Miss America Pageant Empowers Remarkable Women

The Miss America Organization is the world’s largest scholarship program for young women. In 2013, its national, state and local organizations provided ...

Sep 15, 2013

The Miss America Organization is the world’s largest scholarship program for young women. In 2013, its national, state and local organizations provided over $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance. On Sunday, Sept. 15, 53 women will compete for the title of Miss America 2014 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Many believe that Miss America is the antithesis of feminist ideals. The pageant can have connotations of antiquated sexism, objectification and shallow conceptions of beauty. These criticisms certainly have seeds of truth — the first iteration of the contest in 1921 was a beauty pageant through-and-through, and its judging was largely based on appearance, personality and popularity with the crowd.
The contemporary competition’s mission, however, is to “[empower] young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence.” The most heavily weighted elements of the competition are the talent and interview, which together comprise 60 percent of each woman’s total score. The on-stage question adds another 5 percent. Both Presence and Poise, or evening wear, and Lifestyle and Fitness, or the swimsuit competition, combined are 35 percent of the scores. It is important to understand that not all pageants are created equal. Some, such as Miss USA and Miss Universe, are more akin to modelling competitions and do not have a talent component. Others do not include swimwear, such as America’s National Teenager.
Being primarily a scholarship-granting organization, Miss America competitors are outstanding achievers in a wide variety of programs. Miss District of Columbia Bindhu Pamarthi is a second-year law student at Georgetown University. Cara McCollum of New Jersey has won national journalism awards during her studies at Princeton University. This year, the organization offered its first special STEM scholarships, a set of academic awards in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One of the recipients, California native Crystal Lee, has two degrees from Stanford University.
The women’s platforms, however, are where they truly shine. Each contestant selects an issue about which she is passionate about. Once the winner is crowned, she will spend her reigning year addressing the media and interacting with businesses and community leaders to make change on that issue. The amplification of the Miss America brand provides for the winner’s platform and allows her to raise powerful awareness and funds toward her chosen cause. The 2013 winner of Miss America, Mallory Hagan, focused on child sexual abuse prevention.This year’s cohort has platforms including youth involvement in the political process, HIV/AIDS education and responsible energy use.
The Miss America Organization’s pageants are perhaps not a feminist dream. I do not deny that they have in practice a limiting aesthetic standard and would prefer the Lifestyle and Fitness category to be more creatively judged than swimwear modelling. However, it is clear that to be attractive is not nearly enough to embody the spirit of a Miss America. I consider the popular stereotype of the hot-but-clueless beauty queen to be far more outrageous than a young woman’s choice to compete in a scholarship pageant.
I have for years admired the amazing women who compete for Miss America titles. They are role models who represent the very best of what women leaders can be — intelligent, athletic, artistic, service-minded, eloquent and elegant. I wish the best of luck to this year’s contestants and look forward to seeing their hard work pay off on the national stage.
Olivia Bergen is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo