Here comes Miss America, the nemesis of all feminism

The Argument

The revolution is still elusive, and Susan Brownmiller memorializes it.

November 07, 1999|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

It's back in the stirrups again for Miss America.

Just before the 1999 competition, in what one TV reporter termed "a stunning break with tradition," women hoping to become this millennium's last American icon of bathing beauty had been officially granted the right to have had an abortion and still be eligible for the crown. But on Sept. 27, her freedom to choose was revoked. Miss America's reign over her own body had lasted less than a month.

What but a uterine examination -- possibly performed under duress if a competitor's eligibility was seriously questioned -- could distinguish the had-abortions from the had-nots? My recoiling imagination protests with a couple of phrases from the not-so-distant past: Against our will. Men, women and rape.

Readers may recognize the title of Susan Brownmiller's groundbreaking 1973 book, an analysis of rape as the means by which men maintained their physical and symbolic power over women. Ironically, the brouhaha over the changed regulations for Miss America contestants came within a month of the publication of Brownmiller's latest book, "In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution" (The Dial Press: Random House, 336 pages, $24.95).

Brownmiller, one of the guiding lights in the women's movement since its "second wave" started in the 1960s, took a leading role in the 1970 feminist protest against the Miss America proceedings.

Brownmiller's memoir quotes feminist leader Robin Morgan to explain why Miss America was important: "She touched capitalism, militarism, racism, and sexism. . . . Capitalism because they used her to sell the sponsors' products, militarism because she went off to entertain the troops, racism because there had never been a black Miss America at that point, and clearly she was objectified as a woman."

She also wore silly clothes. The crowning silly-clothes-event of the pageant remains the parade of bathing suits accessorized with spike heels. Those shoes -- those painful shoes -- make the outfit "better than naked," as a male friend of mine put it.

The Miss American pageant continues to encapsulate how Puritan America endangers the female of the species. Perhaps more than any other latter-day feminist, Brownmiller showed that style is content. Miss America: dressed-up and sort of sexy, but still the symbol of wholesome American style. Miss America: finally granted abortion rights only to have them immediately revoked.

From Brownmiller, her sisters and Miss America comes this warning to American women: freedom of reproductive choice is never out of harm's way. The pro- or anti-choice events surrounding the 1999 Miss America pageant flickered into the American home via television at the same time mail from NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) was arriving to remind women that anti-choice majorities rule both houses of Congress.

A member of the same generation as Brownmiller, I look back in anger at a time when my little circle of high school friends, we proverbial "wise virgins," counted on our charms to provide us the services of a complaisant med student should we ever need an . . . we hesitated to say the "A" word, but we saw peers being marched off to shotgun weddings, and we lost some to Dr. Coathanger, and we'd heard abortions were possible, in this city of teaching hospitals, for girls with connections.

Near the end of those "happy days" pre-Pill, one of my high school buddies came home from her first semester at nursing school with the following electrifying opinion: "There are two simple operations every girl needs to learn to do: a tracheotomy and an abortion." Why? "To save your friends' lives!"

Roe v. Wade's revocation of Dr. Coathanger's license to practice filthy, deadly surgery on women is being challenged today in ways that make urgent reading of Brownmiller's memoir.

The Miss America protest may seem one of the book's less serious episodes. Actually, it's emblematic of the struggle. Consider Miss America's curious anonymity. A game-show recently surprised its host by revealing that the only memorable names of major beauty contest winners seemed to be Vanessa Williams, 1984, Miss America's first African-American, and Mary Ann Mobley, who lost her Miss Universe crown 30-some years ago when it was revealed she had had a husband and child. Brownmiller's memoir makes us contemplate the phenomenon of female namelessness.

Distrust of name-recognition within its ranks as leaders and "stars"emerged threatened to implode the women's movement throughout the '60s, '70s and early '80s. Brownmiller insists that the movement's most vocal fringes demanded feminists as generic and nameless as Miss America herself. The transition from "guiding light" to "star" is only a matter of connotation, and Brownmiller shows us how each new constellation of sisters seemed intent on snuffing out the names of previous luminaries.

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