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Good-Bye Miss Congeniality

The year is 1968. A protest at the Miss America pageant is about to transform the way U.S. society views women—and the way one earnest congressional staffer views herself.

Tennis was the sport of choice in Washington in the 1960s. My husband, Mac, a government economist and the product of a family that had groomed him for success, was a serious competitor, not only in the game itself but in the professional networking that surrounded it. I was a novice at both. After we joined the National Cathedral Tennis Club, Mac instructed me to buy full tennis whites and tennis sneakers so I at least looked like I belonged on a court. I did as I was told. Although my game didn’t improve much, tennis opened up an unexpected opportunity.

One spring evening in 1968 as we were leaving the courts, we ran into a former classmate of Mac’s from Yale. Paul Gorman would eventually leave the political world to collaborate with the guru Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert, A52) on such spiritual classics as The Only Dance There Is. But then he worked on Capitol Hill as the chief staff assistant for a group of liberal congressmen who were the key congressional opponents of the Vietnam War. When he asked what I did, I told him I was a lobbyist for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the oldest peace organization in the country. “That’s a great organization,” he said. Astonishingly, not only had he heard of WILPF but he knew its members included the only two American women to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. He thought for a moment. “You should apply for my job,” he said. “You have the right background.” I was speechless. No women I knew worked as professionals on Capitol Hill. “I mean it,” he said. “Send me your résumé, and I’ll pass it on to the right people.”

Months later, after I had forgotten all about sending him the résumé, I received a call from the office of Benjamin Rosenthal—a congressman from Queens—telling me to come for an interview. At the end of our meeting, he said the next step was to meet with Wisconsin representative Bob Kastenmeier, the senior member of their congressional group. In the three months that elapsed before my interview took place in Kastenmeier’s large office in the Rayburn building, much had changed in America.

Most of the interview with Kastenmeier went smoothly. He was impressed that I had a graduate degree in international affairs and had lived in Europe for three years. It was “a man’s résumé.” Then he asked suspiciously: “You’re not one of those libbers or bra burners, are you?” He was referring to the notorious demonstration that had taken place in September during the Miss America pageant. As I launched into what I thought was an amusing story of how the famous bra- burning incident never occurred, I noticed he was slow to smile.

The flamboyant feminist protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant might have seemed minor in the context of a year that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the student uprising in Paris, and the riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention. But it marked a sea change in social protest movements.

Despite all the political upheavals of the era, Americans’ beliefs about gender, home, and family seemed immutable. The Harvard sociologist David Riesman had predicted only the year before, “If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women.” With women’s access to education, our relative economic security, our labor-saving kitchen appliances, we were supposed to have the most enviable lifestyle in the world. Just who were these “women’s libbers”? And why would women need liberation in the first place?

“No,” I finally assured him. “I’m not a bra burner.” How could I be, sitting there in my pearls, high heels, and a suit that I had bought in Italy? If I hadn’t looked like a cheerleader, I would never have gotten the job.

THOSE WOMEN’S LIBBERS The truth was I was a little mystified about the goals of the Miss America protestors. I had received a quick course in the first wave of feminism—the suffrage movement—while I worked at the women’s peace organization. The 76-year-old president emerita, Mildred Scott Olmstead, took every opportunity to give me “a little background,” as she called it. After I told her I’d been taught in my college history courses that women had been “given” the vote after World War I because of their contributions to the war effort, she said, with a sigh, “Oh no. It wasn’t like that at all.” Then she told me how suffrage demonstrators had been beaten, arrested, and jailed for a month during the war for petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to support their cause.

The second wave of feminism, the one that burst onto the scene at the Miss America protest, was focused less on legal rights and more on cultural structures and the myriad subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which sexism permeated women’s daily lives. With the rallying cry “the personal is political,” the demonstrators in Atlantic City used street theater to illustrate their message that society’s notions of female beauty promoted unattainable standards that oppressed women. Why, they asked, had there never been a winner with a nonwhite skin color? Why were most of the winners blue-eyed blondes with Barbie doll figures? They charged that the advertising industry used women’s bodies to sell products, everything from automobiles to cosmetics. Examples were easy to find: “Buy two big ones,” read one ad that featured a chesty model posed between a pair of tires. “I’m Margie. Fly me,” ran the caption underneath a photograph of a model posing as an airline stewardess. (Real stewardesses had to retire whenever they married or reached the age of 30, whichever came first.)

Like every good American, I had watched the Miss America contest on television since I was a little girl. I loved to see the winner walking down the runway in her crown, carrying her roses, and crying—the winners were always crying—with Bert Parks singing “There she is, Miss America” in the baritone of a kindly, but drunken, uncle.

