On Sept. 7, 1968, a group of women, maybe 200 in all, from across the country, converged on Atlantic City in New Jersey to protest the 42nd Miss America pageant.
They marched along the boardwalk outside Convention Hall carrying signs that read, “All Women Are Beautiful,” and “If you want meat, go to the butcher,” railing against the pageant as sexist because, in their view, women were judged mostly on looks, with a smidgen of attention paid to talent.
But there was more to it than that. The protesters, organized by the New York Radical Women, didn't only want to end the annual beauty contest.
They called out the pageant for its commercialism, for supporting the Vietnam War by sending winners to entertain the troops, and for racism because it had not yet crowned a black Miss America. (As it happened, the first Miss Black America was crowned at a separate pageant, down the street, that same night.)
Because millions of viewers watched the pageant, aired live on NBC, the event gave the women's liberation movement unprecedented media coverage, launching it into the national spotlight. The coverage also helped foster the image of feminists as bra-burners, though in reality, no bras were burned.
But for many, it was the start of a new wave of feminism.
Fifty years later, two women who had been on opposite sides of the protest, activist and writer Kathie Sarachild and Judith Ford, crowned Miss America 1969 that night, can look back on what happened and still feel the excitement and the fear, and they can see how it changed their lives.
It was a pivotal year for the country, and for each of them, one a protester, one a participant. And for all their differences that day, the women would find common ground.
The young contestant
Judith Ann Ford wasn’t a typical pageant girl.
She was 18, a lifeguard in her hometown of Belvidere, Ill., population 12,000. She competed in diving and gymnastics and on the trampoline.
Her father was a school superintendent, her mother a teacher.
Ford had been coaxed into the Miss Boone County Fair pageant by the manager of the SuperValu store, the father of one of her friends. She thought it might be fun.
Ford won, advanced to the state fair pageant, won that, and then won Miss Illinois.
Surprised, state pageant officials sent Ford to a modeling school in Chicago with a chaperone for six weeks of coaching before the Miss America pageant.
“You walk like an athlete,” the modeling coach there told her.
“Thank you,” Ford replied.
It wasn't a compliment. Ford was coached how to walk, pose and speak.
She was told she should color her blonde hair. A blonde hadn’t won Miss America in 12 years.
Ford refused. No one in her hometown would recognize her on TV.
It was fine. Pageant officials in Illinois had told her they didn’t expect her to win.
For the talent competition, Ford would perform an acrobatic dance and flip on the trampoline. Miss America didn't sweat, they told her.
Too young, too blonde, too athletic. She should just enjoy herself.
Kathie Sarachild was in high school when she discovered “The Second Sex” by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir on her mother’s bookshelf.
In it, Sarachild read about the cultural restraints on women, how society fosters the idea of what a woman should do, how gender roles are not inherent but learned.
She read it like it was the Bible.
Sarachild studied history, attending Radcliffe College at Harvard University, where she was the only woman on the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper.
She graduated in 1964 and joined Freedom Summer, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi, as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
She volunteered there for a year, then returned to New York, where she got involved in the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
Learning about the problem wasn’t enough. She had to do something to solve it.
In the fall of 1967, Sarachild joined a group of women, led by artist Shulamith Firestone and foster-care worker Pam Allen. They were mostly in their 20s and many were active in the civil rights and antiwar movements.
They met in cramped apartments and borrowed office space, talking about a second wave of feminism, different from the first wave that focused on suffrage and property rights.
They took the name New York Radical Women to separate themselves from the newly formed National Organization for Women, or NOW.
Sarachild thought women were ready for more, for something radical.
They would use protest techniques of the civil rights movement — shared personal experiences and public theater — to explain how women were oppressed at home and in the workplace.
At the group’s first public action, a mock burial of traditional womanhood at Arlington National Cemetery, Sarachild gave the speech in which she used the phrase, “Sisterhood is powerful.”
It would become a rallying cry for the women’s liberation movement.
