Consciousness-Raising: How the 1968 Protest of the Miss America Pageant Sparked the Women’s Liberation Movement

 co-authored by E. Clayton, Z. Raglow-Defranco, and S. Wolf


The New York Radical Women’s (NYRW) group catalyzed the second wave of feminism. Only existing from around 1967 to 1969, their use of consciousness-raising and the media helped to encourage hundreds of women to join the feminist movement (Dow, 2014). The atmosphere that motivated the NYRW to form was one where many radical movements, including anti-war, civil rights, and several others were gaining traction within the United States (Library, 2011). The NYRW founders wanted women’s oppression to be addressed alongside the other reforms and wanted women to have larger roles in the civil rights and anti-war movements. New York City at the time had a diverse population of around 7,800,000 people and was rapidly growing in size (City, 2001). 

The NYRW’s group wanted to address the issue that women were not taken seriously in political or socioeconomic spheres because of their oppressed social status. To address this concern, the NYRW drew national attention by organizing a protest at the Miss America, held on September 7, 1968 in Atlantic City, New Jersey (Dow, 2014). Because of the pageant’s widespread popularity and the large media attention it received each year, the protest attracted women to the feminist movement (Dow, 2014; Gay, 2018; Grant, 2017). 


Consciousness-raising, the tool that sparked the idea for the protest, is the intentional connecting of individuals to the sociopolitical spheres that they live in. The goal is first to make the individual aware of their (often oppressed) situation and how much power they have within their sociopolitical sphere; then critically examine their position; and finally promote change in order to progress their position. Making individuals aware of their position can help them acknowledge that because of their shared sociopolitical sphere, they have a similar level of power and have the same experiences as other individuals. This shared consciousness can be validating and thus empowering. Further, it can allow a person to become less passive about their position in life and to strive for more social and political power (Barak, 2016). 

The NYRW used consciousness-raising as one of their main techniques. They would meet to discuss specific aspects of womanhood and validate each other’s experiences. Speaking about and acknowledging their oppression allowed them to become aware that they had no sociopolitical power, and the women gave each other permission and an avenue to demand more power and independence (Barak, 2016; Dow, 2014). According to Grant (2017), one member said this about consciousness-raising, “…Cynthia had said, ‘There’s a place next door to me, maybe it would be good for you and Leonard — or just you.’ [Cynthia] had picked up on the negative things I’d said about [Leonard] …so I packed up my things. The whole point of consciousness-raising was if you said something, it changed everything.” Another woman responded, “A lot of left men didn’t like consciousness-raising because they suspected we were talking about all the bad things they did to women. Which was absolutely true” (para. 23). Again, these common experiences and identities among women within the 1960s sociopolitical sphere bonded the feminist movement and encouraged collective action to gain more power.

The Miss America Protest

At one such intervention, the Miss America protest, hundreds of women took to the streets outside of the event to push back against the “male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression of women symbolized by the pageant” (Dow, 2014, p. 32). To increase consciousness-raising about female oppression, fliers outlining how the pageant encouraged women to be apolitical and to mold themselves so that they were pleasing to men were distributed to passers-by as well as the media. The fliers and NYRW members also spoke of how this male-focused idea of women forced women into low-status roles and encouraged society to value looks over intelligence and independence. By informing the public about their oppression, the NYRW members increased consciousness-raising for all of the women who watched their protest and heard their message. 

Community Assessment and Stakeholder Power Analysis

The NYRW did not last for very long, likely in part because they did not follow formal methods of community organizing. They did not conduct a thorough community assessment before forming the NYRW, nor was one conducted before the group put on the Miss America protest. The NYRW did not utilize any data collection, but they did asses some of the stakeholders in the community and turned to some existing feminist groups to gain support. However, Black women were underrepresented in the NYRW. Had a community assessment been fully completed, the NYRW could have used the strength of the civil right’s movement that was occurring during the same time period, and could have made more of an effort to include Black women as allies to the feminist movement (Jackson, 2017). There were clear power dynamics among women during the 1960s, with White women holding significantly more power than Black women. However, Black women were left out of the NYRW’s consciousness-raising model in part because the NYRW and other White feminist groups did not do a complete stakeholders analysis and thus isolated Black women from the feminist movement. The existing power dynamics among women were, as a result, not addressed (Jackson, 2017). 

Engagement and Empowerment

One building block of community organizing that the NYRW did well was engagement and empowerment.  There was a high level of community engagement by the NYRW group. By using radio shows, word of mouth, and media attention, the NYRW was able to reach large groups of women in the New York City community. They were able to gain the attention of many feminist stakeholders, such as women involved in anti-war groups and White women who were stay-at-home mothers. These women took on a variety of roles from simply attending the protests, to planning and organizing the protests and meetings, to working on gaining widespread support. As aforementioned, Black women and most civil rights’ groups were unfortunately left out of the NYRW meetings due to their lack of effort to include these groups (Jackson, 2017). 

