The Miss America contest took place without a swimsuit competition for the first time in the pageant's nearly century-old history. Photo: Noah K. Murray/AP
The Miss America contest took place without a swimsuit competition for the first time in the pageant's nearly century-old history.

The new Miss America Chairman Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host and 1989 Miss America, announced the change in June, in an effort to revamp the event for the #MeToo era.

But the move has caused controversy among those who say the swimsuit portion is a storied tradition, while critics have been saying for decades that the event is a paramount symbol of the objectification of women.

From the pageant's start in 1921, the swimsuit competition, and the pageant as a whole, has been a contentious event. The first pageant was launched by Atlantic City hotel owners who wanted to extend the lucrative summer season past Labor Day.

Petite Margaret Gorman, 15, won the first Miss America award. 
The 1921 pageant was an enormous success and became a template for all beauty pageants to come. It set the precedent of contestants parading in swimsuits, which was the dramatic core of the contest. 

During the 1920s, the early pageants sought to stay free of commercialism by offering a token small award for the winners. Women were supposed to take their crowns, go home, get married and not parlay the title into commercial success.

But that changed when Fay Lanphier was crowned Miss America in 1925. Lanphier was the first Miss America from the West, the first to make a Hollywood movie and the first to profit financially from the title, earning $50,000 on a 16-week personal appearance tours, an enormous amount for the 1920s.

By 1927, the complaints about Miss America's growing commercialism reached a peak, with groups protesting the pageant's lack of morals and "exploitation of feminine charm by money-mad men".

In 1928, Atlantic City officials temporarily suspended the pageant, caving in to the protests.

The pageant was revived in 1935 as Lenora Slaughter, an executive secretary for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce in Florida, took the reins. The swimsuit portion continued to be the heart of the pageant and reformed the event into the modern Miss America we know today.

In 1945, the Miss America Organization offered its first scholarships, with Bess Myerson, the pageant's first Jewish contestant, receiving $5,000 toward her education.

The next swimsuit commotion was in the 1947 pageant, when contestants wore two-piece bathing suits for the first time.

In 1949, just two years after the two-piece scandal, contestants were back to wearing one-piece suits and for the first time the winner was crowned in an evening gown instead of a swimsuit.

Yet, controversy over swimsuits continued. Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze, refused to make her official appearances in a swimsuit. Educated in a convent and trained as a soprano, Betzbe said, "I'm a singer, not a pinup."

Pageant sponsor Catalina swimwear was so incensed by Betzbe's act of rebellion that it broke away from Miss America and started the Miss USA pageant, which was later bought by Donald Trump.

Brown University professor Levey Friedman is in favour of pageants in general since she is no stranger to them: Her mother, Pam Eldred-Robbins, was Miss America 1970. 

Eldred-Robbins won $10,000 toward her education, which was "an enormous amount of money in 1970," she said.

She won the swimsuit competition that year, just two years after the famous protests against the pageant by feminist groups. She said that she faced numerous protests at her Miss America appearances over the course of 1970. "It was intimidating for me. I was only 21 and had never experienced anything like that," she said.

But Eldred-Robbins agreed with the goals of the feminists. "We all were after the same things," she said. Education, a career and financial independence "were things I also wanted," she added. "We just went about it in different ways."

"I'm disappointed they took away the swimsuit competition this year," she said. "People don't tune in to see who's the Rhodes Scholar. They tune in for the show."