Brown Sociologist's Newest Book Explores Beauty Pageants & Feminism in America

Hilary Levey Friedman trailblazes research in pageantry, parenting, and pop culture

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This past year, among many things, marked two very important anniversaries for the feminist movement: First, it was 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and second, 100 years since the first Miss America contest. What exactly is the link between these two? Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America by Brown sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman explores that very question.

Friedman is a force. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she first discovered sociology and wrote her honors thesis on child beauty pageants. She earned a Master of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, where her dissertation focused on fashion and national identity. She earned her PhD in sociology from Princeton, where she researched competitive after-school activities, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, where she studied youth sports injuries.

“I love how interdisciplinary the field is, and how it centers people and institutions in context,” explains Friedman, remembering back to her first semester of college when she stumbled across sociology. For a mandatory methods class, she did her semester project on why mothers enroll their young daughters in child beauty pageants, the groundwork for her later thesis. “I personally was surprised by how much competitiveness I saw in American childhood,” says Friedman, “but no one could get past the ‘crazy pageant moms’ to see that.” So, in graduate school Friedman changed course and turned to things like dance and soccer, “to look at how parents use the space between school and home to teach their kids.”

But pageants kept pulling her back.

“I have never competed in a beauty pageant myself,” says Friedman, though they were always part of her upbringing, as her mother was Miss America 1970. It wasn’t until one of her students at Brown, Cara Mund, became Miss North Dakota and Miss America 2018 that Friedman’s interest was reignited. “Add to that that I am very active in the organized feminist movement,” says Friedman, who serves as president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW), “I felt like the universe was telling me I had to tell the story of how feminism and pageantry are connected.”

Here She Is is the culmination of several years of rumination and research, though Friedman jokes that she’s been working on it her whole life. She attended dozens of beauty pageants and interviewed even more people. She pored over decades of program books that detailed contestants and judges, combed the Smithsonian archives for the original letter proposing Miss America offer a scholarship, and even tracked down child beauty pageant contestants she initially met in the early 2000s to see where life had taken them.

“One thing all this research has shown me is how powerful pop culture is, and that we should take it seriously and not dismiss it as trivial or frivolous,” Friedman asserts before adding, “I think we can all agree that the Patriots are pretty consequential.” She points out that society has a tendency to do this even more so when the activities in question are predominantly female.

Here She Is strives to tell the complex story of American pageantry in its entirety, from the early bathing suit-wearing beauties to today’s more inclusive competitions, and the links between child beauty pageants and the “big ones” like Miss America and Miss USA. She discusses how pageants can empower women with educational opportunities and by giving them a platform for their voices, but also its damaging expectations on women and controversial history. While many have strong opinions on the tradition, believing they are either all good or all bad for women, Friedman argues that is far from the case. 

While Friedman’s historic book has been met with rave review, her work is far from done. In addition to her role with RI NOW, and past involvement in groups like United Way, CASA, and the East Greenwich Affordable Housing Commission, Friedman continues “fighting discrimination, expanding opportunity for all, and helping elevate others’ experiences and voices.” To that end, she is adding yet another pursuit to her already impressive resume: “I am starting law school in August at Roger Williams University!” To learn more about Friedman and her work, visit HilaryLeveyFriedman.com.

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