I was in the audience when Debbye Turner Bell, one my fellow guests on Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, was crowned Miss America 1990. At nine years old, I was not only awed by her skilled marimba playing, but also by the academic achievements of the Miss America who crowned her–future Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who was then a student at Stanford University.
After the crowning I turned to my mother, wide-eyed, and asked, “Will I get to meet a real Miss America now?” This was funny because my mother was actually Pamela Eldred, Miss America 1970.
Around that time I asked Mom if I could compete in a beauty pageant; I was a naturally competitive child so it wasn’t a surprise I might be interested even though I had terrifically buck teeth and wore Coke bottle-shaped glasses. I will never forget Mom’s response:
“Hilary, you need to do something different from what I did and forge your own path. Besides, even if you deserved to win some people might say you only won because of who I am, or others might make sure you don’t win because of me. What is it that you would like to do?”
During our discussion on Sunday morning about the relevance of the pageant, Melissa, Debbye, and Soledad O’Brien all gave their opinions on letting their daughters compete. In general the consensus was that if the girl really wanted to do it, and she was old enough to understand what it meant, it could be fine, even if the first visceral response was no. I found this interesting because of course I once was that girl.
Ultimately I decided that I never wanted to wear a bathing suit in front of millions of people, as I wrote in The New York Times last week. If I had really wanted to compete in the Miss America program, I am sure my mother would have supported me. Other daughters of Miss Americas have made a different choice.
Last year Miss America 1974 Rebecca King watched her daughter, Diana Dreman, compete on the Miss America stage—the first mother-daughter Miss America competitors (both represented Colorado). Miss America 1988 Kaye Lani Rae Rafko’s teenage daughter, Alana Rae Wilson, competes in the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Program in Michigan, and she even does the same talent as her mother (Tahitian dance).
In more than one hundred years since beauty pageants have been held in America, we’ve have witnessed remarkable changes in the lives of women and children—from a time when women did not have the right to vote and schooling wasn’t compulsory for all children, to a time when now Miss Americas run for political office and young women use pageants to fund their higher education goals.
When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014 on Sunday night she earned $50,000 to put toward her medical school bills. She also became the first Indian-American woman to win the title, and only the second woman of Asian descent to wear the crown. This diversity (though it wasn’t well-received by everyone) shows how American standards of beauty and achievement continue to evolve.
Sure, Davuluri could have skipped competing in pageants and found other ways to pay for medical school. Miss America is one way to fund an education (in addition to scholarship money, state winners and Miss America earn appearance fees, and Miss America earns a salary), but it is by no means the only way. Clearly today’s young women, from every racial and ethnic background, can choose their own paths.
While I don’t have a daughter myself (I have a son, with another on the way), I would hope that if I ever do, and if she ever asked me about competing in a beauty pageant, I’d reply the same way my mother did and support her in whatever avenues she wants to pursue.
Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Inequality at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.