Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

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Looking for Miss America is the first feminist history of the Miss America pageant. 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, 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. Written in deeply researched, fast-paced chapters that unpack each decade of the competition,  Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.

“Margot Mifflin is the perfect tour-guide on this journey through America’s fundamentals: cheesecake, capitalism, racism, sexism, ambition, and old-school, unabashed glamor. I couldn’t put it down.” —Karen Abbott, author of New York Times bestseller The Ghosts of Eden Park

Looking for Miss America showcases the trivia and the politics of this odd contest—but the depiction of its contestants’ humanity is where Mifflin really shines. I wholeheartedly recommend this to book clubs and curious readers alike.” —Therese Anne Fowler, bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

“What seems like a forgotten and antiquated tradition is actually the perfect subject to explore America’s struggles with feminism, misogyny, racism and identity. Utterly fascinating.” —Mallory O’Meara, author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon

With deep research and engaging writing, Margot Mifflin connects the Miss America pageant to the broader, often messy trajectory of 20th century American women’s history.” —Kristen Richardson, author of The Season

“The conception, commercialization, and exploitation of the ‘ideal’ woman, as embodied in the Miss America pageant, is a story that reflects the country’s social forces and cultural biases. Margot Mifflin has written a lively history of Miss America that gives meaning to the ever-evolving image of today’s women.” —Lynn Povich, author of The Good Girls Revolt