When the Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City 40 years ago this weekend, some were there to watch and others to protest. It was the first major demonstration of the emerging women's liberation movement.

As part of our series, Echoes of 1968, we're taking a look back at the day when the media began referring to feminists as bra-burners. The term that wasn't quite accurate, as we find out listening to four people who were there. One of them was Miss America, 1968. The others, including this woman, were protestors.

Ms. ALIX KATES SHULMAN (Former Women's Liberation Activist): My name is Alix Kates Shulman. When I was growing up, Miss America was the symbol of what every young girl wanted to be.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Woman #1: The Miss America pageant means many things to many people. To the millions of you watching tonight on television, it means two hours of entertainment, glamour and excitement.

Ms. CAROL HANISCH (Former Women's Liberation Activist): My name is Carol Hanisch. As a teenager, I always watched it. Our whole family watched it together. In those days, it was taken quite seriously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Announcer: As we meet them now in swimsuits, Miss Tennessee.

Ms. KATHIE SARACHILD (Former Women's Liberation Activist): You know, I hadn't watched it. My parents hadn't even had a television set until I was 15. But whether you had watched it as a kid or not, it affected every woman's life.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Announcer: And you will see yourself as you have always wanted to be.

Ms. SARACHILD: I took the name Kathie Sarachild in 1968. I heard the phrase women's liberation back then, and I immediately began to think women's liberation. Could there be a women's liberation movement like the civil rights movement?

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #1: (Singing) I the new me, if ever I knew me...

Ms. HANISCH: We'd been discussing how we were oppressed by beauty standards, and then one night we were watching a movie - it had Miss America parading in her bathing suit - and it got me thinking that protesting the pageant might be a good way to launch the movement, because up to this time we hadn't done a lot of actions yet. We were a very small movement.

Unidentified Woman #3: We had rented a couple of buses. It was a beautiful day. We got there. We started assembling. Everybody had her assignment.

Unidentified Woman #4: It was kind of a gutsy thing to do, you know? Miss America was like this American-pie icon. You know, who would dare criticize that?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) There she is, Miss America. There she is (unintelligible).

Ms. DEBRA BARNES SNODGRASS (Former Miss America): My name is Debra Barnes Snodgrass. I was Miss America 1968. I was crowned actually in September of 1967 and then returned to Atlantic City to crown my successor.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Ms. SNODGRASS: What I saw was women in front of the convention hall, and they had picket signs, and they talked about the Miss America pageant being a meat show and an auction.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Shouting) Yes siree, boys. Step right up. How much am I offered for this number-one piece of prime American property?

Ms. SNODGRASS: And they had this big Miss-America kind of doll, bigger than life-size, and it wasn't very flattering.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Shouting) You can get this standard quality model wherever…

Unidentified Woman #6: The things that we did on the boardwalk were all outrageous, audacious and filled with glee.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #7: (Singing) Come and join the fight. Don't be no Miss America no more.

Unidentified Man #8: Our biggest, most notorious action was throwing what we called instruments of female torture into what we called the freedom trash can.

Unidentified Woman #9: So we threw girdles, and hair curlers, and pots and pans, and Playboy magazine, and bras and whatever we could think of.

Ms. HANISCH: We had intended to burn it, but the police department, since we were on the boardwalk, wouldn't let us do the burning. But you know, the media picked up on the bra part. I often say that if they had called us girdle-burners that every woman in America would have run to join us.

(Soundbite of television program)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #10: One of the things that we decided to do was to try and get some people inside and unfurl this banner, which was really just a bed sheet, that said women's liberation.

Unidentified Announcer: Let us give one final salute to Debbie Dean Barnes, Miss America of 1968…

Unidentified Woman #11: When that outgoing Miss America got up to give her speech, we started moving toward the balcony.

Ms. SNODGRASS: I will make way for Miss America 1969 to search for her special someday.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Ms. SNODGRASS: But even though I will be sad to see - to leave all these precious friends that I have made here in Atlantic City.

Unidentified Woman #12: This was this woman's big moment, and I hated to interrupt her. You know, I was very much in the you don't interrupt people, you be nice. At that point in my life, it was difficult, but then as soon as we did it, it felt great.

Ms. SHULMAN: Newspapers covered it widely, and after that, women just flocked to meetings. We did not want to attack Miss America, not at all. We wanted Miss America to come and join us.

Ms. SNODGRASS: They should've asked me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SNODGRASS: No, I wouldn't have. I would never have joined in with that at all. I had a very high ideal of the Miss America pageant, that it was a scholarship pageant and not a beauty pageant. But now that I realize what the women's liberation movement was actually about, then I see that I have reaped some of the benefits of what they were trying to say.

I think it was a poor choice to try to say it in that way, but I could get a charge card - myself. I don't have to have a husband sign for that. I bought a car two months ago - myself.

Unidentified Woman #13: Women's lives are much easier in many ways today than they were 40 years ago.

Ms. HANISCH: Young women have come through the doors that our generation opened, but I'm not sure they fully are grasping their situation any more than we did before we began to grasp ours.

We're still not liberated. So we're not treated as man's equal, yet. We could certainly use another protest, and if I could think of one I'd certainly be doing it. I hope somebody does.

INSKEEP: Alix Kates Shulman, Carol Hanisch, Kathie Sarachild and Debra Barnes Snodgrass were interviewed by NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION.

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