35 years ago, Miss America Protest announced birth of women's liberation
August/September 2003

September 2003 marks the 35th Anniversary of the legendary 1968 protest of the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City. Flashed on the news across the country and worldwide, the protest denounced the fake ways women were expected to look and act, and announced the arrival of a new movement, Women's Liberation.

Carol Hanisch is the woman who had the idea for that protest. "The idea came out of our group method of analyzing women's oppression by recalling our experiences," she wrote a few months later. "We [New York Radical Women] were watching "Schmearguntz," a feminist movie, one night at our meeting. The movie had flashes of the Miss America contest in it and I found myself sitting there remembering how I had felt at home with my family watching the pageant as a child, an adolescent, a college student. I knew it had evoked powerful feelings... We discovered that many of us who had always put down the contest still watched it. Others, like myself, had consciously identified with it, and had cried with the winner.

"From our communal thinking came concrete plans for action. We all agreed that our main point for the demonstration would be that all women were hurt by beauty competitions: Miss America as well as ourselves. We opposed the pageant in our own self interest, [i.e.] the self interest of all women... The best slogan for the action came out a month after, when Roz Baxandall came out on the David Susskind show with 'Every day in a woman's life is a walking Miss America Contest.'" ("A Critique of the Miss America Protest," Notes from the Second Year, 1970.)

Carol Hanisch was interviewed by Fran Luck in July for the Joy of Resistance feminist radio show, broadcast on WBAI in New York City in July 2003. What follows are excerpts:

Fran: What happened at this legendary action in 1968, in the convention hall and on the boardwalk, outside the Miss America Pageant?

Carol: Well, there were more than 100 picketers there, we picketed all afternoon. We did some street theatre which included throwing 'instruments of female torture' as we called them, into a freedom trash can. This is where the bra-burner myth started, by the way, but we weren't allowed to burn anything, including bras. We did throw in some bras, and we also threw in high heels, nylons, girdles, corsets, garter belts, hair-curlers, false eyelashes, makeup and Playboy and Good Housekeeping magazines. And that evening some of us went inside to disrupt the pageant and we hung a large banner over the balcony and we yelled things like "Women's Liberation!" and "No More Miss America!" and that started to bring some change in the uncomfortable dress codes that were in place then, and it also let the world know that a women's liberation movement was underway.

Fran: You got a lot of attention to that protest, plus the appellation "bra-burner."

Carol: I like to say that if they'd called us "girdle-burners" every woman in America would have come and joined us.

Fran: This is the 35th anniversary of that action, and I understand you're going to be doing a "Freedom Trash Can" tour?

Carol: Well, I'm hoping to offer a speech telling about what happened then and young women or any women can throw articles of female torture of today-whatever they see that to be-into a freedom trash can... to try to get all of us thinking again about how women are oppressed in 2003.

Fran: The Freedom Trash Can tour, coming to your city soon...

Carol: And trash what's still trashing women.

Fran: That's very exciting, I wonder what women would throw into a freedom trash can today.

I want to go back to some of the articles that you threw into this freedom trash can. Some young women of today would say that some of these items are part of our expressing our sexuality. Corsets, high-heels, these things seem to be making a comeback, and they seem to be being touted as feminist expression. I would like to know what you think of this turn of events.

Carol: I think this is an example of how the Women's Liberation movement has become depoliticized... Women using the power of their sexuality goes way back to Jezebel and before, and it's not a real challenge to male supremacy because it doesn't demand that men change how they think about us or treat us, and it seems to me it supports the status quo.

Men are all too happy to see us competing with each other over who's the sexiest. It helps keep women in their place. And in my view, women's place is not in front of the mirror.

Sexual competition divides women, just as beauty pageants divide women and there are all kinds of race and class and age divisions going on. I think it's true that all of us have to play the game to some degree to even survive in the world, and we have to be careful about condemning each other for doing that, but to take the trappings of our oppression and try to redefine them as liberating I think is really reactionary.

In the early days of the women's liberation movement we talked about the appearance issue in terms of comfort and fashion and how beauty concepts divide women. I think what we were really challenging was this uniform of women's inferior sex-class status, these high heels and skirts and all these female trappings that were not only physically inhibiting and painful, they were right out there reminding both men and women of women's inferior position. And I think that's why this issue remains so entrenched in our culture and in our sexual politics. It's part of a backlash that's hounded the movement since the early 1970's.

