The Presidents Club has been taken down — is Miss America next?

Two institutions with nearly the same ethos are treated differently. Why?

CEO Sam Haskell and Miss America 2017 Savvy Shields. (Image: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images for DCP)

Last month, Madison Marriage published an expose about an annual men-only charity fundraiser, revealing revolting misogyny that had previously remained hidden from public view. The article, published at the Financial Times, goes behind the scenes at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, which took place on January 18th at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The official purpose of the dinner was “to raise money for worthy causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital, the world-renowned children’s hospital in London’s Bloomsbury district.” The Presidents Club claims to be keen on helping underprivileged children and fundraises for them through events like their annual men-only dinner party.

The event has been held for the past 33 years; in 2018, 360 members of the elite were invited — wealthy males from various sectors: politics, business, sports, media, and entertainment. Women were allowed at the event only as “hostesses” or prostituted women. Requirements to apply for the hostessing positions included being “tall, thin, and pretty.” In the end, 130 women were hired.

Marriage went undercover as a hostess in order to  report on  of the event and the behaviour of the men in attendance, ultimately ending it. She described a climate of male sexual entitlement and harassment:

“All of the women were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels. At an after-party, many hostesses — some of them students earning extra cash — were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned.”

Hostesses were instructed to do their hair and make-up as if they were going to a “smart, sexy place.” They were met, upon arrival for their shift, with five-page-long non-disclosure agreements, which they were not given time to read or allowed to take home afterward.

During the event, the women were tightly monitored. Marriage writes that Arista, the agency tasked with hiring women for the event had “an enforcement team” surveilling the women and “prodding less active hostesses to interact with dinner guests.”

Marriage writes:

“Outside the women’s toilets a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom. A security guard at the door was on hand, keeping time.”

During the charity event, the men repeatedly attempted to hold the women’s hands, fondle them, and pull them into their laps. One hostess reported that a guest exposed his penis to her.

Thanks to the efforts of second wave feminists, we are witnessing a moment in which sexual harassment is being discussed and challenged en masse. As a result, the backlash against the Presidents Club, its organizers, and the male guests was fast and furious. The charity shut down the day after the story was published, attendees have attempted to distance themselves from it, the government is considering taking measures against these types of situations in the future, and many recipients of the Presidents Clubs charity fundraising are returning the money.

The Presidents Club seems to have succumbed to social pressure and the power of a unified feminist movement, galvanized against sexual harassment and sexual assault. But across the Atlantic, another event embroiled in a sexism scandal survives.

In December 2017, the Huffington Post’s Yashar Ali published a number of emails exchanged between board members and executives of the Miss America organization, revealing a deplorable view of female contestants. The emails spoke of the women in a derogatory way, mocked their looks, and displayed particular contempt for women who tried to empower themselves — something Miss America claims to support.

Yashar uncovered three years of internal correspondence between pageant organizers, starting in 2014. In one email, the CEO of the Miss America Organization, Sam Haskell, told the lead writer of the pageant, Lewis Friedman, that he wanted to change the title they used to refer to past winners. Haskell wrote, “I have decided that when referring to a woman who was once Miss America, we are no longer going to call them Forever Miss Americas… please change all script copy to reflect that they are Former Miss Americas!” Friedman replied, “I’d already changed ‘Forevers’ to ‘Cunts.’ Does that work for you?” Haskell responded, “Perfect… bahahaha.” In another exchange, Friedman and Haskell joked about wishing death on Kate Shindle, who won Miss America in 1998.

Shindle wrote a book in 2014 that was critical of the Miss America Organization, including it’s decision to pay Haskell a $500,000 consulting fee when the organization was over $400,000 in debt. Ali writes:

“Shindle was not revealing new information; press accounts had already exposed the payment. In her book, she also alleged Haskell blacklisted those who dissented against his leadership, with the national organization calling state-level pageants and giving those groups names of people they could not associate with.”

In December 2014, Friedman emailed Haskell to offer his condolences on the death of a former pageant winner. The subject line read, “It should have been Kate Shindle.” Haskell replied, “Thanks so much Coach… even in my sadness you can make me laugh…”

When women they didn’t like tried to move on from the organization, by starting their own careers, members of the Miss America Organization used their power and influence to crush their aspirations.

Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan, was a particular focus of vitriol. The pageant executives maligned her to the talent agency she signed with after her victory, which soon began ignoring her calls and refused to meet with her. After that , Hagan started a coaching business for aspiring pageant contestants. Almost immediately, The Miss America Organization prohibited contestants from hiring these coaches, which had the effect of shutting down Hagan’s business. Many more exchanges revealed that Haskell and board members plotted to destroy and ostracize Hagan, at one point, suggesting they should hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on her.

Miss America executive Lynn Weidner knew full well the effect these new guidelines would have on Hagan’s career, saying in one email, “I do believe that our anti-coaching initiatives are already impacting her business.” Within months of Miss America’s decision to ban coaching for contestants, Hagan’s business fell apart.

And demeaning comments about former contestants weren’t limited to Mallory Hagan. Board member Tammy Haddad referred to the women as a “pile of malcontents and has-beens who blame the program for not getting them where they think they can go.” She added, “80 per cent of the winners do not have the class, smarts, and model for success.” Others mocked past winners for gaining weight and attacked their supposed sexual behaviour.

Two days after Ali’s article was published, public pressure forced Haskell to resign. Now, we are told the pageant is getting a makeover, as former Miss America and media personality, Gretchen Carlson, has been made head of the Board of Directors. Carlson herself endured years of mistreatment by the board for, among other things, refusing to attack fellow pageant contestants and wanting to “modernize the organization.” In July 2016, Carlson, who worked as a host at Fox News for 10 years, sued Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, and has since become an activist against sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a statement regarding the email scandal, Carlson said:

“The Miss America Organization, which is tasked to uphold an almost 100-year-old tradition of female empowerment and scholarship, deserves better. I hope all former Miss Americas, state and local titleholders and volunteers will join me in a collective effort to fight for the dignity of this great institution.”

Compared to someone like Haskell, Carlson may seem refreshing in her apparent support for women. But I worry that her leadership will disguise Miss America’s misogynist nature without actually disrupting it. After all, beauty pageant culture itself perpetuates oppressive feminine ideals and the notion that women’s value has an expiration date.

Troubling in and of itself, this repackaging of patriarchal ideals is also sustained through liberal feminist discourse. The third wave has not only failed to challenge the objectification of women, but has provided beauty pageants with mantras about self-empowerment to appropriate. Whereas second wave feminists took aim at any system that made women interchangeable and commodifiable — including Miss America — the third wave has provided an ideology that protects and perpetuates those systems.

What the Presidents Club scandal proved was that liberal mantras about “choice” and “empowerment” mean little when power under patriarchy is stacked against women. The question should not be, “Do women choose to participate in these events and systems?” but, “Who benefits from these misogynist minstrel shows?”

We would be well-served to remember that our foremothers saw through these spectacles wherein women are used as superficial tokens, and warned us that we can’t win under patriarchy. After decades of fragmentation and the divisive politics of individualism, we can see that second wavers were right to analyze the implications of the objectification of women, instead of trying to seek empowerment through it.

How long before liberals and third wavers connect the dots and realize that it’s not just the Presidents Club that needs to go, but every practice wherein women are discarded, degraded, and subjected to abuse for the entertainment of men? This includes industries like pornography, prostitution, fashion, and cosmetic surgery. How many women must suffer through humiliations and abuse at the hands of men before we learn that pandering to patriarchy doesn’t work? If we seek the liberation of all women, only tearing down the system will do.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • Maria Gatti

    Brava! Such contests are inherently misogynistic, despite “empowerment” claptrap.

    And as you know, in many poorer countries (those super-exploited by imperialism, colonialism and the legacy of slavery and of genocide of Indigenous peoples and people imported in chains from Africa) they are seen as a route to success for many young women, when they are most often just a route to yet more exploitation.

    • BornACrone

      If they were really empowering, Bill Gates would have a stripper pole in his office and webcam himself on it while he had conference calls. Funny enough, they don’t do that though, do they?

  • oneclickboedicea

    Absolutely! Neo Liberal feminism is just sexism in a dress suit.