The pageant protest
The Miss America protest was Carol Hanisch’s idea.
The 26-year-old journalist came up with it in August 1968 after a meeting where the group discussed a short film, "Schmeerguntz," about how beauty standards oppressed women. It included clips of Miss America in her swimsuit.
The group put out a press release, inviting women to “protest the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.”
Women and activists converged on Atlantic City, in cars and rented buses, some from as far as Michigan and Florida. Sarachild, then 25, was delighted. She wore a sign on her back that read “Women’s Liberation.”
The protesters compared the pageant to a livestock auction and crowned a sheep as "Miss America" on the boardwalk.
One woman, her arms full of pots and pans, holding her child, mopped the boardwalk to show how a woman’s work is never done.
Flo Kennedy, a black activist and lawyer, and Bonnie Allen, a black housewife from the Bronx, each chained themselves to a puppet of Miss America to illustrate how women were enslaved by beauty standards.
And, one after another, women dropped bras, girdles, mops, pots and pans, hairspray and mascara and copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan, all instruments of “female torture," into a trash can.
It was the trash can that gave rise to the myth of the bra-burning. An earlier New York Post story suggested protesters would burn bras, like anti-war protesters burned their draft cards.
But police asked the women not to set anything on fire because the boardwalk was made of wood. They didn’t.
It was a perfect day, Sarachild thought, sunny but not too hot. There were some hecklers in the crowd, but people were taking fliers from Sarachild’s hands and they were reading them.
'What did I get myself into?'
Inside Convention Hall, the contestants had competed for a week in preliminary rounds, walking through the swimsuit, evening gown and talent competitions before the live show that night.
Ford had been overwhelmed when she arrived. Convention Hall, which doubled as an arena for indoor football, was huge. The runway looked a half mile long.
“Geez, what did I get myself into?’” Ford thought.
But the other contestants were nice, and she wasn’t under any pressure to win.
The women had heard about the protest and during rehearsal, when their chaperones were distracted, they ducked out a side door to see what was happening.
Ford didn’t understand why they were protesting. Her mother worked while she was growing up. Her parents had never told her she couldn’t do anything because she was a girl.
She had just finished her freshman year at the University of Southwest Louisiana, where she was the only woman on the men’s gymnastics team and the first woman to earn a varsity letter in any sport.
Ford saw the protesters’ signs: “Women are enslaved by beauty standards” and “Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?”
She slipped back into the hall. She didn’t feel oppressed.
The protesters wanted women to be empowered, to make their own choices.
“If you don’t want to enter a pageant, that’s fine,” she thought. “If I want to enter a pageant, then that’s my prerogative.”
Ford saw it as an opportunity, a chance to win money for college. Really, she thought, “Their goals and ours are the same.”
'We pulled it off'
At least 17 protesters entered Convention Hall, dressed in skirts, wearing nylons and heels and carrying pocketbooks.
Sarachild was one of four women who made their way to the front row of the balcony, where they planned to unfurl a bed-sheet banner that said “women’s liberation” over the edge.
Sarachild glanced nervously at Carol Hanisch, Lorraine Fletcher and a fourth woman whose name she did not know.
Sarachild was scared.
Peggy Dobbins had been arrested downstairs for spraying Toni Home Permanent, a foul-smelling hair product made by a pageant sponsor, along the aisle.
What if Sarachild was arrested? She had just landed a union film editing job. She had to be at work on Monday. She wavered.
But then one of the women stood up, so Sarachild did, too. The others followed.
They unfurled the banner, shouting, “women’s liberation” and “no more Miss America!” a half a dozen times.
It took police and security less than a minute to reach the women. They were hustled downstairs and out a side door.
Sarachild was amazed they weren’t arrested.
“We pulled it off,” she shouted outside, laughing and relieved.
Bert Parks and the question
On stage, Ford heard the shouting from the balcony, but, blinded by the spotlights directed at the stage, she couldn’t see what was happening.
She knew people would be glued to their TVs in her hometown.
