Miss America: Standards of American Beauty Over the Years

When Miss America was founded in 1921, the winner was crowned "the Golden Mermaid." Today, she's much more than a bathing suit-clad girl posing near the water.

The Miss America Organization has become the largest scholarship provider for women in the world, awarding gifts for education at the local and national levels. Winners promote charities and do volunteer work, traveling across the country to advocate for their varied causes. The organization is now focusing particularly on women in STEM.

In past, the competition has come under fire for its lack of diversity and limited standards of beauty, prompting protests in accordance with the women's movement in 1968. MAKER Robin Morgan was one of the key leaders of this campaign.

While the organization and competition have their flaws, Miss America has been an interesting indicator of societal standards of beauty and femininity. One winner supported her five siblings on the sponsorship deals that arose with her newfound fame, while another became a notable movie star. Miss Americas have always championed service, whether they sold wartime bonds or advocated against domestic violence. Miss America 2014 was the first Indian American to win, and she performed a Bollywood-fusion dance as her talent. This year's competition includes Maggie Bridges aka Miss Georgia, a competitor whose favorite class is coding and who wore 3D-printed shoes made by her classmates in the traditional "Show Us Your Shoes" parade. Whoever wins this year will gain the chance to be a role model of 2015, speaking out for positive causes across the nation. Click through the slideshow above to meet some of the women in whose footsteps she follows.


The first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was initially crowned "Inter-City Beauty, Amateur" and "The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America" in 1921. The judges found those titles a bit "awkward," so named her Miss America in 1922. 

Mary Katherine Campbell was the first Miss America to have graduated high school. She became an art major at Ohio State University right after winning her title. She won a second time in 1923.

When Ruth Malcomson won in 1924, the pageant was still often called The Atlantic City Pageant, with the winner called "The Golden Mermaid."

Fay Lanphier was the oldest of six children, and when her father passed away, she became the breadwinner for her family. She was set to star in "The American Venus," but then a tabloid published an article claiming the competition had been rigged in Fay's favor. She was dropped from her film contract so went on a 16-week dance tour instead, earning an estimated $50,000.

Norma Smallwood graduated from high school at age 16 and was the first Native American to win the Miss America title, in 1926. 

In high school, Lois Delander had won a competition for musical memory and a medal for knowing Bible verses. In her acceptance speech, she said, "Now I must rush home and take up my studies."

From 1923 to 1933, the pageant was shut down due to financial issues and the idea that it promoted "loose morals." In 1933, Marian Bergeron won at age 15. She was already a well-established vocalist who sang blues on a New Haven radio station. Here, she feeds a piece of cake to Miss America 1995 at a celebration of the organizations 75th anniversary.

When Henrietta Leaver (winner in 1935) showed up at the Atlantic City pier, she was alarmed to find out that contestants had to perform some kind of talent. She pulled off a last-minute singing and tap-dancing performance of "Living in a Great Big Way."  

When Marilyn Meseke won in 1938, it was estimated that approximately half of the nation saw a Miss America crowned for the first time through movie theatre newsreels.

After winning the title of Miss America in 1943, Jean Bartel refused to pose in a swimsuit. Then, while she was on a tour selling war bonds, she came up with the idea to make Miss America a scholarship fund. She spoke to the board of directors, and within two years, a scholarship fund was established.

Venus Ramey won the Miss America title in 1944. The natural transition was into show business, but Venus was not interested in being a stage star. Instead, she ran for a seat in Kentucky's House of Representatives, making her the first Miss America to run for office. 

BeBe Shopp was the first Miss America to be crowned in an evening dress rather than a bathing suit. She graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a degree in percussion in 1952.  

In 1951, Yolanda Betbeze won the Miss America title then refused to pose in a swimsuit again. After her one-year Miss America reign, Fox was active in NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and studied philosophy at the New School in New York.

When Evelyn Ay won the title in 1954, the Miss America Pageant was broadcast live for the very first time. That broadcast broke viewership records of the day with 39 percent of the television audience (27 million viewers) tuning in to watch the Miss America telecast.

Lee Meriweather, Miss America 1955, was the first Catwoman.

Marian McKnight was a straight-A college student, graduating from UCLA with a degree in Language Arts.

Miss America 1959 Mary Ann Mobley was friends with William Faulkner and, for five years, she performed death-defying circus acts like high-wire, trapeze, perch, and web acts in an annual spectacular, "Circus of the Stars."

In 1968, New York Radical Women organized a protest of the Miss America pageant, including a burning of symbolic feminine products. They also unfurled a "Women's Liberation" banner while inside the contest. MAKER Robin Morgan wrote a pamphlet entitled "No More Miss America!" which listed characteristics of the pageant that, Morgan believed, degraded women.  Watch Robin's Story

1969 winner Judith Ford was a world-class trampolinist. She had competed nationally and internationally before entering the Miss America pageant. 

In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America. But when Penthouse published a nude photo of her on its cover without her consent, she was pressured by pageant officials to resign.  She went on to be nominated for a number of Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards for her work in music, theatre, and TV. She sung "Colors of the Wind" for Pocahontas, which won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1995. She is also, according to Jezebel, an Unapologetic Badass.

In 1992, Carolyne Sapp was the first Miss Hawaii contestant to win Miss America. Previous to the contest, she had dated a New York Jets football player. When he was cut from the team, he began physically abusing her. Sapp was outspoken about her story and founded Safe Places for Abused Women and Children, a national, non-profit organization whose mission is to provide funding for programs and shelters for women and children.

Angela Perez Baraquio is the first Asian American and first teacher to be crowned Miss America. In 2001, she founded a non-profit education foundation dedicated to promoting character education and provide scholarships and grants for students and teachers.

Mallory Hagan is the first Brooklynite to win Miss America. She's an advocate against child abuse and for gun control.

Nina Davuluri is the first Indian American to be chosen as Miss America, and the first to perform a Bollywood dance on the Miss America stage. She studied Behavior and Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan and is currently applying to MBA programs. When she won in 2014, she received racist backlash on social media. Her platform was cultural diversity.