Now, on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a sheep was crowned queen of the pageant and paraded up and down wearing a rhinestone tiara. This picture appeared in newspapers across the country with a caption explaining that the sheep represented mindless subservience to false values. By the end of the five-day protest, the Miss America contest no longer seemed so innocent. Television viewers outside the Atlantic City Convention Center had seen the unfurling of a banner that read in huge letters: WOMEN’S LIBERATION. Inside the hall, audience members were assaulted with what the press called a “stench bomb.” (In reality, the obnoxious ammonia-smelling fumes came from beauticians’ perm solution, which had been sprayed lavishly into the air.)

When the media showed up to cover these newsworthy events—far more interesting than the pageant itself—the demonstrators refused to speak to newsmen. “Male reporters will be refused interviews,” their flyers proclaimed. “Only newswomen will be recognized.” At the time, newsrooms were made up of male reporters; women were on the food and fashion pages. What men did was politics; what women did was social.

During the pageant, more than two hundred motivated feminists passed out press releases, held impromptu debates, and staged street theater performances, including the one that would spawn the term “bra burner.” Ironically, that event—announced as a bonfire of “instruments of beauty torture,” including girdles, bras, plastic hair rollers, false eyelashes, makeup—never took place. The mayor of Atlantic City, concerned about fire safety on the wooden boardwalk, refused to issue a permit. The demonstrators, remembering other violent clashes with the police, sought to avoid a confrontation. Instead, they ceremoniously deposited the offending items in a giant “Freedom Trash Can.”

The New York Times correctly reported that no incineration had occurred. But others referred to the women as “bra burners,” and soon the term became a synonym for crazed feminists. As the historian Ruth Rosen later pointed out, sexualizing the protest was a way to trivialize women’s activism.

EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK I got the job. After I started, however, my perception of reality began to change. I soon realized I was one of only a handful of professional women on Capitol Hill. (I counted four.) At the time, there were only 10 women elected to the House and one to the Senate. In all U.S. history, only 72 women had reached the U.S. Congress, and most of them were widows. (This mantle of political legitimacy was called the “widow’s cloak.”)

The other senior staffers were men, and none of them had ever worked with a woman as a peer. To do so downgraded their status. “There goes the neighborhood,” someone commented when I entered a meeting. They expected me to put up with off-color jokes and comments about my body parts, dress, hemlines, personality, menstrual cycle, and suitability for professional life. If I expressed my views too forcefully, the men at the table hadn’t the slightest hesitancy to say, “That’s it. Kick ’em in the balls.” They always expected me to get the coffee (I did not) and to take notes (I did).

Then there was the matter of my frequently late paycheck, and its amount. When I told Bob Kastenmeier that apologies were not paying the rent, he answered, “Isn’t your husband working anymore?” I asked Ben Rosenthal why it was so difficult to pay me when it had been so easy to pay Paul Gorman. He replied, “Paying a man is a different matter. There’s just not the same sense of urgency with a woman.” Clearly, my complaints weren’t producing results, but there was no one to mediate for me.

Part of the problem was that women in politics were viewed as volunteers. Another was that congressional staffers served solely at the pleasure of individual congressmen, which meant there was no human resources office to go to. All women staffers in both the House and the Senate were expected to work one Saturday every month without pay, a requirement never expected of men. Male interns were given substantive research jobs; female interns were given secretarial and receptionist duties.

While the demands of my days changed, the expectations of wifedom did not. If I had to travel, Mac never picked me up at the airport, although he always assumed I could juggle my schedule to pick him up. We argued over who would take the clothes to the dry cleaner, who would do the grocery shopping, who could sew on buttons, who would do the cleaning. Mac didn’t do household chores. And he told me that if I couldn’t, I would have to hire someone who could.

My work as “the new Paul Gorman” was interesting and demanding. I publicized how the costs of the Vietnam War escalated, how military policies shifted, how justifications for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia changed from day to day. I met with rock concert promoters, movie stars, businessmen, Nobel Peace Prize recipients, senators, governors, literary lions, financial angels, university professors, and every variety of activist. I ghostwrote articles and speeches. I edited and managed the publication of books in the congressmen’s name, including one that a major reviewer called “the best book on Vietnam to date.” I had what one friend characterized as “the most interesting job in Washington.”

And yet . . .

When I arranged for the publication of the Vietnam book excerpt in the Washington Post, the editor, who had gone to graduate school with me at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, kept my male colleague’s name on it and omitted mine.

When I was going through old files, I found a memo about Paul Gorman’s salary. The discovery was galling: not only had Gorman been paid on time, but he had been paid a third more than I was.

When I told Mac how tired I was of being hit on at work, he said I should be flattered that I got so much attention.

When an official tour of the Capitol Building took my group into the basement, I asked the guide about a large sculpture of three women tucked away in a dusty corner. It was a lost statue of the women’s suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. The guide shrugged and couldn’t answer my questions. So I called up the Architect of the Capitol and asked why the famous statue wasn’t in the Rotunda or Statuary Hall, since there wasn’t a single statue of a woman among the rows and rows of marble male figures. “Oh, the Rotunda can’t stand the weight,” he answered.

