Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

Margot Mifflin (Author)


From an author praised for writing "delicious social history" (Dwight Garner, The New York Times) comes a lively account of memorable Miss America contestants, protests, and scandals--and how the pageant, nearing its one hundredth anniversary, serves as an unintended indicator of feminist progress

Looking for Miss America is a fast-paced narrative history of a curious and contradictory institution. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women's status during periods of social change--the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This ever-changing institution has been shaped by war, evangelism, the rise of television and reality TV, and, significantly, by contestants who confounded expectations.

Spotlighting individuals, from Yolande Betbeze, whose refusal to pose in swimsuits led an angry sponsor to launch the rival Miss USA contest, to the first black winner, Vanessa Williams, who received death threats and was protected by sharpshooters in her hometown parade, Margot Mifflin shows how women made hard bargains even as they used the pageant for economic advancement. The pageant's history includes, crucially, those it excluded; the notorious Rule Seven, which required contestants to be "of the white race," was retired in the 1950s, but no women of color were crowned until the 1980s.

In rigorously researched, vibrant chapters that unpack each decade of the pageant, Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.

Product Details

$28.00  $25.76
Counterpoint LLC
Publish Date
August 04, 2020
6.4 X 1.2 X 9.1 inches | 1.35 pounds

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About the Author

The author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo and The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, MARGOT MIFFLIN has written for publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker. Find out more at margotmifflin.com.


Praise for Looking for Miss America

Library Journal, A 2020 Title to Watch

"Vigorously researched and wryly humorous . . . This incisive and entertaining history deserves the spotlight." --Publishers Weekly

"Lively and probing . . . Whether fans or foes of Miss America, few readers will see the pageant in the same way after finishing this book. A cleareyed look at an iconic beauty pageant and its efforts to stave off irrelevance." --Kirkus Reviews

"Looking for Miss America is as surprising as it is insightful. With Mifflin's keen criticism and detailed portrayals, the reader gets to see the history of America through an unexpected and thought provoking lens. What seems like a forgotten and antiquated tradition is actually the perfect subject to explore America's struggles with feminism, misogyny, racism and identity. Utterly fascinating." --Mallory O'Meara, author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon

"The conception, commercialization, and exploitation of the 'ideal' woman, as embodied in the Miss America pageant, is a story that reflects the country's social forces and cultural biases. Margot Mifflin has written a lively history of Miss America that gives meaning to the ever-evolving image of today's women." --Lynn Povich, author of The Good Girls Revolt

"Looking for Miss America is a pleasure to read, a deceptively complex account of a bizarre American institution. With deep research and engaging writing, Margot Mifflin connects the Miss America pageant to the broader, often messy trajectory of 20th century American women's history." --Kristen Richardson, author of The Season

"While I may have stopped watching Miss America decades ago, I could not stop reading this remarkable account of its tangled, troubled history. Looking for Miss America showcases the trivia and the politics of this odd contest--but the depiction of its contestants' humanity is where Mifflin really shines. I wholeheartedly recommend this to book clubs and curious readers alike." --Therese Anne Fowler, author of A Good Neighborhood

"A sharp and immensely entertaining look at one of our country's most enduring--and controversial--traditions, Looking for Miss America also paints a microcosmic portrait of our past century, in unflinching and irreverent detail. With her gimlet eye and wry wit, Margot Mifflin is the perfect tour-guide on this journey through America's fundamentals: cheesecake, capitalism, racism, sexism, ambition, and old-school, unabashed glamor. I couldn't put it down." --Karen Abbott, author of New York Times bestseller The Ghosts of Eden Park

Praise for Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

"The insights [Margot Mifflin] brings are insinuating and complex . . . Bodies of Subversion is delicious social history." --The New York Times

"Mifflin's thesis is rooted in subversion. She asserts that tattoos in Western culture have always been subversive for women, especially in the 19th century when they violated the assumption that 'women should be pure, that their bodies should be concealed and controlled, and that ladies should not express their own desires.'" --The Atlantic

"Bodies of Subversion . . . beautifully documented the evolution of women and tattoos from Victorian couture to mastectomy scar coverups in the nineties . . . [It was] the only book to chronicle tattooed women and women tattoo artists." --The Cut

"More than just a photographic history of this deep subculture . . . [The book] is a close study of women during a period of historic limitations and social mobility, beginning to break barriers by exploring alternative ideas of beauty and self-expression." --Feministing

"In this provocative work full of intriguing female characters from tattoo history, Margot Mifflin makes a persuasive case for the tattooed woman as an emblem of female self-expression." --Susan Faludi

"Essential reading for anyone interested in the subject." --Ed Hardy

Praise for The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

The Booklist Reader, 1 of 150 Memoirs and Biographies of Women, by Women
Finalist for the Caroline Bancroft History Prize
Named a Best of the Best from American University Presses by the American Library Association
A Southwest Book of the Year
Named a Book of the Year by over a dozen regional publications including The Kansas City Star, Anchorage Daily News, and Idaho Statesman
Named a Book of the Year by PopMatters
A One Book Yuma community read selection for Yuma, Arizona

"Mifflin engagingly describes Oatman's ordeal and theorizes about its impact on Oatman herself as well as on popular imagination . . . Her book adds nuance to Oatman's story and also humanizes the Mohave who adopted her. Recommended for general readers as well as students and scholars." --Library Journal

"The Blue Tattoo is well-researched history that reads like unbelievable fiction, telling the story of Olive Oatman." --Bust

"An easy, flowing read, one you won't be able to put down." --The Christian Science Monitor

"An important and engrossing book, which reveals as much about the appetites and formulas of emerging mass culture as it does about tribal cultures in nineteenth-century America." --The Times Literary Supplement

"Margot Mifflin has written a winner . . . The Blue Tattoo offers quite intense drama along with thorough scholarship." --Elmore Leonard