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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 1999/ 14 Tishrei, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Making sense of the Miss America flap --
IN OUR STRANGE TIMES, even the Miss America pageant becomes a battlefield in the culture wars.

Last week, the news that pageant officials had decided to drop the rule requiring contestants to attest that they have never been married or pregnant shocked the nation. Many current contestants were upset: "The word 'Miss' stands for something," Miss Delaware Kama Boland told the Associated Press. Miss America 1993, Leanza Cornett, worries worry that bestowing the title on a divorcee, or a woman who has had an abortion, will be disconcerting to all the little girls who put Miss America on a pedestal.

As one might expect, conservatives deplore the proposed changes as another example of moral decay and of the follies of social engineering by the courts. (While no one has threatened legal action against the pageant, the controversial decision was apparently prompted by concerns about potential discrimination lawsuits.) Liberals either snicker at the brouhaha or fret that the changes don't go far enough: the new rules would still bar women with children, thus discriminating against single mothers.

Of course, one might go a step further and ask why it's OK to discriminate against married mothers. Or married women in general. (Yes, there is a Mrs. America pageant, but it doesn't come close in prizes or fame.) One might also argue that trying to eliminate discrimination from the Miss America pageant is a bit like trying to eliminate elitism from the Ivy League. The event discriminates not only by marital status but, obviously, by age. Physical disabilities -- except for ones that don't affect looks, such as deafness or diabetes -- are out. The swimsuit competition may be unfair to women whose religion dictates strict rules of modesty. And there are no beauty contests for men.

In the 1980s and '90s, the Miss America organization has been trying to add quasi-feminist trappings to its enterprise. Today's beauty queen must have not only a talent but a "personal platform," often a controversial issue like domestic violence or AIDS. But beauty and glamor are still the essence of the event, and it still reflects the spirit of a different era often dubbed "innocent" or "quaint." It honors a woman not as an achiever but as an ideal of womanhood; her talents and her issues are just part of her personality.

There's nothing wrong with beauty or glamor; even in a feminist time, most of us still appreciate the rituals of traditional femininity. Perhaps attempts to give these rituals modern trimmings only highlight their old-fashioned essence.

That said, I find it hard to see the proposed changes in eligibility rules as terribly subversive. If girl marries a boy at 17 in a fit of puppy love, and then they realize they've made a mistake and get divorced, is she really some kind of Jezebel whose tainted past would compromise the purity of Miss America? Would it be better if they had just lived together?

(At present, contestants must attest that they are not currently cohabiting, but no questions are asked about past shacking up.)

It's true that Miss America is supposed to have a wholesome image; but even under the old rules, wholesomeness ain't what it used to be. Miss America 1998, Kate Shindle, used her pedestal to crusade for AIDS prevention programs in schools, urging not only frank discussions of sex but condom distribution. Those who think an abortion marks a woman as immoral may be chagrined to learn that during her reign, old-fashioned Miss Cornett described herself as a "pro-choice Christian."

When it comes to personal matters, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy is probably best. (Incidentally, it doesn't seem to upset any conservatives that contestants have never been required to vouch for their heterosexuality.) As for the little girls, most of them will always be awed by the pretty women in their evening gowns and tiaras.

But when it comes to role models, I hope they will choose someone of more substance -- even if the pretty woman has a platform.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young