Three main frameworks that are used in community organizing are big ideas and universal values like freedom and equality, issue types (e.g., civil rights, environmental), and specific policy areas such as affirmative action and community policing (Center, 2005). The big ideas and universal values framing of the issues tends to have the most impact on community engagement, and this was the level that the NYRW took advantage of (Center, 2005). The NYRW highlighted ideas such as women needing self-determination in order to succeed and gain opportunities for themselves. They talked about universal values, such as women needing to gain power in order to gain equality and justice. They would pass out leaflets that said, “Sisterhood is powerful! Humanhood the ultimate!” (Grant, 2017, para. 11). and shared personal experiences to show the ways that women were treated unjustly. The use of raised-consciousness made more women want to join the movement once they acknowledged their own oppression. 

NYRW Meeting, NYC, 1968

Identifying and Reframing the Issue: Goal Defined

NYRW member and founder of the consciousness-raising method, Kathie Sarachild wrote, “We would be the first to dare to say and do the undareable, what women really felt and wanted. The first job was to raise awareness and understanding, our own and others -- awareness that would prompt people to act on a mass scale” (Sarachild, 1968, p. 145). This notion of articulating the oppression and subjugation of women in society wasn’t wholly unexplored prior to the consciousness-raising method. The first wave of feminism had ushered in notable change but women still had work to do to convince society they were so much more than “inoffensive, bland, and apolitical” (Dow, 2014, p. 33). The goal of the New York Radical Women’s group was to start a mass movement to overcome barriers based on sex (Sarachild, 1968) -- and the goal of their Miss America protest was to add a megaphone to problematic elements of the event, especially in regards to defining what it means to be a real American woman (Dow, 2014). 

Defining the Issues

It was in a NYRW meeting where a critique of the Miss America pageant was processed through the consciousness-raising method. As the thirty or so members of the group went around the room talking about their feelings and impressions of the pageant, NYRW member Carol Hanisch recalled:

We discovered that many of us who had always put down the contest still watched it. Others...had consciously identified with it, and had cried with the winner… We all agreed that our main point in the demonstration would be that all women are hurt by beauty competitions (Dow, 2017, p. 140). 

The critique of the pageant honed through consciousness-raising created an ideal way to bring women together around this event which signaled their everyday oppression (Dow, 2014).  By using an equalizing process like consciousness-raising, founded on the assumptions that each participant is an expert of her own experience, NYRW group members determined that the Miss America pageant blended the American “values” of racism, militarism, and capitalism into one symbolic woman (Dow, 2014). The protest was intended to raise societal consciousness about these stark inequities and create a space to re-think what it means to be a woman in the United States of America (Dow, 2017).

Relationship with the Dominant Frame

Without a doubt, the Miss America protest railed against the dominant framework, challenging its definition of “the ideal woman” while at the same time amplifying the long-overlooked oppression women faced in society. While most NYRW group members had a deep history of activism related to racial and classist social inequities, they slowly moved away from those causes because they lacked an intersectional focus on women’s rights (Dow, 2014).  Starting out, the group was invisible on the social justice map until the protest, a self-labeled “zap” action designed to have high-impact by using this beloved national tradition as a means of storming in with their desire for change. The result was the end of obscurity and the beginning of a movement to allow women to self-define (Dow, 2014).

Ironically, one of the biggest images associated with the Women’s Liberation Movement -- bra burning -- was a myth. Conflated with the burning of flags and draft cards at the Democratic National Convention that took place two weeks before the Miss America pageant protest, Dow (2014) writes, “Bra burning quickly became a decontextualized (and fictional) trope that would function as shorthand for the frivolousness of female goals” (p. 33). Indeed, the strength and tenacity of the women who participated in the protest faced a great deal of mocking and belittlement by onlookers who yelled out that they were jealous of Miss America’s beauty, that they belonged at home in the kitchen, that they were lesbians, and a host of other jibes intended to insult and minimize the protestors’ motivations (Dow, 2014). While the protest’s goal was to heighten social consciousness about the harm beauty standards and other oppressive restrictions placed on the female psyche, the pushback doubled down on the reinforcement of those “norms.” Perhaps this proved the Miss America protest had tapped into a very necessary social conversation -- one that sparked a movement for massive social change.

Education or Capacity Building 

Efforts to increase the awareness with members of the community 

The protest was loud and flashy, complete with a Freedom Trash Can to throw bras, girdles, high heels, and more into, a massive “bathing beauty” puppet shackled in chains meant to represent the oppression of adhering to beauty standards, and even a live sheep that the protestors crowned out on the boardwalk (Dow, 2014). Protestors handed out a ten-point flier outlining why they were partaking in this zap action.  Among the social critiques listed were the detrimental impact of competitiveness amongst women, the standardization of female beauty as “young, juicy, malleable” (Dow, 2014, p. 33), the harmful lesson that conformity is the only way to be accepted, and the intersectionality of racism, social militarism, and capitalism that group members had protested against before joining this women-specific movement.

