Why Are These Women Competing in Pageants?

The Ms. Senior America contestants are over 60 and having fun. So why all the fuss?  

They’re in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. They are a talented bunch — they sing, dance, twirl baton and recite poetry. They’ve seen a lot of life. One was the first woman to drive a forklift at Kennedy Airport. One was imprisoned in a Russian labor camp. One appeared onstage in Grease with Patrick Swayze. They were the contestants in the most recent Ms. Senior America pageant. And they are clearly having the time of their lives.  

So why did I — and so many others — cringe at the recent New York Times story and video profiling the women and the event? Why was a story titled “Pageant Glamour for Those Who Have Reached the Age of Elegance” such a visceral turn-off to me and so many commenters?

Duh! Because we’re feminists, of course.

I was spinning into a full-on pro-women, anti-pageant rant that sounded a lot like the anti-Barbie rant I used to buy into.

The Trouble With Pageants

Why do women have to be judged our whole lives by how we look? Why aren’t there pageants for men? Just look at them, all dolled up and wearing fishnets.

I was spinning into a full-on pro-women, anti-pageant rant that sounded a lot like the anti-Barbie rant I used to buy into. Until I was actually raising daughters — one of whom, like me, has never given a rip about Barbies, and one of whom spends hours each week crafting elaborate scenarios and costumes for her vast doll collection.

That Barbie-loving girl and I both love art and beauty and fashion, not to mention wearing sparkly things and a good talent show. So what was it really that troubled me about seeing women with wrinkled skin having fun, showing off their talents and wearing glittering gowns?  

I took a breath. I gave the video my full attention. I read the story by Abby Ellin. And I tried to figure it out.

Discomfort Zones

“Last year’s champion, Dr. Barbara B. Mauldin, 62, is a dentist and competitive ballroom dancer from Petal, Miss.” wrote Ellin, as she pointed out that feminism “gurgles beneath the surface” at the event. Mauldin, Ellin said, “remembers a time when women couldn’t get a loan without a man’s signature.“

Mauldin is quoted: “I can’t tell you the most amazing transformation I’ve seen in many women from my era. We were there in support of our husbands, our fathers. We were the women behind the men. For many candidates, this is a real step out of their comfort zones.”

Other contestants in the story sing the similar tune:

—Trina Schelton, 70, “a songwriter who once owned a Nashville recording studio” but spent seven years caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s, told Ellin: “I love singing, I love performing, but there was no real outlet for it. I had sort of given up. I think a lot of ladies my age do.”

—Claudette Erek, 78, a lifelong tap dancer who joined Toastmasters in 2011 to overcome her discomfort with public speaking, told Ellin: “I was so proud to have my kids and husband see me perform. Kids grow up seeing mom as just ‘mom.’ They don’t know she had another life.”

—Delores Hofman, 69, who was “the first woman to drive a forklift and unload trucks at Kennedy Airport, where she is now program manager of the Queens Air Services Development Office” told Ellin she saw the pageant as an opportunity to indulge her fondness for “flouncy skirts and fancy coiffures.”

‘Acting Your Age’

So what was bothering me, really? Why were commenters horrified?

One came out and said it: because the women weren’t acting their age.

The story pushed all kinds of buttons, but in the end I had to side with a reader with the handle kaw7 who called out others for masking ageist attitudes as feminist outrage: 

“As of this writing, the top comment is by BH, who is ‘stunned, horrified, and saddened’ by the content and placement of this article. I beg to differ. Yes, it’s about a beauty pageant, but the anecdotes threaded throughout the article reveal vast resources of strength, intelligence and courage. Many of these women forged the way for their daughters and granddaughters. Sure, the pageant is a celebration of their outward beauty, but it’s also a celebration of their inner beauty and spirit. I’m happy that this article appeared on the front page of the New York Times. I am also happy to see these women fighting against the invisibility that society all too often confers on women of elegance.”

What do you think?

By Heidi Raschke
Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy.@heidiraschke

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