Piano, Pageants & Politics

Beauty, Brains and Breaking Barriers: Reinventing Stereotypes of Harvard Women and Beauty Queens

During my last semester of college, I wrote this paper for a class called “Harvard’s History and Evolving Religious Identity” taught by Dr. Stephen Shoemaker. In my paper, I outline the history and accomplishments of the many pageant titleholders who have graced Harvard’s campus and how their success has combated stereotypes of both beauty queens and Harvard women. It is a little bit of a long read, but hopefully enjoyable for the pageant enthusiast, Miss America historian or distracted student willing to read anything rather than study for their upcoming exams.

Female Harvard students have long been recognized for their notable contributions to politics, business, medicine, law and academia. However, the stereotype of a studious, monotonous and introverted Harvard woman does not seem compatible with success in the world of beauty pageants. Such stereotypes surrounding Harvard women have existed since the early 1900s, when female students attending Radcliffe College were considered a “synonym for all that is unattractive in women” by their male counterparts at Harvard (Celemente 640). However, the recent participation and success of students in pageants have reformed the “Harvard woman” stereotype, as well as what it means to be a beauty queen. As the focus of mainstream pageants has shifted from crowning the most beautiful contestant to the most well-rounded competitor, Harvard students have performed particularly well in these competitions and reflect the evolving standards of what it means to be “America’s ideal”. While Harvard is the alma mater of only one Miss America, 2007 law school graduate Erika Harold (University of California, Los Angeles leads with four Miss Americas, followed by Oklahoma City University and the University of Mississippi tying with three winners each), dozens of Harvard women have held local and state titles within the organization, as well as in other pageant systems. Although often condemned by feminist groups as antiquated, irrelevant and degrading, this dynasty of Harvard-bred titleholders has particular flourished over the last 20 years in the midst of an era and campus voicing avid criticism towards beauty pageants.

Despite being traditionally viewed as a “beauty pageant”, the Miss America Organization actually coins itself a “scholarship pageant”, serving as the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. Each year, the winner receives $50,000 in scholarship money and in 2013, the organization awarded millions more to approximately 12,000 contestants competing at the local, state and national level (Friedman). Despite being labeled as “anachronistic with women traipsing around in bikinis and high heels and promoting world peace”, the most weighted areas of the competition include a rigorous private interview with the panel of judges and the talent portion (Friedman). Each contestant is also required to develop a personal platform, a community-service project that she feels passionate about and advocate and fundraise on behalf of Children’s Miracle Network hospitals.

Five Harvard women have captured the title of Miss Massachusetts and competed on the Miss America stage, producing more winners in the pageant than any other school in the last 25 years (Friedman): Sharon Lee in 1994, Marcia Turner in 1995, Elizabeth Emerson Hancock in 1998, Loren Galler-Rabinowitz in 2010 and Lauren Kuhn in 2014. Harvard alumni also include Miss Rhode Island 2003 and 2006, Miss Illinois 2001 and 2002, Miss Virginia 2003, Miss Washington 2004, Miss Missouri 1993, Miss North Dakota 2000, Miss Iowa 2009 and Miss Arizona 2002. Additionally, three Harvard women have been crowned Miss Boston (as well as Miss Greater Boston 1995), although one resigned to pursue medical school, and the last two Miss Cambridge winners are current Harvard students.

Lauren Kuhn, Miss Massachusetts 2014 and 4RU to Miss America

The participation and performance of female Harvard students in pageants is not a recent phenomenon. Despite Radcliffe students being traditionally “noted more for their learning than beauty”, the first Miss Radcliffe Pageant was held in 1948 (Clemente 639). Open exclusively to freshmen, Rachel Mellinger was crowned Miss Radcliffe 1952, as titles reflected the year the student would graduate, rather than the current year (Miller). In the first competition, a selected panel of male Harvard faculty chose the winner. Understandably deemed inappropriate, the judging panel later featured national titleholders including Miss USA and Miss United States. The candidates were evaluated on their “poise, personality, and general appearance” with "wholesomeless" being added as a requirement in 1953 (“Miss United States Arrives; Helps Select 'Cliffe' Finalists”, 1953). Along with the coveted title, Miss Radcliffe winners received prize packages from Harvard Square and Boston businesses and modeling offers from local boutiques.

