In my lifetime, only one Miss America ever changed society — Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945, the first Jewish Miss America. Anita Bryant, whose public hatred campaigns ultimately led to her own self-destruction, does not count.
In 1945, the country was just starting to see pictures of the Nazi death camps. Most Americans were proud to have a Jewish Miss America, that year in particular. It showed we really were better than the people we defeated in war, that fighting those murdering thugs really was worth the effort.
Bess was the daughter of immigrants. She spoke only Yiddish until she started public school. Her talent in the pageant was classical piano.
She made a career as an articulate talker and game show panelist in the early days of television, then segued into consumer protection, as a newspaper columnist and head of the NY State consumer protection agency. And she became an important player in New York politics.
She lost a three-way Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate that she would have won against either of her two opponents head-to-head. And she was the first prominent Democrat to support a Jewish congressman, unknown outside his district, who wanted to be mayor. She lined up other Democratic leaders, and presented him to the public.
His name was Ed Koch. He was colorful, controversial, devious, and maddening. He denied that he was against African Americans, but said all the Afro-American leaders he knew were anti-Semitic. He pulled the city out of bankruptcy.
Bess was always interesting and worth listening to, though she started as a beauty contest winner. That year in her life never defined her, even in that year itself.
The Other Miss America Contestant Turned Activist
Second Runner-Up Miss America Anita Bryant, 1955, doesn’t count. She just spread hatred of homosexuals.
She led campaigns to repeal local laws prohibiting discrimination against gays in cities across the country.
In California, she supported a ballot initiative to make any government employee making a positive or neutral statement about gays subject to dismissal. That was opposed by Ronald Reagan and defeated in a landslide.
Ms. Bryant’s contribution to social progress was the first show of gay economic power and broad public support. A boycott of the orange juice she endorsed persuaded Florida Citrus to drop her as their spokesperson.
She later lost her Christian conservative audience when she divorced her first husband. A rumor that her son is gay has never been proved or disproved.