  • Alienigena

    “How long before liberals and third wavers connect the dots and realize that it’s not just the Presidents Club that needs to go, but every practice wherein women are discarded, degraded, and subjected to abuse for the entertainment of men? This includes industries like pornography, prostitution, fashion, and cosmetic surgery.”

    I think the fitness / wellness industries also need to be included. I have been going to a few different personal trainers because of illness and injury and a desire not to be frail as I age and when I list my goals they don’t generally include weight loss, though I do seem to be responsive to exercise (not all people all equally responsive, this seems to be backed up by genetics, at least the markers companies like 23andme.com and athletigen test for). My weight loss is the first thing that one of these trainers noticed when I returned after a few months absence. I was skipping meals (to avoid nausea and GERD, lifelong issue and admittedly because I am a picky eater) and became iron deficient. I really felt like crap but I had lost some weight and gained muscle (due to exercise) so I was supposed to be happy, I guess. I will grant that the trainer in question does support eating animal protein (albeit ‘lean’ protein, a current buzzword) to prevent frailty as one ages. Maybe I see the world differently but people that others classify as overweight don’t seem to be to me. And I don’t notice when I lose weight, at least by looking in mirror, I grant clothing is looser. This society is really only fixated on weight loss and thinness rather than being and feeling healthy. Thinness for women is taken to an extreme in the fashion and entertainment industries.

  • -Jane Don’t-

    God…This is horrible, but sadly not surprising at all. I’m so sick of men feeling like they can say whatever they want to us, touch us, or worse. I can’t seem to get away their ridiculous comments and flirting. Hell, we have to have a meeting about sexual harassment now at my job, and I don’t even know what exactly happened or if my boss overheard some of the men “joking” with me. (They basically asked what number my hotel room was and asked if the “party was in there,” if you get my drift, and kept on with stuff like that for a few minutes in earshot of our other coworkers.) Mind you, one is probably in his 60’s, the other in his 70’s, and I’m only 32…I know part of it is probably a generational thing, but Christ. I see attractive people every day and don’t feel an urge to oogle and harass them…It’s not that difficult to respect your fellow humans!

  • OldPolarBear

    Another great post Raquel Rosario Sanchez. I find myself wondering: who watches this thing these days? Which I could look up easily enough. Some of my family used to watch Miss America regularly every year, back in the early to mid 60s. My late sister, about 10 years my senior, loved it and I would watch because I loved doing things with her and also because the show appealed to my developing sissy-gayboy sensibilities. My mom would sorta watch, keeping an eye out from the kitchen while doing the dishes or coming in to sit down for a while. Like with a lot of TV, she seemed to find it half-entertaining and half-ridiculous.

    The thought suddenly occurred to me just now after reading this piece that the show was training me in patriarchal objectification of women as I was watching as a 6-10 year old. And I wasn’t even interested, or going to be interested, in having sex with girls or women. That’s one reason so many gay men, and gay culture, is so misogynistic and shitty to women. I mean, I realized that part on an intellectual level, but the connection with having that programmed in me as a little boy just sort of jumped out there.

    Of course, there was a certain “camp” appeal to the whole spectacle, with Bob Barker singing that corny song for the winner to parade around, the tiara, the giant bouquets, and everything else. I certainly didn’t understand the concept of camp until much later, even while I was enjoying it. Later, they fired Bob Barker. I think because he did anti-fur activism? He seemed like a basically decent guy, but I have no idea. Maybe he did awful things to women, and even the contestants, too.

    • susannunes

      Bob Barker hosted Miss USA and Miss Universe. He quit the gigs and was not fired. You are probably thinking of Bert Parks, who was forever identified with Miss America during television’s first three decades. He was the host from 1955 to 1979. He sang “There She Is, Miss America,” making him a household name. Frankly, as a young girl and young woman he was the only reason I watched it. I lived for him singing that sappy tune. He WAS fired from the Miss America pageant because the organization wanted to revamp it to make it more relevant to younger viewers. Johnny Carson spearheaded a “Save Bert Parks” campaign to reinstate Parks to his Miss America gig, but it failed. Parks died in 1992. There is a statue of Parks in Atlantic City.

    • BornACrone

      If you like spectacle, watch the Philadelphia new year’s parade, especially the string bands. I’m not kidding. It’s the gayest straight thing you’ve ever seen. You will never see more men in sequins, ostrich feathers, and makeup outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and they can actually play their instruments — and the majority of them are straight, fairly butch family guys. It’s fucking amazing.