While serving as a highly-anticipated social outing for both Harvard and Radcliffe students, the Miss Radcliffe competition was a Harvard-lead attempt to overturn Radcliffe’s reputation by celebrating and emphasizing fashion trends, beauty and femininity. “While administrators and publicists worked to frame a portrait of Radcliffe students as feminine and stylish, students improvised their own dictums about dress” (Celemente 663). In comparison to it’s sister schools, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley, Radcliffe students were notorious for defying the elaborate wardrobe suggestions from fashion editors, and instead favoring casual, masculine-inspired ensembles. When the Union Photographic Society sponsored a “Glamour Girl of the East” contest in 1940, applicants hailed from Bryn Mawr, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Smith and Wellesley with little interest amongst Radcliffe students (Clemente 663). The Miss Radcliffe pageant tackled this longstanding reputation and certainly sparked interest and excitement, attracting dozens of contestants, 400+ student audiences and praise from the New York Times: “everyone agrees that Radcliffe girls are prettier than they used to be” (Clemente 640).

Nine women were crowned Miss Radcliffe before the pageant was abolished in 1956; President Wilbur K. Jordan claimed the pageant violated a particular Radcliffe policy that “no single student in the college was to represent the institution as a whole” (Miller). Regardless, the tradition was slowly declining and the pageant was increasingly criticized as sentiments of moderate feminism began challenging traditional gender conventions. Radcliffe’s student government and two Radcliffe dormitories deemed the contest “against Radcliffe principles” (Clemente 663). Although other dormitory presidents did not forbid residents from participating, most administrators advised freshman against competing or expressed a condescending attitude towards the pageant.

Since the dissolution of the Miss Radcliffe competition, a series of all-male lampoon pageants have become recently popular, drawing a capacity crowd while raising money for charity. The Miss Harvard 2002 and 2003 pageants featured male students dressed in drag while Mr. Harvard University 2005 was “a racy display of muscles and flesh” (Tice 95). In 2008, Mr. Harvard Freshman was started by Miss Middlesex County 2009 and Her Campus founder, Windsor Hanger (Hofschneider). Intended to be jovial and comical, these events generated a strong and negative response regarding pageants amongst Harvard students. Leading up to Miss Harvard, the sponsoring student group, IMPACT, became subject to harsh criticism for hosting what many considered a beauty-centric contest, the type of event that traditionally “demeans women by putting them on display as physical marvels devoid of personality” (Mackinnon). Opinion pieces voicing opposition began pouring into the pages of the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper. One accused pageants of “teach[ing] contestants to layer on the make-up, rip off the wax, fill out the bra, and above all else, not to think too much” (Mackinnon). Radcliffe Union of Students Publicity Chair, Jessica Rosenberg, also raised concerns. IMPACT Events Co-Chair, Gretchen Passe responded by describing the event as “humorous” and noting that “the objectification of women probably won’t be a problem, because we hope to lighten it with drag” (Dorgan). The Harvard Crimson even advertised the event as “what Miss America would be like if you were to upgrade brains and talent, and add a few men in drag”.

Both the criticism and defense of the Miss Harvard competition reveal a deeply negative perception of pageants and pageant contestants at Harvard. Consistently, conversation surrounding the Miss Harvard pageant was accompanied by cynical language characterizing pageantry as “typically vapid, fluffy”, “ridiculous”, “distasteful” and “full of loaded issues for women”. At the pageant, several contestants told the judges they were competing for “Harvard peace” and “world peace”, sarcastically “poking fun at the glib answers to typical beauty pageant questions” and contributing to an outdated and overused stereotype surrounding pageantry (Dorgan).

In the midst of controversy surrounding the Miss Harvard pageant, present and former titleholders weighed in on the conversation. Although supportive of the event, given its charitable motives, Sarah Poage, Miss Teenage San Diego and Hannah Kenser, Miss Teen Illinois admitted to “playing down” their own titles when coming to Harvard, in fear of the reaction from their colleagues (Warmflash). Another former pageant winner, Brooke Chavez noted, “I just hope it doesn’t disparage girls who take pageants seriously” (Warmflash). It didn’t. Ironically, at the same time that the Miss Harvard event was generating both mockery and criticism towards pageants, the reigning Miss America, Erika Harold, had been admitted to Harvard Law School and two students from the Harvard class of 2003, Nancy Redd and Laurie Gray, would soon become Miss Virginia 2003 and Miss Rhode Island 2003, respectively.