I don't think we need feelings of empowerment, what we need is real power.

Fran: that's an amazing statement because you hear the word "empowerment" all the time and it really has come to replace the power analysis, the analysis of how power works that feminists and many other groups of the 1960s were putting across. ... Could you elaborate?

Carol: Power is having the power to change things and to have power over our lives to make them better. The whole empowerment issue is oriented only towards individuals, an individual person feeling empowered, which isn't totally a bad thing, but when it takes all the focus, it's not a good thing.

Fran: This issue of women's sexual expression being put across as a feminist practice-to be very overtly sexual, often in ways that actually mimic the porn culture-being said to be feminist is really dividing a lot of feminists from each other and I wonder how we can straighten all that out.

Carol: I think one thing we need to do is discuss it. We need some consciousness-raising, and we need to be honest. We need to look at it and see what does it really means for women, not just the individual woman at the time she's doing it, but for women as a group in the long term. What does this do to how men look at us and how we feel about ourselves in terms of that.

Fran: I mean it certainly does take guts to walk around looking sexual in this society because of all the catcalls and comments you get. So I suppose it's easy to confuse that with bucking the system, because you're taking on this reaction and you have to be very brave to do it. But it also seems to me that you're playing into the system when you do that.

Carol, there's so much talk about Third Wave and Second Wave, it seems that the entire movement has been divided up into these two camps, I want to know what you think of these terms as useful or not useful for how we think of feminism and our struggle at this point.

Carol: I think it's a very false division because women are always struggling for their liberation. We get oppressed, we rise up, the backlash pushes us backwards, we build it up again. So there are all these waves constantly... I think "Third Wavers" only tend to think in terms of time, and of generations, and they think their take on this appearance issue, and on many others, is new, when it's not. What we really have here is not a generational division, but a division of competing political lines that have been around for a long time. The individual lifestyle, individual struggle line dominates the political movement line right now...

Fran: Could you define that, the individual struggle line vs. the political movement line?

Carol: The individual struggle line is best summed up in the idea that what a woman really needs to do is stand up for herself, and that will bring her liberation. And the political line is that women need to unite and fight, as a group, to win their liberation, and it has to be for all women.

Fran: So you see the emphasis on how we look, and lifestyle, is taking us away from uniting politically?

Carol: When it's called feminist, yes. There's been this move among some people that anything a woman does is feminist and I think we have to struggle over defining what feminism is and what our movement is and what we want.

Fran: So, not necessarily anything that someone feels is feminist is necessarily feminist.

Carol: That's right. You have to look at it in terms of its results. And there are women of all ages on all sides of these issues and there always have been. There are young feminists out there who understand this and who are trying to rebuild the political movement. If we want more real change in our lives we are going to have to organize across generations of those who want to return to this real political movement, and who are willing to struggle for the liberation of all women. Sometimes that struggle even needs to be against each other.

Fran: In other words, it's OK to debate.

Carol: Absolutely, not only is it OK, it's absolutely necessary.

Carol Hanisch is a founder of the Women's Liberation Movement, first as a member of New York Radical Women, then in Gainesville Women's Liberation and Redstockings. She lived in Gainesville during the early years of the movement, and wrote the pioneering 1969 article "The Personal is Political" right in Gainesville's student ghetto.

Hanisch was one of the editors of the Redstockings book Feminist Revolution, and editor of the feminist journal Meeting Ground. In the early '60s she worked in Mississippi in the Civil Rights Movement and, when she first became involved in Women's Liberation, she was working for the Southern Conference Education Fund, a progressive southern group organizing black and white workers for equality and economic justice.

Many of her early writings are available through the Redstockings Women's Liberation Archives for Action, www.redstockings.org including "The Personal is Political," "A Critique of our Miss America Protest," and "Women of the World Unite-We Have Nothing to Lose Our Men" with Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez (1968) and the book Feminist Revolution.

Her more recent essays are available in a book, Frankly Feminist, and she has also created a dramatic reading about the Women's Rights Movement, and a feminist songbook. Carol Hanisch can be reached about her writings and her speaking tour at truthtellers@hvi.net

Fran Luck is a member of the Joy of Resistance radio collective, which produces a feminist radio show at New York's "Peace and Justice" radio station, WBAI 99.5 (www.wbai.org) She is a member of Redstockings Allies and Veterans and a prime motivator in the New York City-based Street Harassment Project. She can be reached at provoca2000@hotmail.com

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