Fifty years ago today, it was a sunny Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J. Miss America contestants from around the country hurried to get ready for the night’s big pageant. Tens of millions of Americans would be sitting down in front of their televisions to watch.

Throughout 1968, those same TV sets had broadcast dramatic scenes unfolding during the tumultuous year. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Political riots and Vietnam War dissenters roiled the country. Miss America would not be an escape from the tension — at least not this year.

Outside the convention hall, protesters assembled. That night, the women’s liberation movement burst onto the national stage, and African-American activists showcased a new definition of female beauty. One night, two important — and entirely independent — protests.

Pickets from a group calling itself "Women's Liberation Party" march in front of the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. in protest of the annual staging of the Miss America Pageant, Sept. 7, 1968.

Feminists Take On Miss America

On the Atlantic City Boardwalk — hours before the pageant was to begin — hecklers screamed as a little more than 100 women gathered for a No More Miss America protest.

Peggy Dobbins, a Wellesley College graduate then in her late twenties, had come from New York City and brought a massive puppet — a Miss America marionette, of sorts.

“Maybe nine feet (tall). It was a lot bigger than me,” she recalled. “It had bosoms on little springs.”

With patriotic music booming, a young Dobbins satirically auctioned off the puppet, which was scantily clad in an American flag bathing suit: “Prime American property! She sings in the kitchen. Hums at the typewriter. She purrs in bed. She walks, she talks.”

Protesters chained themselves to the puppet as Dobbins declared, “You can use her to push your products, push your politics, push your war.”

The protest was spearheaded by a group called New York Radical Women. These feminists invited others from around the country — and women came from as far away as Florida. But there weren't only protesters present.

“There were police barricades,” said Bev Grant, then a 26-year-old secretary in Manhattan who helped organize the protest and photographed it. She noted there was “actually a pretty large group of hecklers and onlookers.”

Protesters Picketing Miss America Pageant
Demonstrators picketing the Miss America Pageant are shown as they await the hour when the new Miss America will be named. A group called the National Women's Liberation Movement demonstrated against the pageant on the grounds that it set false goals for women.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Bettmann

Carol Hanisch, the protest's self-described “lead instigator," remembered, “They were yelling things like: ‘Go back to Russia,’ and ‘Which one is your girlfriend?’ and ‘You’re all a bunch of uglies.'"

Protesters compared the pageant to a cattle auction. They explained to spectators women’s outsize domestic burden, their frustration at university requirements to wear dresses to class, and their anger at corporate America’s use of sexualized female images.

The protesters crowned a sheep Miss America. Hanisch, who was also 26 at the time, explains, “supposedly to indicate that's how women were looked at — as docile creatures.”

The theatrics mirrored the tactics of young activists known as Yippies who had, two weeks earlier, nominated a pig for president to demonstrate the absurdity of politics.

The centerpiece of the No More Miss America protest was the "freedom trash can." The women threw in “all the things that women had to do that we hated,” Hanisch said. They called them "objects of female torture": girdles, stockings, high heels, wired bras, Playboy magazines, floor wax, mops, dishwashing liquid and hair products.

“Wired bras kept you tight, and you couldn't breathe,” added Helen Kritzler, another protester who was a 26-year-old elementary school teacher at the time.

“It’d squeeze you into a cone, no matter what your breasts were shaped like,” Carol Giardina, then a 21-year-old protester who was a social worker in Florida, explained.

Originally, the women had hoped to burn the items.

“The thinking behind it was that men were burning their draft cards because they weren't going to go to Vietnam,” Giardina said. “So we thought, ‘Well we'll burn instruments of female torture in the freedom can.’ ”

But, Hanisch recalled, “we weren't allowed to burn anything on the boardwalk, because we were afraid of a fire.”

Still, the epithet "bra burners" was born.

After picketing and street theater, Hanisch said about a dozen protesters donned heels and gowns and entered the convention center. Some climbed to the balcony and unfurled a banner reading: “Women’s Liberation.” Others squirted the smelly hair product of a Miss America sponsor in the aisles.

Demonstrators Picketing Miss America Pageant
Arguing that the Miss America Pageant sets up false goals for women, a group of protesters sit down inside a building.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Bettmann

One woman, Dobbins, was arrested for these antics. She remembers that in jail everyone was watching the Miss America pageant.

Ultimately, after an evening of outfits, performances and judging, Miss Massachusetts was voted the runner up: Catherine Monroe from Lynnfield.

As she returned home, the Boston Globe wrote that the “5 foot 6, blue-eyed brunette looked radiant in a pink suit with fur trim.” Another newspaper printed her proportions: 36-23-36. Soon a headline read: “She Looks Like An Angel Looks…and She Cooks Like an Angel Cooks.”

In a newspaper from the time, Monroe said she thought the protesters were “quite wrong” and that intelligence and talent were the focus of pageant. Monroe, now Catherine Saris, lives in California and declined a request for an interview.

