Editorial: For women and girls, politics over pageantry

York Dispatch

News that the Miss America Organization has done away with the swimsuit portion of its competition was welcome, albeit a few decades overdue.

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But while the swimsuit and, to a lesser extent, evening gown competitions are the annual event’s smarmiest segments, it bears pointing out that the entire concept of beauty pageants has largely outlived whatever purpose it may once have claimed.

The idea of parading swimsuit-clad young “misses” across a stage, in the era of #metoo, is anachronistic at best, sexist at worst. And the idea of pitting women against one another, based almost exclusively on their physical appearances, is a harmful form of acculturation that must be ended and repaired. 

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There are other ways to engage in healthier forms of competition — and that competition, in many cases, need not be gender-based.

So now, according to the head of the Miss America Board of Trustees, journalist Gretchen Carlson (herself a former Miss America), “We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance.”

Of course, the pageant — err, competition — was never just about bathing suits and tiaras; although these were the elements most robustly marketed. Talent, academics, public mindedness — such attributes weigh heavily in as contestant’s success. And competitions — especially at the local level — often provide educational scholarships and raise funds for deserving charities.

In addition, win or lose, contestants build life skills including public speaking and communications while developing personal strengths such as poise and self-confidence.

All well and good. But in 2018, there are plenty of other opportunities to accumulate these experiences and acquire these benefits absent a manufactured competition that pits young women against one another.

Athletics, for example, provide many of the same opportunities for personal growth — poise, self-confidence, scholarships — along with physical and team-building skills.

So do the arts. Performing in a band, chorus or theater group affords stage-based advantages similar to those proclaimed by pageants.

And community service has long been its own reward, offering people of all genders and ages the opportunity to hone various skills while building a better world in their own backyards.

But young women seeking to not only grow personally, but to work toward real change and position themselves to create the greatest positive impacts, are advised to set their sights on the world of politics.

Whether at the local, state or national level; whether on a school board, a court bench, or a Senate chamber; whether as an officer-holder, campaign worker or policy advisor; public service offers no end to opportunities to change attitudes, laws and lives.

Politics, in short, needs more women. And women need to be more involved in politics.

This is especially true in Pennsylvania, where the state’s congressional delegation now counts a grand total of zero women among its 20 representatives and senators. That makes Pennsylvania one of just 10 states — and by far the largest in terms of number of representatives — that do not currently have women advocating for their interests on Capitol Hill.

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Much has changed since the first Miss American Pageant on Sept. 8, 1921 — exactly one year and two weeks after the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage. And much, as the continuing existence of such pageants attests, has not.

The young women of today — though they continue to face the headwinds of bias, inequality and sexism — have many more options than their ancestors of a century ago. Beauty competitions continue to be one of them.

But for substantive, intelligent, energetic, public-facing, civic-minded young women (and men), public service offers a unique opportunity to engage with the world; to debate issues of import; to compete in the marketplace of ideas and ideals; to lead, lift and inspire others.

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There is great value in such service. And there is great demand. And when a life is improved, or a neighborhood revived, or a small corner of the world made just a little better, there is also in such work, yes, beauty.