Forty years ago, I helped black girls become more accepted as the “girl next door” as a Miss America contestant. After seeing this year’s pageant, I fear a Pandora’s box of politics has been opened. It risks making an institution that has helped empower women for almost 100 years irrelevant and further polarize our society.
Miss America featured black contestants since 1971, but television audiences only saw fleeting glimpses of them until I advanced to the semifinals as Miss Delaware in 1977 pageant. It was an honor to do so, but my journey was challenging. Racial animosity dogged my progress, and there were several moments I didn’t think my family could handle the pressure.
Persistence paid off. I didn’t win, but the first black Miss America was crowned in 1983. Race is no longer an impediment. Politics, however, seems to be a new barrier to advancement.
In choosing Miss America for 2018, contestants were asked a series of loaded current events questions. Miss Missouri was asked about President Trump’s alleged election collusion with the Russians. Miss North Dakota was asked if Mr. Trump should have withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. Miss New Jersey got the question about Confederate statues. Miss North Dakota was the most decisively anti-Trump. She won. Draw your own conclusion.
These questions now capture the most attention. In 2009, Miss California was admonished by a judge for not agreeing with him on same-sex marriage. In 2015, Miss Tennessee was criticized by pro-life groups for false statements about Planned Parenthood services to make a case for public funding of the nation’s largest abortion provider. Yet the organization reportedly told the 2012 Miss Delaware not to discuss her pro-life views.
These questions didn’t exist when I competed. Swimsuit and evening wear modeling remain a constant, but the pageants of my day placed value in morals and tradition over a pretty face. A good reputation, as Vanessa Williams found out, was a requirement to wear the tiara as the goodwill ambassador for young American women.
This formula worked. Over the years, the Miss America Organization raised millions for charity. It created educational opportunities for women. Former winners championed causes such as ending homelessness and domestic abuse as well as humanitarian causes around the world. USA Today called it one of the last vestiges of true Americana.
But I fear liberal pressures threaten the pageant’s future. Andrew Breitbart noted that “politics is downstream from culture,” and the co-opting of Miss America appears well underway
There’s a lot to be lost by turning the pageant into a cultural playground of the radical left. The Miss America title may someday no longer fit. When will a divorcee demand to compete? When will they drop gender roles altogether and open the pageant to those who choose their own gender or claim no gender whatsoever?
Think I’m blowing things out of proportion? The Girl Scouts now promotes abortion advocacy and refuses to reward pro-life activism. It promotes LGBT issues and radical feminism. It’s a long way from merit badges for hiking and photography. It’s turned off so many parents that at least five more traditional alternatives now exist.
I risked my safety and endured a lot of hardship to prove to America that my skin color didn’t make me any different from the girl next door. My family spent countless hours in prayer, asking God if my pursuit was worth the effort. It was, both for me as an individual and for young girls across America. On national prime time television, it showed that hopes, dreams and values were shared commodities.
The politicization of Miss America will only further polarize us. Instead, we should be embracing and celebrating our shared goals. That is the role Miss America has played so well.
• Day Gardner is a member of the Project 21 black leadership network and the president of the National Black Pro-Life Union.