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Pageant rules reflect outdated ideal

SHE'S BEAUTIFUL, she's intelligent, and she had an abortion after accidentally getting pregnant at 16. Soon, she could be a Miss America contestant.

In June, the Miss America Organization's board of directors voted to change contestant eligibility requirements, thus altering the pageant's so-called moral ideals. Since the pageant is held in Atlantic City, requirements were altered to comply with New Jersey anti-discrimination laws.

Previously, prospective contestants were ineligible if they had been married or pregnant at any time prior to the competition. The recent changes would allow for divorcees and women who have had abortions to participate in the pageant. The rules also exclude women who are pregnant or are the natural or adoptive parent of a child at the time of the pageant.

In an interview with ABC News, Miss America 1999 and former Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson said that the change in the pageant's moral requirements "saddened" her. Due to this and more concern from the public regarding what type of woman represents America's "ideal," the MAO board of directors has agreed to wait to change the requirements pending talks with state pageant directors.

The Miss America pageant is an American institution, watched in awe by thousands of young girls each September. These girls look up to each glamorous contestant, but they should not be misled as to what the ideal American woman is or should be. She most definitely is not the same sweet, reserved woman she was 78 years ago when the pageant began, nor will she ever be that woman again.

The proposed changes to the Miss America pageant requirements should be implemented and females all over the country should welcome them with open arms. The MAO needs to bring its competition into the new millennium with fresh regulations that accurately reflect the lives of women in America today and break down the stereotyped "ideal" of the past.

With a high number of today's marriages ending in divorce, it is not too uncommon for a woman to have a failed marriage under her belt. Divorce in American society hardly gets a second look these days. Although not accepted completely, divorce does not meet with the taboo and disgrace the subject once endured.

The MAO states that the purpose of the Miss America pageant is to "empower American women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence." By no means is a woman less intelligent or talented if she has had a previous marriage that did not work, or ended because of physical or other domestic abuse.

To the contrary, it requires tremendous intelligence and strength for a young woman to leave an abusive relationship or to admit that she made a mistake and follow through with a divorce before children are a factor.

Additionally, moral character is not lessened by a divorce. We must remember that not all pageant contestants are squeaky-clean portraits of virginity. Youthful or capricious marriage is not always a lapse in morality -- it is more often than not an immature indiscretion. Contestants should be judged on the talent and personality they bring to the pageant, not on past blunders.

Pregnancy, the other area of contention in the MAO's regulations, does carry with it more of a stigma than divorce, but pageants should not have the right to mandate contestants' personal morals.

It is a woman's right to decide the method in which to deal with a pregnancy, including the right to choose abortion. Whatever she decides to do -- be it keeping the pregnancy or aborting it -- is a personal decision and should not change her moral standing in the eyes of the pageant.

Why, then, are women who have chosen to keep their pregnancies still excluded from the pageant. The pageant also should include in its new standards women who have shown accountability for their actions and taken on the responsibility of being a single mother. Single mothers who make it all the way to the Miss America pageant demonstrate dedication to what they believe in while assuming responsibility for another life. They personify accountability, love, caring and strength -- all qualities expected of Miss America contestants.

Pageants in America are wonderful opportunities for young girls and women to showcase their intelligence and talent. But, as times and gender roles change in America, pageants must change as well. Young girls need strong female role models who paint an accurate picture of an exceptional woman of today, faults and all. Only then can Miss America truly be our "ideal."

(Erin Perucci's column appears Thursdays. She is an associate editor for The Cavalier Daily.)