The New Miss America

The following is a guest blog post by Tanya L. Roth, author of Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945–1980. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act created permanent military positions for women with the promise of equal pay. Her Cold War follows the experiences of women in the military from the passage of the Act to the early 1980s.

This summer, Dick’s Sporting Goods began running its new “There She Is” ad campaign, including both 1-minute and 30-second commercial spots that appeared during the Tokyo Olympics. The spots feature a racially diverse group of women athletes in a variety of sports, from gymnastics and wrestling to football and fencing. Cutting quickly from woman to woman, the shots collectively show them in various stages from entering the room or stadium to winning a competition. Throughout, a portion of Johnny Desmond’s 1955 “Miss America!” song plays.

On July 25, Dick’s tweeted the ad with the line: “Defying outdated ideals of femininity. Setting records. Breaking barriers. Taking the game by storm.” The message from Dick’s is clear: what it means to be an ideal American woman has changed. Where Miss America once embodied a certain ideal of femininity – a well-poised woman in an evening gown, sash, and crown – Dick’s Sporting Goods wants to show Americans that the ideal woman today is poised to win new types of competitions.

The full “Miss America” song, written by Bernie Wayne in 1954, includes a line describing Miss America as a possible “queen of femininity,” but the Dick’s ad misses that part, focusing instead on the second half of the song:

There she is, your ideal

With so many beauties

She took the town by storm

With her all-American face and form

And there she is

Walking on air she is

Fairest of the fair she is

Miss America

Even though the “queen of femininity” line is not in the Dick’s ad, the ad nonetheless wants viewers to understand that the “ideal,” the “beauties,” the “all-American face and form,” are all descriptions that apply to women athletes. This ad consciously calls on viewers to reconsider what they think of when they think of the best of American womanhood.

In doing this, Dick’s Sporting Goods is not breaking new ground, but following in a longer tradition. In 1952, two years before Bernie Wayne called Miss America an “ideal,” military leaders were already counting on the idea that most Americans saw Miss America as an ideal of American womanhood. Like Dick’s Sporting Goods, military leaders took advantage of Miss America’s place as a cultural icon to convince Americans that they should see women in uniform as “the Real Miss America”. That year, the Miss America pageant became the site of one of the military’s first major efforts to recruit womanpower. Representatives from the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Women Marines, Navy (WAVES), and the Air Force (WAF) attended to help draw women’s attention to military careers. During the pageant, the servicewomen staffed recruiting events, served as honor guards, and escorted the contestants at times. By putting well-coiffed, well-dressed servicewomen side-by-side with those in the pageant, the goal was for Americans to see servicewomen in a new light. They might wear something different, but officials fervently hoped that Americans would recognize servicewomen as Miss Americas in their own right because of their commitment to serving their country. Servicewomen, too, were ideal images of American womanhood.

As athletes, the women in the Dick’s ad perform their athleticism in some way. While not every woman in the spot is actively engaged in a sport, each one is preparing to participate, or has just finished participation. The Dick’s ad creates a new association for Americans about what it means to be the “ideal,” the “all-American face and form.” Similarly, in 1952, military officials wanted Americans to have a new association about womanpower, which had been maligned quite a bit during World War II. The 1952 campaign to convince Americans that servicewomen were the “real Miss America” was no different from the 2021 ad in that way: each seeks to revise Americans’ perceptions of what it means to be an ideal American woman.

The 2021 Dick’s ad, the 1952 womanpower campaign, and the Miss America pageant itself collectively give Americans a broad range of possibilities for imagining the ideal American woman. In 1952, women who joined the military did not “defy…outdated ideals of femininity,” but military leaders relied on those ideals to recruit women who would, like women athletes today, break barriers themselves.  Like women in the military, women in sports is nothing new. Dick’s Sporting Goods has built their new campaign on the title “There She Is,” referencing the “Miss America” song itself, but in the end, “There She Is” really represents that after all this time, people are noticing that women have long been “taking the game by storm” in more ways than they have been given credit for.

Tanya L. Roth received her Ph.D. in history from Washington University. She teaches history at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School.