Strengths and outcomes 

The most immediate outcome was the overnight increase of group membership.  While a typical NYRW meeting hosted about thirty-five participants, that number exploded to two hundred following the protest (Dow, 2017). Certainly, that support was exciting to capture, but it also overwhelmed and stressed the core group who was not prepared for such a massive increase in numbers. NYRW received hundreds of letters, many of which were never even opened because they could not keep up with them. Eventually, the group started to fracture as a divide between staying true to their consciousness-raising dialogue and engaging in more zap action emerged, causing NYRW to splinter into several women’s activists groups, each adopting their own approach to escalating the conversation around the role of women in society (Dow, 2017). 

While the New York Radical Women group broke apart under the pressure of such massive interest in participation, the larger outcome, of course, was the birth of women’s liberation. As Sarachild (1968) wrote, “You might want to say we wanted to pull up the roots, not just pull off the leaves at the top to make things look good momentarily. Women’s Liberation was started by women who considered themselves to be radical in this sense” (p. 144). Undoubtedly, one solitary group could not withstand the enormous burden of reversing female oppression, but what the zap action of the Miss America protest did was illustrate the desire for women to stand up to this injustice and fight back. All of this goes back to Sarachild’s implementation of consciousness-raising as a tool. Sowards and Renegar (2004) wrote, “Consciousness-raising was a foundation for change...rooted in recognizing personal oppression” (p. 536).  From then, anything was possible -- including redefining old patriarchal, chauvinistic expectations for women’s roles in society.

Fit of the Model 

The activism that generated the Miss America protest was rooted in a social movement akin to the civil rights movement. In fact, many of the women who took part in the planning, staging, and execution of the protest were inspired by the work they had done with the fight for racial equality. When women asserted the desire to have female-led initiatives for these other social causes they were met with misogynistic heckles and boo’s (Freely, 2010). While women continued to see the value in fighting for racial equality, they also grew increasingly determined to strike out on their own to apply the principles of the social movement to women’s rights, specifically. Sometimes dubbed a “phantom movement” (Freely, 2010, p. 212), many in the civil rights and anti-war movements did not see women’s liberation as truly political, brushing consciousness-raising off as being a type of frivolous therapy. Not deterred, the women's movement adopted the tagline “The personal is political” (Dow, 2017, p. 140), to illustrate how their tactic empowered and solidified their call to action.

The fit, then, of women’s liberation into the social movement model is snug but not without its cracks. Just as the civil rights movement challenged the notion of White, male social superiority, so does women’s liberation. The difference, though, is that women’s issues were  not considered to be essential to creating a just world.  With the purpose being to “defeat male supremacy and give women equality,” (Sarachild, 1968, p. 147), some critics called group members man-haters and sour grapes whose issues were tantamount to “psychological delusions” (Sarachild, 1968, p. 146). Despite the hardship and critique the women’s liberation movement experienced early on, its thoughtful roots in the expressive practice of consciousness-raising gave it credibility with its target audience: women who connected with the thoughts and feelings being expressed by their peers.  As such, the movement continued to gain momentum and persevered. 

Strengths, Goals, and Values

Multiple newspapers featured words on the Miss America protest, including the New York Times (Welch, 2015), and the final moment of the event may have been televised had the cameraman’s job not been threatened (Voice of the WLM, 1968). Protestor Judith Duffett recalled how audience members visibly turned their heads as Judith Ford (the crowned winner) stumbled through her farewell speech when sixteen demonstrators had descended on Convention Hall shouting, “Freedom for women” as they displayed a banner reading “Women’s Liberation,” over a balcony (Voice of the WLM, 1968). 

Leading up to this finale inside of Convention Hall, demonstrators used a variety of tactics to communicate their message. In the October 1968 newsletter, Duffett explained that their crew arrived at the Boardwalk of Atlantic City at 2:00 PM and began picketing in front of Conventional Hall. Signage displayed phrases such as “Everyone is beautiful” and “I am a woman, not a toy, pet or mascot” (Voice of the WLM, 1968). Duffett shared that guerilla theater was incorporated to illustrate their point that Miss America contestants, specifically during the swimsuit bit of the pageant, were being paraded around like livestock in a county fair for judgment and purchase. As a result, they had brought out and crowned a live sheep. Hence, these attention-grabbing techniques made it easy to draw in crowds, which participants certainly wanted. Knowing that the New York Radical Women were operating from the first level of community organizing (i.e., communicating big ideas and universal values), these efforts were strong and their impressions lasting. 

