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Art + History ~ The Beauty and the Fight

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

1948 Miss America winner Beatrice (“BeBe”) Shopps had opinions. But that did not mean that she was free to express them. At some point on the European leg of her tour - a tour that included her being invited onstage at such venues as the iconic Folies Bergère where Josephine Baker handed her flowers - the topic of the scandalous French bikini came up. Prior to arriving in Europe, Shopp had been asked about the vogue bikini, replying: “I don’t think American girls should wear bikinis.”. Without the aid of social media, her comments morphed into a kind of overblown platform, inciting rumors that the American beauty was in Europe to exorcise the skimpy swimsuit from French shores. Before she could be asked the question a second time, one of the Miss American ‘handlers’ intervened, stating that BeBe was “too young to have opinions” (Mifflin, 85).

Accuracy of comments aside, Bebe was not the first or last Miss America to be muffled, just as she was not the first or last to have to tiptoe around the implied rule of just-sit-still-look-pretty rule that has often sidelined many a beauty queen from vocalizing her beliefs.

In 1970, Miss Montana Kathy Huppe resigned from the pageant six weeks before the contest was to take place, after being told to muzzle her political views in favor of creating the illusion of a malleable young woman with no political acumen, inner compass or personality. Huppe responded by posing for LIFE Magazine in September of 1970.

Huppe was the first Miss Helena to win the Miss Montana title and was also the first to abdicate her crown to honor her political beliefs.

In hindsight, her background foreshadowed her tenacity to hold firm to her political beliefs. In 1967 she was a semi-finalist in the Voice of Democracy speech contest, a contest with the theme of ‘Freedom’s Challenge’. She was also on the editorial team for a publication known as ‘The Paper Tiger’, a publication geared towards freedom of expression, especially when it came to protesting the Vietnam War.

Her photos appeared in the September 18, 1970 issue of LIFE in a full-page spread captioned with the words “Parting Shots’, her fist raised in a ‘Power to the People’ gesture. However, Huppe was not necessarily thrilled with the choice of images, for her goal was not to appear militant, but passionate. (She was, after all, an activist who had participated in several Vietnam War ‘moratoriums’.) And yet, the image of the raised fist transcends time periods just as it transcends types of activism.

Today an iconic gesture in lockstep with Black Lives Matter, the raised fist is perhaps best remembered from its use in 1968 when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the salute while standing on an Olympic podium in Mexico City. It was a gesture of ultimate resistance, an act of defiance and acknowledgment of participation in what was called “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” More than that, it was a demand for the ending of discrimination.

Before that, in 1913, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood - who not only helped establish the union Industrial Workers of the World, but also pushed for solidarity between races and vocations - raised his fist to rally his fellow workers during the Paterson Silk Strike in New Jersey. He cried out that each finger was powerless but, when tensed in a fist, possessed tremendous strength.

Perhaps what is most important about each image - but, in this instance, most especially about Huppe’s photos - is the fact that any budding historiographer can use them to unpack a wealth of information and initiate an inquiry arc. If using the SHEG methodology (Stanford History Education Group), the questions begin with observations that urge students to comment on what they see before scaffolding those observations with inferences.

For instance…take a look at the fact that Huppe wears a crown and a pageant gown, hardly the stereotypical attire of a renegade or rebel. Notice that her expression is serene. She wears a tiara that glints in one of the photos, giving her a momentary halo. The photos beg the question: Is she to be remembered as a dethroned queen-in-waiting or as an advocate who just so happened to wear a crown until the crown itself became too confining? Why include the crown in the photo at all? Is it to undermine the crown’s potency or remind viewers that those with power can (and should) use it? Does the white gown signal a theme of innocence or does it channel the suffragettes and their own resilience?

Two images. One war. A movement of a generation.

Clearly, there is no such thing as being ‘too young’ to have opinions.

Works Cited

Mifflin, Margo. Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood. Berkeley, CA, Counterpoint, 2020.

Stout, James. “The History of the Raised Fist, a Global Symbol of Fighting Oppression.” National Geographic Magazine. 31 July, 2020. Accessed 8 August 2022.

Tauber, Michelle and Mike Neill. “American Beauties: 80 Years.” People Magazine. 16 October, 2000. Accessed 11, August 2022.

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