shaped by war, evangelism, the rise of television and reality TV, and, significantly, by contestants who confounded expectations.
Spotlighting individuals, from Yolande Betbeze, whose refusal to pose in swimsuits led an angry sponsor to launch the rival Miss USA contest, to the first black winner, Vanessa Williams, who received death threats and was protected by sharpshooters in her hometown parade, Margot Mifflin shows how women made hard bargains even as they used the pageant for economic advancement. The pageant’s history includes, crucially, those it excluded; the notorious Rule Seven, which required contestants to be ‘of the white race,’ was retired in the 1950s, but no women of color were crowned until the 1980s.
In rigorously researched, vibrant chapters that unpack each decade of the pageant, Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.