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

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 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.