Bert Parks called the names of the five finalists. Ford, much to her amazement, was the last.
Each contestant would answer a question before the judges made their final decision.
Parks asked one woman why she chose music as her major. He asked another about her summer job as a bacteriologist in an Oregon pea factory.
Ford relaxed. This would be easy. She was the only contestant ever to use a trampoline in talent. Parks would ask her about that, she was sure of it.
Parks greeted her, “It’s nice to see you back on Earth again.” She laughed.
And he did ask about the trampoline. “How high do you get up there?”
Maybe 20, 25 feet, she told him.
“I bet Ed McMahon’s been higher than that,” Parks replied.
The audience roared. Ford didn’t get the joke.
But then came the question: “In your own questionnaire, you said that the most important thing that you could do to make America a better place to live was to help people to learn to live together happily and peacefully.”
Ford froze, a smile on her face.
Earlier in the week, contestants had been asked to complete questionnaires. Ford had filled hers out on the bus from the hotel to the convention hall.
“In what specific way would you try to accomplish this?” Park asked.
It was a tough question. Ford was silent for eight seconds, a long time on live TV. She was thinking, “This is so unfair.”
And then she answered, “In order to make people live together more peacefully, I think that a person has to learn that he is no better than his neighbor, and that all people are equal and should be given equal opportunity for all things.
There she was
For Ford, the hard part was over. As the judges tabulated the scores, Ford thought, “The worst I could do is get last place.”
They named the fourth runner-up. Miss Indiana, Katherine Field.
In Ford’s hometown, the power went out, blackening the TV screens of those watching. They missed the third runner-up. Miss Oregon, Marjean Kay Langley.
The power flickered back on just as the second runner-up was announced. Miss Iowa, Susan Thompson.
There were only two left. Ford let herself believe she might win.
Parks announced the first runner-up: Miss Massachusetts, Catherine Monroe.
Ford's mouth dropped open in surprise. She barely heard Parks announce her name as Miss America 1969. Miss Illinois, Judith Anne Ford.
Crying and laughing at the same time, she ducked into the sash, the crown nestled into her hair. Parks sang "There She Is" as Ford walked the long runway, photographers three deep on either side.
In her hometown, people spilled out of their houses cheering and honking car horns. Someone pushed a piano outside and played in the street.
A year with the crown
Ford spent the year after winning Miss America making appearances across the country, traveling 20,000 miles a month for openings, races and community events. Often, there were protesters.
Reporters pressed her with questions about women’s liberation, civil rights and the Vietnam War.
At 18, she wasn’t prepared. What should she say?
A Miss America official told her, “You’re a bright young lady. You have your own opinions.” But the official cautioned her to speak carefully. Anything she said would make news.
Ford was confused by protesters’ insistence that she was being exploited. She had won a $50,000 scholarship. She was paid for each appearance.
“If this is exploitation,” she thought, “go ahead, exploit me. I’m good with this.”
She was asked her measurements (36, 24 ½, 36), height (5-7) and weight (125), her preference for cut off blue jeans and sweatshirts, and whether blondes have more fun.
“I wouldn’t know," she told reporters, "I’ve never been a brunette.”
But Ford also talked about how a woman can be athletic and still be feminine, the importance of physical fitness, how she planned to be a physical education teacher, and as she said the night she won Miss America, that everyone should have equal opportunity, a chance to make their own choices.
In August 1969, Ford went to Vietnam for three weeks with six other Miss America contestants on a USO Tour, appearing on makeshift stages and on the back of flatbed trucks.
The women traveled by helicopter, skirting the demilitarized zone. Ford didn’t think about the danger.
The men lined up for autographs and thanked her for coming. They were glad they had not been forgotten. She visited soldiers in the hospital, sitting at their bedsides.
Unlike her other appearances, this felt meaningful. This felt important.
Ford returned to college a month later, this time at the University of Illinois, where students protested the Vietnam War.
Ford still was taking malaria pills from the time she had spent there. She didn't join in. She told her classmates, “Protest the war if you want but support the guys over there.”
