Before There Was Miss Universe … There Was Miss Subways
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The pageant posters in NYC subway cars reflected the changing attitudes about women at work.
Descend the stairs of the Union Square–14th Street subway station, and you’ll trade the aroma of hot nuts sold by street vendors for a blast of warm air. As you swipe your MetroCard through the turnstile and make your way to the platform, you’ll be accompanied by the sound of a subway performer’s guitar and the clink of change dropping into the open guitar case resting on the floor as fellow New Yorkers hustle to make the next train.
Then, as you shuffle into the crowded car, your gaze might roam upward (granted, you’ve got limited options for places to look when you’re packed in like a sardine). A quick scan of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) advertisements will introduce you to Casper’s newest mattress or request your participation in an outpatient experiment. But from the 1940s through the ’70s, you would have been greeted with ads of smiling women: Miss Subways, the winners of a citywide monthly beauty competition.
The Miss Subways contest was launched in 1941, by the forerunners of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The contest was conceived to draw riders’ eyes up to paid ads for cigarettes or chewing gum by displaying pretty faces beside them, says Amy Zimmer, a journalist and author of Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941–1976. It was not a typical pageant: Each month, women across New York City mailed in headshots and the John Robert Powers modeling agency selected at least one winner. Subway ads featured winners’ photos along with a caption detailing their interests and career aspirations (and often their marital status). In 1963, the selection process became more democratic, as New Yorkers could mail in votes, selecting from among the headshots of six contenders.
Some Miss Subways studied physics; others dreamed of becoming performers. One 1941 winner, Mona Freeman, later appeared in more than 20 films, while in 1976, the contest’s final winner, Heide Hafner, was an amateur pilot who used the platform to draw attention to women in aviation. Still, the ad copy was written by men and often framed the women in ways they wouldn’t describe themselves. One example? The copy for Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum, who won Miss Subways in 1946 while studying for an art degree at Hunter College, claimed she was willing to “settle for an M.R.S.,” meaning she would happily get married after school and perhaps not work.
Could this unusual contest have succeeded anywhere but New York? Zimmer doubts it, noting how Miss Subways was so “uniquely New York” because of the city’s diversity and collective consciousness about the value of work. There’s always been the idea of the “working girl” in New York and the belief that, as the song goes, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” Zimmer says. Whereas a Florida beauty contest might have reflected the local economy with an agriculture-centered event like a “strawberry girl” festival, the diverse ambitions of the winners of Miss Subways mirrored New York as the center of everything from commerce to fashion to finance. The contest was so deeply embedded in the culture of the city that the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town even had a character, “Miss Turnstiles,” based on Miss Subways.
And in the melting pot that is New York, the expansive subway system is where people from all walks of life collide. “It’s where people mix a lot and have always mixed a lot,” Zimmer says. Likewise, Miss Subways didn’t fit into traditional boxes along race and class divides. The contestants were working-class women — Irish, Italian, Jewish, Catholic, Latina, Black, Asian — with things to do and places to be. The pageant broke the color line long before national ones did. After a campaign launched by Black city newspapers, Thelma Porter became the first Black Miss Subways, in 1948 — decades before Vanessa Williams was crowned the first Black Miss America, in 1983. Helen Lee became the first Asian American Miss Subways, in 1949. Beauty pageants generally aren’t known for embracing progressive values — only this year did the world meet the first openly transgender Miss Universe contestant, Angela Ponce.
The contest chronicled the changing tides of urban feminism of the 20th century and now the 21st century, says Kathy Peiss, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who contributed an essay to Zimmer’s book, in an Atlas Obscura article. Like a time capsule, Miss Subways posters reflect the social pulse and attitudes of respective decades. During World War II, the copy often described women working in factories or producing supplies for the war effort, Zimmer says. In the postwar period of the 1950s, the copy reflected a shift back toward homemaking roles and traditional expectations.
As New York City experienced a fiscal crisis in the 1970s, the subways fell into disrepair and posters were often defaced. As the women’s liberation movement gained steam, changing attitudes toward beauty standards increased women’s reluctance to participate, Zimmer notes. The contest ended in 1976, but it was resurrected for one year in 2004, to honor the subway’s centennial. Renamed Ms. Subways, this campaign was structured differently than the original contest. In 2017, it was revived yet again, this time unaffiliated with the MTA and more of a subway-themed variety show with celebrity judges.
It’s easy to look back through a modern lens and view the contest as progressive because of its relative inclusivity and acknowledgment of career goals. But although the posters’ text did reflect changing attitudes toward women in the workplace, Miss Subways wasn’t trying to push the envelope and wasn’t viewed as trailblazing at the time, Zimmer says. And its inclusivity had limitations: In 1952, a group of Black subway employees who felt that Black women were still underrepresented held their own contest.
Still, there’s something enduring about the fact that these women were made visible in the vehicle that provided them mobility and freedom. Like a precursor to today’s popular “Humans of New York” series, Miss Subways posters offered snapshots of ordinary and extraordinary dreams.