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Miss America Vs. the Feminists: Eyelash to Eyelash in Atlantic City

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There were, of course, obvious contrasts: onstage the new Miss America walked carefully down the runway, awash in lace and light. On the boardwalk outside paraded 2,000 marchers from the National Organization for Women, whose regional convention on the same weekend poked fun at traditional beauty contests. (Ironically, the feminist best known for both beauty and purpose, Gloria Steinem, stayed home—see pages 8 and 9.) But despite their differences, the women in the spotlight—Miss America and NOW President Karen DeCrow—had some remarkable similarities: both are well-educated, obviously sincere and equally dedicated to the belief that these days a woman can do just about anything she sets her mind to.


“I was an introvert in high school,” 21-year-old Shirley Cothran confesses, “and I didn’t date much. I was very active in the church and played flute in the high school band. Then I hit college and something happened. I decided I could be whatever I wanted.”

For Shirley that meant nothing less than becoming Miss America. At the urging of the outgoing beauty queen of her native Denton, Tex., Shirley entered and won her home town pageant in 1972, then lost in two state contests. But this year she was finally crowned Miss Texas, and last weekend she became the 54th Miss America to gasp and hobble down the runway in tearful victory.

To many young women, this grandmother of all beauty contests is as decadent as the shabby resort city that has hosted it for so long. But for Shirley it has meant entrance into a vast, glittering world of travel, sophistication and money—$15,000 scholarship and some $75,000 in endorsements. Before setting foot on the splintery boardwalk of Atlantic City, Shirley had not been further east than Dallas; her longest trip was to Canada with her church choir in a rented school bus.

The daughter of a library security guard at North Texas State University in Denton, Shirley led a sheltered, uncomplicated life with her parents, James and Frankie Cothran, and a sister Joyce, now 24. Always a devout Southern Baptist—”I was on the cradle row in church at the age of three weeks”—Shirley’s early life was dominated by church activities and study of flute, piano and ballet. She was so quiet that sorority sisters at college once gave her an “out-to-lunch” award. While in college she lived in the family’s simple house, surrounded by a picket fence, near the campus. Shirley earned a Bachelor of Science and Master’s degrees in education and in guidance and counseling, made the dean’s list, and was nominated for Outstanding Graduate Student of 1974. Winning Miss America, she says, will delay—but also pay for—her doctoral studies in administrative education at Texas Christian University.

Shirley’s academic pursuits hardly prepared her for the kind of grilling she got from the press after her crowning—probing questions on abortion, amnesty, marijuana and trial marriage. “I’m only 21,” Shirley purred (her birthday is this week, Sept. 18), “and I’ve been at school all my life. I’m from a town of 40,000 and I never heard so many questions at one time. I’m sure some of the reporters were pretty naive too when they were 21.”

One subject Shirley does discuss with fervor is her concept of womanhood. She says her image of a woman was shaped largely by her mother, who was 39 when Shirley was born. “She always wanted to be at home, to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for me. She was almost like a grandmother to me.”

But, says Shirley, “sex roles are drastically changing. I have seen that in counseling little children. By kindergarten level, stereotype sex roles are pretty loosened up. Girls don’t just play with dolls and dress up in mommy’s clothes any more. And little boys have learned it’s okay to cry.”

Although Shirley claims to understand why some women find beauty pageants demeaning, she stoutly defends her own ascent to the Miss America throne. “I am proud to be a woman and my own person,” she says. “The pageants have been a real step forward for me. And they have paid for half my education. I also hope to be an inspiration to other girls—that if you believe in something, or yourself, strongly enough and go after it full force, you can achieve it by yourself.”


“I’m personally not here to zap the Miss America contest,” said feminist Karen DeCrow, who is president of NOW. “I have absolutely nothing against Miss Arizona, or any of these people. But what we are doing here is showing the broader, more exciting alternatives—sexier, if you will.”

There were the usual seminars on rape and lesbianism, but many of the alternatives explored by the 2,000 members of NOW’s regional counter-convention were prosaic—workshops on carpentry, abortion, fund-raising speeches and organization. The day Miss America was chosen the members turned out for a good-natured, if rain-dampened, parade, with many of its marchers dressed up as Wonder Woman. Leading it was Ms. DeCrow, a 36-year-old author and lawyer from Syracuse, N.Y., who was elected to the NOW presidency last May.

Ironically, says DeCrow, she herself was once headed on a course that might have led to the Miss America pageant had it not been for the alternative of liberated womanhood. Born Karen Lipschultz, she was raised in Chicago, where, she recalls, “It was always assumed I would grow up and marry a nice doctor.” As a teenager, she assiduously took daily measurements of her blossoming figure. “Naturally,” she says, “I thought I would be Miss Illinois.” Later, as a student at Northwestern, she became an editor of the university newspaper and “got into the whole dating thing and being this gorgeous, skinny creature.” As a kind of counterpart to the campus playboy, she kept a card file on her dates, who she says numbered about a hundred.

At 22 she married a lawyer, then divorced him. In 1965 she tried matrimony again, this time with Roger DeCrow, a Syracuse computer scientist.

In the upstate New York city, DeCrow was “absolutely the most subservient and miserable wife” until one January afternoon in 1967, when she watched a television program featuring consumer advocate Betty Furness, who urged women to enroll in NOW. Inspired, De-Crow joined.

The following May, DeCrow was persuaded to begin forming a NOW chapter in Syracuse. In 1968, growing increasingly militant, she enrolled in law school. Later she became the first woman in the city to run for mayor (and lost), published The Young Woman’s Guide to Liberation, divorced her husband and passed the bar examination. She plans to practice law when her term is over. Her second book, Sexist Justice, was published last February.

Energetic and self-confident, De-Crow hopes to put to rest the myth that feminists are grumpy man-haters. Ten percent of NOW’s membership is male, she says and, speaking for herself, “I really do judge men on beauty.”

“It’s been a history of my life,” she says. “I’ve loved gorgeous men. Both my husbands were extremely good-looking and incredible male chauvinists. I was in love with Marlon Brando from early childhood. In fact, to this day it’s unclear to me what I would do if Marlon Brando appeared at this conference and said, ‘Why don’t you come home with me instead of marching?’ No, I would lead the parade. But I’d certainly make time for him in my schedule.”