Battling sexism in 1968

1968 Miss America
The Miss America section of the 1968 exhibit at the Minnesota History Center

The 1960s were a time of protest, and women’s liberation was one of the movements that had grown significantly by the end of the decade. On Sept. 7, 1968, feminist activists made headlines across the country by protesting the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, charging the contest with oppressing women.

Organized by New York Radical Women, the protesters marched on the boardwalk with slogans such as “Cattle parades are demeaning to human beings,” and “Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?”

Some protesters even managed to sneak into the pageant itself, where they unfurled a “Women’s Liberation” banner. At the same time in Atlantic City, civil rights activists were having their own form of protest — naming the first Miss Black America, highlighting Miss America’s lack of African-American contestants.

One of the protest movement’s most iconic moments — which quickly became part of the country’s collective memory — was its “Freedom Trash Can,” into which women tossed items such as curlers, women’s magazines, girdles and bras to reject what they termed “instruments of female torture.” The initial goal was to burn the collection, but city officials objected. Nevertheless, the news coverage sparked the image of feminists burning bras, which still persists to this day. (Visitors to The 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul can see a replica of the trash can.)

Taking root in Minnesota

While this 1968 protest happened on the East Coast, Minnesotans were making their voices heard on issues of women’s discrimination. A year later, in July 1969, about 10 women picketed the Queen of the Lakes coronation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, part of the city’s annual Aquatennial celebration. Signs read “Beauty Contests Degrade All Women,” and “Women Are Not Commodities.”

Minnesota women also joined Woman Power Day on Aug. 26, 1970, part of the national Women’s Strike for Equality organized by the National Organization for Women to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Local workshops for women covered issues such as education, politics and economics. Meanwhile, protesters decorated the Foshay Tower (above) with a large banner reading “Women Unite!”

About 30 women also visited Dayton’s Oak Grill for lunch, which had a history of refusing to serve women who weren’t accompanied by a male escort; the women were allowed to eat at the restaurant without incident.

In the Minneapolis Tribune, a male writer wrote a dismissive column about the day’s efforts, noting that at least the private Minneapolis Club still barred women from using the front door, saying: “It’s comforting there remains some sanctuaries for the male.”

Little did he know that this local tradition of discrimination, dating back to 1908, would also fall by the wayside within a year.

‘Help Wanted’ ads

Throughout 1970, local feminists also took on the issue of newspapers’ separate male and female Help Wanted sections. The listings offered starkly different career prospects — with the men’s section offering many professional, higher-paying jobs while the women’s section offered primarily nursing or receptionist positions.

Activist groups such as Women Against Male Supremacy (WAMS) picketed outside the Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune and at events, including a downtown Minneapolis fashion show, which the newspapers sponsored.

In the local Female Liberation Newsletter (above), a story appeared about a little girl who asked the protesters what they were doing. The protesters handed the girl a sign to join them, but her mother joked, “Don’t do it! Her father will kill her! He’s Jim Klobuchar!”

It turns out the curious girl was Amy Klobuchar, who grew up to become Minnesota’s first female U.S. senator.

WAMS and the National Organization for Women went on to file complaints against 25 defense contractors with the U.S. Office of Federal Compliance, noting discrimination in their sex-segregated Help Wanted ads in local newspapers. Finally in November 1970, the Star and Tribune Company announced it would eliminate separate Help Wanted sections on Dec. 1.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.