The 1970s was a period of recovery, as well as continued turmoil, for the American people. The 1960s had been violent, troubled times that saw three major political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and anti-war demonstrations. The pendulum swung back towards conservatism with the election of Richard Nixon for president in 1968. However, his administration was riddled with scandal, resulting first in the resignation of the vice-president and eventually in the resignation of the president himself. The Watergate investigation led the headlines for months while Gerald Ford, the first president ever to serve without having been elected to the office, or even that of the vice-president, tried to restore normalcy. Ford was replaced by Jimmy Carter, the first Southern president since before the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Carter was successful in negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel, but wasn’t successful in getting the American hostages freed from Iran until the day he relinquished his office to Ronald Reagan in 1981. The sexual and technological revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as integration, changed the culture of the United States. In the process, the job market developed more openings that could be filled by women just as women were demanding more opportunities.
The Climate for Women Playwrights
In the 1970s, Beth Henley wrote her first plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest, which is set in no particular time period. This play needs little adjustment, if any, as the times change. By 1980, Henley had two plays going on stage. In 1981, she won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama, but she was the first woman to do so in twenty-three years. The situation for women playwrights was paradoxical. In the 1930s to the 1950s, the only female playwright of note was Lillian Hellman. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a noticeable proliferation of young women playwrights. Women were ‘‘in’’ to the point that plays by women of the 1960s were resurrected. However, their subjects were not necessarily about women or from a woman’s perspective, as women writers tried to fit into the maledominated mainstream. Despite the number of women writing plays, few were getting them produced on Broadway or in regional theatres. One had to look to Off- or Off-Off Broadway to see a play written by a woman. Although two more women playwrights won Pulitzers in the 1980s (Marsha Norman in 1983 and Wendy Wasserstein in 1989), by the end of the decade only 7 percent of the plays on stage nationwide were written by women. This male dominance continues into the 2000s. Another three women won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama around the turn of the century (Paula Vogel in 1998; Margaret Edson in 1999; Suzan-Lori Parks in 2002). Despite this, only 17 percent of plays in production in America in 2002 were written by female playwrights.
The Culture of Beauty Pageants
Beauty pageants, although held across the country, are more of a Southern phenomenon, perhaps because the image of a Southern lady can be taught through these events. As anthropologist Robert H. Lavenda explained: ‘‘Small-town pageants are about social class, achievement, community values, and femininity in a small-town context, and they are training for the social positions toward which many of the candidates aspire.’’ Furthermore, and this is a point that Carnelle didn’t realize in the play, ‘‘The pageant is not designed to select the most beautiful young woman in town, but rather a suitable representative for the community.’’ Often, suitability is determined by the importance of the candidates’ families. Carnelle kept going over the list of finalists and comparing herself to the others in terms of beauty. She thought she had a real chance to win because she was sure she was prettier than the others. Realistically, however, as Elain feared, Carnelle came in last due to the bad reputation, which made her the least representative of the values of the community. Young women enter these contests, as Carnelle does, because they have something to prove, or because they need to be loved and think adulation will be a sufficient substitute. Fortunately for Carnelle, she realizes, albeit too late, that such a contest can be ludicrous when one has the love of friends and family.