The No More Miss America protesters were not alone in their dissatisfaction with the pageant. Next to the articles written about them on newspaper covers were parallel stories about a different protest nearby on the same day: the first Miss Black America pageant.

Miss Black America Seeks to Redefine Beauty Standards

J. Morris Anderson founded Miss Black America after talking with his daughters, who were five and seven at the time.

“I said, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ ” he recalled.

Mimicking their young voices, Anderson said they responded: “‘I’d like to be Miss America.’ ”

But that was not really possible. Anderson points to “Rule Number 7. You must be a white American in order to be in that pageant.” Even though the rule had been taken off the books, there still had not been one African-American contestant in the pageant.

So, in 1968, Anderson launched Miss Black America at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City, “right down the street from the Miss America Pageant. It was basically a protest against these discriminatory practices of the power structure at that time.”

Saundra Williams, Linda Johnson, Theresa Claytor
Saundra Williams, 19, center, was crowned the first Miss Black America in Atlantic City in 1968. The pageant happened at the same time as and just a few blocks away from the Miss America pageant.

Anderson said Miss Black America wasn’t just a parallel pageant to Miss America. He said organizers set out to challenge what it meant to be beautiful. The contestants were women of all shapes, sizes and complexions. “You can’t just reach out and pick one, and all of them look the same, sound the same and so forth,” he explained.

The winner that first year had a short Afro and performed an African dance for the talent portion. Anderson said the new alternative pageant was a hit: “Hell, there was standing room only,” he remembered.

Looking Back, Fifty Years Later

September 7, 1968 was a day of performances and protests.

“The two protests are, themselves, not interacting with each other,” said Stephanie Yuhl, a history professor at Holy Cross.

Given the historical context, Yuhl said that was not entirely surprising: “One of the great criticisms about white feminism in this period is that it was tone-deaf to African Americans and the concerns of other women of color.”

For Miss Black America’s part, there wasn’t an interest in coordinating. Anderson described the protests as “absolutely, totally different.”

Yet Yuhl says both protests were daring, serious and successful.

Miss Black America continues to this day, and just two years after its launch, the first African American competed for the title of Miss America.

For the No More Miss America protesters, Atlantic City was their debut. “This was absolutely a critical moment for them,” Yuhl said. “They could move from the kind of private, personal speaking to each other mode of radicalism to radical public action.”

It was also a significant moment for female journalists. The No More Miss America protesters insisted on only talking to reporters who were women, in the hopes of offering them a rare opportunity to cover breaking news. Many of the protesters said their tactic worked, giving some female reporters their first byline.

“One woman even thanked us for getting her out of the research library and onto an actual reporting job,” Hanisch recalled.

In the years since, feminism has won wide acceptance, while the number of people sitting down in front of their TVs to watch Miss America has fallen to a faction of what it once was.

Both protests gave those without a platform a stage. A half-century later, the activists said that stage is still in use — from the #MeToo movement to the defense of affirmative action — and the drama is far from over.

Hear More From The Feminist Protesters

On Being a Relatively Small Group

"We were a really small..."

“We were a really small group, and I think that's important for people to know that a small group can make a big impact. We weren't celebrities. We weren't glamorous. We were highly successful women. We were a group of ordinary women who just dared to speak the truth about this whole situation and to do that in public where everybody could hear it.”

- Carol Hanisch

On the Consequences of Attending the Protest

"I got into an enormous...."

“I got into an enormous amount of trouble. All I did was walk back and forth with my picket sign: 'Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?' I wasn't arrested. I didn't do that banner drop-off of the balcony. I didn't spray stinky hair care products around the auditorium as some other women did.

“What happened? My participation was in the local papers in Gainesville, [Florida]. So I got fired from my state job as a welfare worker and I asked the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate why I was fired. And they found the clipping from the newspaper that showed me at the Miss America pageant and interviewed me. And they are in my personnel file.

“So they had classified me as unemployable — and that's a quote — I was "unemployable" for, quote, "sabotage" of the Miss America contest. And they told me, 'This is on your permanent record.'”

- Carol Giardina

On Where Feminism Stands Today

"This is the first time..."

“This is the first time, I think, in the history of the world — of the earth — where women are no longer really defined by their bodies. You know, a woman can choose not to have children. A woman can choose not to be married. A woman can choose to have the freedom to choose if she wants that or not.”

- Helen Kritzler

“It's been some progress and some regression..."

“It's been some progress and some regression and some going backwards.

“We threw three-inch heels into the ‘freedom trash can.’ Those were about as highest they got back them — maybe four — but mostly three-inch heels. Now, the stores are filled with six-inch heels. So the heels have grown higher.

“There are some things that have gotten worse in terms of pressure being put on women to look a certain way. I think it comes from the whole uprising of porn with the internet. These are porn fashions: the super high heels, the shaved pubic areas, the little girl look.”

- Carol Hanisch

Archival sound in the radio story is courtesy of Third World Newsreel.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Hanisch crowned a sheep Miss America. It was done by other protesters.