The Battle for Miss America

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

by Elizabeth Gracen

Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921

As someone who has just recently ventured back into the Miss America orbit after having been well away from it for over 30 years, these past eight months have been equal parts fascinating and horrifying to watch. I’ve had my ticket to Atlantic City for over a month now, with the full intention of returning to the event in September, but I have yet to decide if I will actually go. The circus atmosphere and continually destructive actions made by many involved with the MAO system have given me pause.

As a mother of a sassy 13-year-old daughter, I am keenly interested in helping young women excel and discover their power based on what is in the their heads and hearts—not based on what other people think about their physical appearance.

The latter part of that statement stems from my own school of hard knocks that began in the late 70s and set me on a treacherous path of self-objectification and allowing other people to objectify me based on my appearance, likability, sex appeal and the ultimate Hollywood definition of "f**ability." I consider my pageant career and its outdated, misogynistic template of objectification and Barbie-doll emphasis on physical appearance as the origin of what would constitute many years of self-destructive, misplaced energy and wasted time.

With the dramatic sea-change that surfaced within the MAO this past January, (thirty years since I walked away), I felt the first inklings of real possibility for the organization. Might they actually stop requiring young women to vie for scholarships by stuffing their intelligence, talent and chutzpah into a swimsuit and heels to parade around like dolls for sale? Could the MAO actually step into relevance and not simply be a joke to anyone outside of its narrow scope? Could it finally attract significant scholarships from major institutions and sponsors? Could it be a relevant platform to nurture the future female leaders of America? Could it finally be something I could actually be proud to be a part of?

With the election of Gretchen Carlson and Regina Hopper, I felt that significant change could be possible. These level-headed, powerful women stepped up to the plate, asking no financial compensation in return, to keep the organization afloat. They boldly moved forward in an attempt to bring the organization into the 21st century. It has been inspiring to watch them, and I have been proud to support their efforts ever since.

Even though it took me years of therapy to shake off the Miss America cloak of what I consider harmful body shaming, objectification and misogynistic "ideals," my year as Miss America allowed me to see the world outside my experience as a small-town girl from Arkansas. The scholarships I won afforded me the opportunity to move to NYC and begin my study and career as an actress and artist. For that I am forever grateful. My hope is that the current Miss America, Cara Mund, and whoever is crowned Miss A in the coming years get that same type of opportunity. However, as public and corporate interest in the organization has waned, I have my doubts that they will get that chance—not unless significant change continues to be implemented.

Cara Mund’s dramatic public letter accusing Gretchen Carlson and Regina Hopper of systematically bullying and silencing her in her role as Miss America is beyond sad and disturbing. However, as bad as I feel for Cara in what must have been an incredibly difficult year, I question her timing and the motivating forces that convinced her to release it.

Cara Mund, Miss America 2018