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Looking for Miss America

A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

List Price: $28.00

August 4, 2020 | Hardcover | 6.4 x 9.1, 320 pages | ISBN 9781640092235
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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.

“Mifflin is no Miss America apologist. She’s cleareyed about the pageant’s many hypocrisies and failures . . . But Mifflin, too, is invested in the pageant’s sense of specialness; she’s mining Miss America for meaning . . . The pageant’s tensions and ambiguities emerge most vividly through the way particular women understood them in the context of their particular time . . . Lively.” ―Molly Fischer, The New York Times Book Review

“Mifflin is as alive to the pageant’s historical grotesqueries as she is to the weirdo details of its founding.” ―Lauren Collins, The New Yorker

About Margot Mifflin

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


"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

"Beauty pageants have long been a topic of research and wide interest, and Mifflin's (Bodies of Subversion) work offers excellent content and historical analysis to this ongoing discussion . . . While deftly commenting on the racism and sexism that have characterized the pageant's history, she also makes space for the contestants to speak openly for themselves about their own experiences, something pageants themselves are not known for. This work offers a thought-provoking, balanced, and highly informative look at an institution that has perplexed and enticed Americans since its founding." --Library Journal

"Witty and surprising history . . . Readers will never view this 'rhinestone relic' the same way again." --Publishers Weekly, Summer Reads

"In this well-written and thoroughly researched book, Mifflin explores how the evolution of the Miss America pageant has echoed ongoing women's rights movements and examines the overall impact of a beauty-based scholarship competition."--Bitch

"Looking for Miss America is, in the language of pageantry, lavish in its research, and its prose is sparkling . . . Full of mini bios of the competition's taste, change and headline makers, Looking for Miss America is a riveting, multivalent history. About this, if nothing else, most feminists and pageant enthusiasts will agree." --Nell Beram, Shelf Awareness

"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

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

Praise for The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

Finalist for the Caroline Bancroft History Prize

"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

"Well-researched history that reads like unbelievable fiction." --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." --Elmore Leonard

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