A movement grows
Sarachild was exhilarated by the protest.
She loved that the women’s liberation movement was getting so much attention.
Meetings of the New York Radical Women were packed with new faces. Mail poured in from women asking to get involved. One housewife wrote, “I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”
Groups sprang up in Chicago, Toronto, Seattle and Detroit.
Sarachild was glad to see women weren’t afraid of the word “radical” in the group’s name.
“It was almost as if they were turned on by it,” she thought. “Women were ready for some in-your-face stuff.”
Women’s liberation journals, mostly mimeographed newsletters, exploded across the country. Women wrote essays and books about sex, gender roles and the patriarchy that would lay the foundation for women’s studies.
The New York Radical Women expanded, then fell apart. Groups splintered off, and the women joined those.
For Sarachild, it was Redstockings, conceived as an intellectual study group. But it was its fiery abortion speak-out in March 1969, where women talked about their then criminal abortions, that inspired journalist Gloria Steinem to join the movement.
This was going to catch on, Sarachild was sure of it.
After her reign
Ford graduated from college, married at 21 and had two sons.
She worked, as her mother had, as a national spokesperson for companies like the Water Quality Association, American Rose Growers Association and National Bowling Council. She honed skills she learned in her year as Miss America.
Ford was appointed twice to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
She paid attention to the women's liberation movement, but it never really felt like her issue. She had the best of both worlds.
Ford divorced in 1987 at age 37, and she and her husband agreed to each take one of their two credit cards. Hers was canceled.
She had to reapply as a single person and she was turned down.
Ford would eventually get one, using her good credit history on her corporate credit card at work.
She remarried and at 40, she became a teacher. She taught for 22 years before retiring from Geneseo High in Geneseo, Ill., where she lives with her husband Jim Nash.
Not yet equal footing
Looking back, Ford realizes she grew up quickly in that year after winning Miss America.
"It was a much more momentous year of unrest than I was aware of at the time,” she said.
As she got older, she better understood why protesters targeted the pageant. But it still had been her choice, and she is grateful for the opportunities it brought her.
Ford, 68, still gets letters from soldiers she met in Vietnam all those years ago. “I want you to know how much that meant to us,” one wrote recently.
It was important. It was meaningful.
But from her perspective now, she understands that what the protesters were doing was important and meaningful, too.
“There were things that needed to be changed, and there are still things that need to be changed, so women and men can be equal all these years later.”
Because there is something she and Sarachild agree on.
“Things are changing, though not fast enough,” Ford said. “It’s not equal footing yet.”
In the years after
Back in New York, Sarachild made it to her union film editing job the Monday after the protest. She worked in the industry for more than 20 years, writing and editing all the while.
Sarachild launched consciousness-raising as an organizing technique, writing and presenting at conferences about how to raise awareness of an unfair situation with the aim of making people want to help change it.
She taught English as a second language classes and didn't marry until she was 51. She has four step-children.
Sarachild, 75, is still with Redstockings, writing and advocating.
“Maintaining the feminist movement is like housework," she said. "You wish you didn’t have to do it, but it is one of those things that has to be done.
“You can still fight it."
In 2015, Sarachild noticed that New York’s subways seemed covered in sexist advertising, from breast enhancement to lingerie sales. Even luggage was being pitched by half-dressed women.
So Sarachild and members of Redstockings revived stickers that said “this oppresses women,” pasting them on the ads as they had in 1969. The campaign went viral on social media, and the ads were removed.
“My point is, maintenance," Sarachild said. "If you maintain the base to keep up the fight, whenever this stuff rears its head, it will go away."
The cultural definition of beauty has expanded since 1968, but women still are judged by their looks. There are inequities in the workplace and at home.
"There's still so much to do," Sarachild said. “It kind of puts a fire under you."
Reach Bland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8614. Read more at karinabland.azcentral.com.
For all the stories about this transformational year, visit 1968.usatoday.com