Laurie Gray (second from left) and Nancy Redd (second from right), Finalists at the 2004 Miss America pageant

Both Redd and Gray played important roles in combating stereotypes of pageantry at Harvard and nationally, by embodying the sophisticated, independent and well-rounded titleholder that the Miss America Organization was struggling to convince existed within pageantry. Both top 10 finalists in the 2004 Miss America competition, Redd and Gray boasted impressive academic and extracurricular records while at Harvard. Gray graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology while a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Harvard Bach Society Orchestra. Redd graduated with a degree in women’s studies, was named one of Glamour magazine’s top ten college women and co-authored a Princeton Review book about the gender gap in SAT scores (Smear). Both women appeared on Good Morning America, Inside Edition and on the front page of the Boston Globe as a “symbol of the pageant’s changing mores”, shifting the attitude of several pageant critics (Carmon). "I will never write off the Miss America pageant as just some beauty contest ever again," apologized Harvard student body President Rohit Chopra. "I know Nancy and Laurie are certainly not the stereotypical pageant girls. They were easily some of the more accomplished women on campus” (Smear).

While Redd and Gray rebranded the image of the modern-day beauty queen, other Harvard women have exemplified the relevance of pageants in modern society. Capitalizing on the “power of the crown”, several titleholders have used their reign to make impactful contributions on their communities, drawing attention to pressing issues by speaking with political figures, civic leaders and the media: “These are opportunities not all 17- to 24-year-olds have” (Smear). Within the Miss America Organization, a titleholder’s reign is appropriately referred to as her “year of service”, reflecting the charitable and educational nature of the events she participates in, as well as her role in the community. Allison Rogers, Miss Rhode Island 2006, used her title primarily as a platform to raise awareness about global warming, a topic she worked extensively on as a Harvard undergrad and as the coordinator for the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (Edelman). Laura Lawless, Miss Arizona 2002 and Top 15 Semifinalist at Miss America, dedicated her year of service to awareness, advocacy and action surrounding mental health, traveling across the country for speaking engagements on mental health and being named a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (Institute for Mental Health Research). As Miss Massachusetts 2010, Loren Galler Rabinowitz combined her passion for ice-skating and her future as a pediatrician to organize a charity figure skating show at the Skating Club of Boston, raising $24,000 for Children’s Miracle Network hospitals. “Blades & Balloons was a real highlight for me as Miss Massachusetts,” according to Galler Rabinowitz. “My job as Miss Massachusetts is not simply to be a leader in rhetoric, but to lead by example” (Jain). Being a titleholder is having a “bully pulpit for a year,” according to Miss America 2003 and Harvard Law School graduate, Erika Harold. “You travel the country, do interviews and gain the ear of people you wouldn’t usually get to connect with” (Woolf). Not surprisingly, it is becoming increasingly common for young American women to use pageants as a precursor for a career in politics.

Many of Harvard’s titleholders also cite attractive scholarship incentives as a reason for competing in pageants, helping alleviate the financial consequences that often accompanies a Harvard education. "There is nothing that promotes women more than the chance to receive scholarships," advocates Laura Lawless, Miss Freetown 1998, Miss Arizona 2002 and member of the Harvard class of 2000. "The program is meant to reward women who have dedicated a lot of their time to perfecting a talent and keeping themselves in good physical health” (Fowler). These scholarships are what convinced Harvard undergrad, Kelsey Beck to compete and along with the title of Miss Boston 2012, Beck won $4,500 in her first pageant (Friedman). Miss Massachusetts 2014 and Harvard Dental student Lauren Kuhn, racked up over $35,000 in scholarship winnings as fourth runner-up to Miss America 2015.