THE LADIES’ GALLERY These experiences opened my eyes to some unsettling truths. I realized I was no different from women working in other movements for change. Like them, I saw the gap between the egalitarian rhetoric and the way women were really treated. But at the same time, I was accumulating know-how and insider information. As the feminist historian Alice Echols said, it was in the male-dominated movements of the left that women acquired “the skills, confidence, and political savvy” necessary to build their own movement. I was an insider woman with outsider values.

The leaders of the Miss America protest were exactly the sort of women Echols was talking about. They knew a lot about strategy and tactics to achieve publicly articulated goals. The key groups—Women’s Liberation in Chicago, Gainesville (Florida) Women’s Liberation, New York Radical Women, and Redstockings, also based in New York—had, at their core, disaffected members of the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). These women were canny, smart, and well trained in guerilla theater, media relations, and political action. They understood discipline, organization, planning.

The protest, which seemed to come out of nowhere, had been planned for more than a year. The organizers obtained permits, trained marshals to monitor crowds and control hecklers, rented bullhorns, and conceptualized the demonstrations inside and outside the hall. They assigned volunteers to transport the sheep from a farm in New Jersey. They honed their message about the tyranny of society’s standards of female beauty and came up with a strategy for getting their message to the public by insisting on women reporters. They also understood the need to express ideas visually so that photographers would cover the event and editors would publish the images.

The actions in Atlantic City yielded unforeseen results. Among the most significant and long lasting was that it effectively ended the all-male newsroom. Because the Miss America demonstrators refused to speak to male reporters, news editors had to pull women off style sections and fashion pages, where most of them were employed, and assign them to the political desk. Women’s bylines ran over countless front-page stories—five days of colorful protests. Almost overnight, the women’s movement became a major news beat, and some of the journalists who had been propelled into the newsrooms to cover it stayed to become spokespeople themselves. Gloria Steinem, for instance, was largely unknown in 1968; but in 1971 she would rise to prominence as one of the founders and editors of the feminist magazine Ms. (And I would publish my first cover story for that same magazine.)

The image of the sheep with the tiara had an effect on women’s collective subconscious—certainly on mine. Acts of rebellion, previously unthinkable, began to seem necessary, as I realized on the day I went to the House to listen to a debate about military appropriations. The guard who stood at the gallery entrance held up his hand. “You can’t go in there,” he said loudly, as he waved my male colleagues through. I showed him my employee identification. “Doesn’t make any difference,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You have to sit in the Ladies’ Gallery.” He called over another guard and ordered him to escort me there. I went to the Ladies Gallery, but I was so outraged that I couldn’t concentrate on the debate, some of which I had helped write.

The minute I was back in my office, I called up the office of the Speaker of the House, Massachusetts’ John McCormack, and asked to talk to the person in charge of the galleries. “Little lady,” drawled William Fishbait Miller (his nickname came from his Mississippi childhood and small stature) after he heard my complaint, “that’s the way it’s been since before the Civil War, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

With indignation, I reminded him that the House might want to abide by the antidiscrimination laws it had passed for the rest of the nation. I noted that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, religion, or sex. “What kind of example are you setting? Do you realize that the Ladies’ Gallery is illegal?” He paused and said he would get back to me.

I didn’t know what an impact I had made until one night at my Capitol Hill Weight Watchers group, of which Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill—then the House majority leader—was a member (“What do you mean, Scotch is not on the diet?”). “So you’re the girl who called Fishbait,” he said after I introduced myself. “Fishbait spoke with the Speaker, you know. I think the Speaker is going to change the rules for the Ladies’ Gallery.” He looked at me with real curiosity.

The next day Fishbait telephoned me with the news. It was a fact. “There will be no more Ladies’ Galleries. I spoke with the Speaker. Ladies will be able to sit anywhere.” That was when I understood that good information combined with the right leverage and assertiveness could change institutions that seemed set in concrete.

So even though I had assured Bob Kastenmeier that I wasn’t a bra burner, the very fact of working in Congress had radicalized me. The misogynist wisecracks, the late paychecks, the constant expectation that I would remain compliant no matter what—all of it had had its effect. I realized that these funny, gregarious, politically skillful guys were never going to be on my side. They were as liberal as political culture allowed, but they were not going to do anything that upset domestic arrangements. I began to see myself as part of a larger community of women rather than the lucky “exceptional” woman who got to work in the privileged male sphere. I became aware that I had a voice of my own, and that what I said could make a difference.

In many ways the 1960s were about that shift in shared consciousness, that moment when I becomes we and where the personal story becomes history.

JUDITH NIES, J62, has worked as a journalist, teacher, historian, researcher, and speechwriter and is the author of several books, including Nine Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition (University of California Press). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Ms., and Harvard Review. She teaches writing at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and is a member of PEN America.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155