      This nonsequitur is brought to you by the fact that it’s Friday night and I’m bored.

    • Liz

      Bob Barker was sued for sexual harassment, but by some of the “beauties” on The Price Is Right. I think he then followed up the lawsuits by firing people left and right in a rage, so he got sued on that account too.

  • Mexican American Lesbian

    Ah yes. An organization that’s literally designed to give men boners while pretending to be progressive. I mean, if they took away the brutally objectifying swimsuit portion and the borderline Victorian evening wear portion and just focused on talents and general knowledge than yes, it might be, but Miss America is basically a finishing school of the most patriarchal sort mixed with some typical libfem garbage about empowerment.

    John Oliver did a great piece about them. Their emphasis on “scholarships” is ridiculously overblown to the point of absurdity.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDPCmmZifE8

    The Miss America organization is basically an excuse to funnel money from advertisers into the pockets of the jewelry/fashion industry. That’s generally what pageants are. Give men boners, make advertising money, give money to the JF industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case given there have been cases where pageants have literally been owned by business associations involved in those industries.

  • BornACrone

    I always laugh when I read things like this and remember the times when faux-intersectional feminists talk about “cis privilege” and “straight privilege” and “thin privilege” or “beauty privilege” or whatever privilege they’ve invented to refer to the supposed golden privilege of being the kind of woman men want to fuck.

    I’ve been that woman. I spent my entire 20s and 30s (and a lot of my 40s) as that woman, and I can tell you that they don’t LIKE you when you look like that. They like you like a shark likes a California grey seal. Ripped up into roasted shreds and coated in barbecue sauce so they can gorge on you without slowing down and shit you out a day later.

    Men do not “like” beautiful women, not by a long shot. They don’t “like” any kind of woman. You’re either old, ugly, or fat and hence trash, or you’re “hot” and hence fuckable trash, trash that can be momentarily used like a toilet before being thrown out.

    Men do not “like” ANY women, of any kind.

    • Cassandra

      Amen, sister!

      And even if “attractive” women get some breaks that so-called “unattractive” women don’t, it’s still the pits for all of us at the end of the day. Until males and females have the same EXACT menu of choices to choose from, there really isn’t much privilege in being female, no matter what you look like. It’s simply too precarious. A vicious double bind.

      And also, if you’re hired because you’re attractive, how does being fuckable to your boss really *help* you? #MeToo.

  • cday881@gmail.com

    She added, “80 per cent of the winners do not have the class, smarts, and model for success.”

    Isn’t that more a criticism of the Miss America pageant. Either they’re not attracting the “right” women, or they’re failing to select the “best” contestants.

  • Sashimi73

    I am inspired by watching the building of Space X rockets. Then I wonder what it’s for – just to transport the pathogens, as you say, from earth to another planet.

  • Cassandra

    Yup.

  • Cassandra

    Yes, I’m aware of Ms. Sanchez’s background and her writing. She’s great! Males all across the political spectrum continue to sexually terrorize women. It’s unfortunately never a surprise when “humanitarian” organizations have men doing these things, as males as a class do not think of women as human. We are the sex class FIRST, then maybe human. You know the saying, right? “The only difference between men on the right and men on the left is where on your neck they place the boot.”

  • Rachael

    Wow, just wow. Alright, so now I’ve picked my supposed “man-jaw” up off the floor…how do you account for all of the other things radical feminists fight for? We are not just opposed to beauty pageants, you realise? Or do you think our hideousness applies to all things feminism?

    Also, if the only thing that matters (as according to you) is a specific type of westernised beauty, how do you account for radical feminists in other parts of the world where this isn’t their standard of beauty? Or feminists from different times? Or male allies?

    It’s such a tired, trite argument to wheel out: that we are all ugly therefore we are feminists (besides, not that it makes any difference, and I haven’t seen every woman here but hello, have you looked at Meghan? She’s hot by any standards, not just for a feminist! The horror!).

    Though, I have to laugh at your efforts of wrapping up that simple boring explanation in bro-science in the attempt to make readers believe you have a point. Clue? You don’t. Bye bye, now!