Just as these titleholders have defied stereotypes of pageant winners and the role of pageants, Harvard’s beauty queens have simultaneously refuted the common stereotypes of Harvard women. Often portrayed as unrelatable, pretentious and rigid, Miss Massachusetts 1998, Elizabeth Hancock, said people at the Miss America pageant were surprised to learn she was from Harvard because she “went again the stereotype” (“Elizabeth Hancock”, 2000). Miss Massachusetts 1995, Marcia Turner added that because the “Harvard” name was attached to her throughout the competition, judges feared she would distance the general public by presenting herself as “one big string of accomplishments” (Carmon). Still, Turner was able to demonstrate that she was “real”, making the final 10 in the Miss America competition. Unarguably talented and accomplished, a close friend of Miss Massachusetts 2010, Loren Galler-Rabinowitz also noted most people were surprised to find Loren approachable, “especially given the fact that she comes from Harvard” (Jain).

Despite the incredible accomplishments of these young women, the exclusive opportunities they’ve received as titleholders and the thousands of dollars they’ve earned in scholarships, Harvard’s titleholders have been subject to criticism from the Harvard community, experiencing self-consciousness, condescendence and hostility surrounding their involvement in pageants. Laurie Gray returned to Harvard the Monday after winning the Miss Rhode Island 2003 title and more than $10,000 in scholarships and prizes worried that her new crown would “conjure up Harvard student’s preconceived notions of beauty queens who walk away with a car, a fur coat and a modeling contract” (Rochelson). Elizabeth Hancock recalls that despite her supportive Deans and blockmates in Lowell House, she encountered unexpected negativity such as being labeled a "Hillary Clinton-like carpetbagger” and overhearing a stranger say "Oh, I hate that girl" to her friend, as they scrutinized Hancock's headshot displayed in a local pizza restaurant (“Elizabeth Hancock”, 2000). Most interviews and articles featuring the winners in Harvard, local and online news publications are primarily defensive, rather than celebratory, vigorously refuting pageant stereotypes and insisting that the Miss America Organization is not really a beauty pageant. Such articles in the Harvard Crimson are too often accompanied with bashing commentary (presumably from fellow students) including “Why are women still paid to look pretty in the 21st century United States?”, “What a waste of time this pageant is; full of girls who want to pamper themselves and then claim they are doing it for 'scholarship' when in reality the money earned is minimal” and “I feel as though it really cheapens Harvard, brings to Harvard a common white trash element”.

The criteria of Miss America is truly parallel to the expectations and accomplishments of Harvard students. “For [pageants] to be something that somebody out of Harvard does, it sounds like an incongruity, but it’s not” according to Miss Florida 1971 and mother of Miss Boston 2012, Barbara Beck (Friedman). Success in the interview portion and the on-stage question, requires a contestant to be articulate, calm, opinionated and knowledgeable on a large range of topics spanning from current events and politics to community service and her own life experiences. The intention of the talent portion is to demonstrate the contestant’s technique, artistic expression and talent in performing arts, hardly a challenge for the many brilliant musicians, vocalists and dancers that have graced Harvard’s campus. The “beauty-type categories”, the evening gown and swimsuit portions of competition, amount to a small percentage of the scoring; even these categories are scored on more than physical appearance, with judges evaluating contestants’ confidence, poise and commitment to health. "[The swimsuit portion] is an evaluation of whether physically you can handle the rigors of an intense traveling schedule," noted Laura Lawless (Fowler). Most participants have found the pageant experience “empowering” and believe the Miss America Organization encourages women to be strong, independent, driven, education and passionate, “an extension of being a Harvard student” (Rouse). A common theme in the reflections of Harvard’s titleholders is emphasizing that the competition is not really about beauty, but social activism and achieving your goals “which is very much what Harvard is about" (“Elizabeth Hancock”, 2000).

A Miss America with a Harvard degree was once considered a “fantasy paradox”, but pageants and those competing in them have evolved to reflect the well-rounded woman that is driven, motivated, intellectual and STEM-oriented. While the growing force of Harvard women in the Miss America Organization is good for the credibility of pageantry, Harvard’s image also benefits from these titleholders in the same way that the Miss Radcliffe competition destigmatized and glamorized Radcliffe College. The next Miss Massachusetts may very well be from Harvard with two representatives from the university returning to the statewide stage this July, after top five placement in last year’s competition. More than ever, the Miss America Organization needs Ivy League-bred titleholders to nurture its evolving image and to prove that Miss America is still in fact a relevant pop culture icon, capable of growing with the times and representing the modern, independent and accomplished woman.

#pageant #harvard #missamerica #missmassachusetts #alissamusto