In a similar frame, demonstrators chained themselves to a life-size Miss America puppet and were “auctioned off” by an impersonation of a Wall Street financier. Duffett declared that the highlight of the afternoon was that of the Freedom Trash Can, in which women threw away items deemed as torture devices - items like high heels, corsets, Playboy magazine etc. (Voice of the WLM, 1968). Duffett described how a few hundred onlookers (e.g., four to five hundred), most of them men, were disturbed by the presence of the protesters. She described how they had been heckled by two young men in particular, and how they had been unable to make many noticeable conversions (i.e., supporters crossing over to their side of the picket line) that evening, aside from two women and a woman with her children. Duffett also recounted that later that evening, demonstrators had changed tactics once the crowd became less hostile, going up to the police line to engage people in dialogue. Duffett declared the day’s events to be a success and affirmed that the crew would return to Atlantic City next year and every year until Miss America was no more (Voice of the WLM, 1968). In summary, these women came to make a scene in order to spur on a deeper conversation concerning the experience of the American woman. Their willingness to be loud and make noise was a testament to their courage, and demonstrated their determination to solidify the value of women. 

Challenges and Limitations

To adequately evaluate the impact of the protest related to the significance of the consciousness-raising that preceded it, a literature review was conducted to determine the general consensus regarding the history of second-wave feminism. According to Welch (2015), the protest organized by the New York Radical Women has been engraved within memory as one of the “first and most significant actions of the second-wave feminist movement” (p. 71). However, interestingly enough, the foundational influence of Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, a Black woman, on the women’s liberation movement is largely forgotten (Welch, 2015). As a matter of fact, Kennedy “mentored and collaborated” with the NYRW to plan the event in Atlantic City (Welch, 2015). Furthermore, Kennedy was one of only two Black women who had participated in the demonstration that day -- who had unironically chained herself to the Miss America effigy to indicate that American women were “enslaved to beauty standards” (Voice of the WLM, 1968, p. 4). To her credit, Welch (2015) claimed Kennedy had been a “political resource” and “vital link” for the movement to build an “anti-racist” and “interracial” platform (p. 83). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that one of the major criticisms of the protest was that it didn’t reach a diverse audience of women. By and large, the protest, and, subsequently, the burgeoning social movement had been an action designed by White women for White women. 

Simultaneously, Miss Black America was introduced by two Philadelphia organizers, J. Morris Anderson and Philip Savage, as a protest of the Miss America pageant (Welch, 2015). This effort was widely covered in the media and often paired with mention of the original pageant, and so Welch (2015) aimed to address the White narrative of the women’s liberation movement and how it called into question beauty culture as a “wedge issue” in feminism (p. 81). As a result, Welch (2015) highlighted three intersections between both pageants and protests. First, she recognized that selecting the pageant as a “target of protest” was a calculated move since the pageant was “already increasingly vulnerable to criticism” (p. 83). Second, she acknowledged that the political landscape of the 1960s was intense. She went on to say that both protests were “strategically and ideologically indebted to the civil rights movement, while embracing the imperatives of Black power and using positions on the war as a litmus test for radicalism or patriotism” (p. 85). Third, Welch (2015) shared that the plans for each group of protestors had been widely disseminated, implying each group was aware of its other and the subsequent noise they had intended to make. Despite these seemingly positive characteristics, the media unfortunately conflated the events. Welch (2015) wrote that newspapers had suggested the first Miss Black America was an acceptable substitution for the first Black Miss America. Moreover, the media’s misinterpretation of the events largely contributed to stabilizing the movement. In contrast, this intertwining of politics would make it difficult to segregate Black activism from feminism and racism from sexism (Welch, 2015). 


Had the New York Radical Women borrowed less from the Black struggle and anti-war establishments, and elected to raise up a more critical issue (e.g., violence against women), unique to all women, perhaps their momentum would not have slowed down so rapidly. If their actions were to be replicated, strategy and planning would need to incorporate the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, etc. Of course, organizing is not a one-size-fits-all, but consciousness-raising requires emphasizing the voices of the oppressed. 

Although Mizrahi & Greenwalt (2017) found that women organizers were more likely than their male counterparts to perceive strengths/weaknesses in their work as they related to their intersecting identities, no one is exempt from misinterpreting their positionality. Thus, as discourse of intersectionality theory grows in the literature, the definitions for “feminist” and “feminism” have begun to shift once more. Some third-wave feminists have even begun to move away from gendered terms when discussing the varied feminisms/masculinities of people in society (Mizrahi & Greenwalt, 2017). With this in mind, it is crucial for organizers who mobilize behind single issues to validate the lived experiences of American women across identities. 


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Research paper co-written in pursuit of my MSSA (2020)

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