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Hilary Levey Friedman

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There She Goes: A Trailblazing, Feminist Beauty Queen

Posted: 03/15/11 03:36 PM ET

Last week women around the world observed the 100th celebration of International Women's Day. We honored female trailblazers and leaders.

One woman not discussed was Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943, who passed away two days before International Women's Day. Some of you may think that beauty queens aren't female leaders, and that they certainly aren't trailblazers. But Jean Bartel was both. Her reign illustrates how the Miss America Pageant was historically a transformative, feminist enterprise for American women.

When the Pageant started as a bathing beauty contest in 1921, no "respectable" women participated. It wasn't until 1935 when the formidable Lenora Slaughter (a female leader in her own right) took over the Pageant that it began to become an endeavor for the nation's "ideal" young women. Slaughter insisted that the girls competing could be something more than pretty faces, and she went on to establish some of the most distinctive and enduring characteristics of today's Miss America Pageant. In 1938 Slaughter made the talent portion of the competition mandatory; in 1941 she got the name officially changed to "The Miss America Pageant;" and in 1945 she gave out the first scholarship to the winner. All of Slaughter's effort were a calculated attempt to attract "ladies" to participate in the Pageant.

And Jean Bartel was one of those ladies. In 1942 she entered the Miss California pageant, after learning that one of the national pageant judges was a Broadway financier. Bartel wanted to be a Broadway star, and she figured this would be her chance to show of her singing chops, thanks to the talent portion of the Pageant. She entered the state pageant, won, and a month later traveled to Atlantic City, where she also won. The rest is history.

Jean Bartel made history for the Miss America Pageant -- and pageantry in general -- in two ways (all while selling more war bonds than any other individual in 1943). First, after her win, Bartel said she would not pose for pictures in her bathing suit. She was quoted as saying, "I use a bathing suit to go swimming in." For an organization that started out as a bathing beauty contest, and was sponsored by Catalina, a bathing suit company, this stance certainly upset the apple cart. Bartel's actions paved the way for Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951, to take a stand for "propriety," and refuse to be crowned in her bathing suit. Betbeze's decision was particularly fateful, as it led to Catalina pulling their sponsorship and starting their own beauty pageant -- what is known today as the Miss USA Pageant, part of the Miss Universe system, now owned by Donald Trump.

It is also thanks in large part to Bartel that the Miss America Pageant is reportedly the largest source of scholarship money for women anywhere in the world. Yes, Miss America is a pageant, but it is also a scholarship program, and Jean Bartel was instrumental in that transformation. When she was crowned, Bartel was a student at UCLA. During her year, she met with various sorority sisters who suggested that the Pageant could help support women in earning their college degrees. Bartel mentioned this to Slaughter, who awarded the first scholarship shortly afterward to Miss America 1945, Bess Myerson (also the first, and only, Jewish Miss America).

Imagine: funds available in the 1940s to help women pursue higher education; this was cutting edge at the time. Recent Miss Americas, and their fellow contestants, have used winnings to pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees, and to specifically pay for medical school and law school tuition bills. Today this may seem less extraordinary than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when women simply did not pursue graduate degrees in large numbers, both because of limited opportunities and finances. Miss America 1974, Rebecca King, was able to pay for law school because of her scholarship winnings, and is credited as being one of the first Miss Americas to use her winnings for graduate education. Yes, she had to wear a bathing suit to get the money, but thanks to Bartel and Betbeze, at least she didn't have to wear it while being crowned.

With so many more opportunities available to women today -- both in higher education and in entertainment -- it's easy for many to dismiss the Miss America Pageant. But Jean Bartel reminds us, particularly as we think about women's roles around the world, that it hasn't always been so easy. While parts of the Pageant may seem a bit outdated today (like the swimsuit competition), those features evolved over time, and women fought hard for progress when it came to baring their bathing suit bodies and supporting their minds. Who knows what changes the next 70 years will bring, and who the trailblazer who brings them will be?

 

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