In The Eye Of The Beholder: Sexism, Empowerment, And Britain’s Railway Queens
Conner Scott | 21 November 2022
◇ Britain and Ireland / British History / Feminism / Gender / Interwar Britain / Modern British History / Women's History
Beauty contests are frequently dismissed as sexist exploitation which encourage audiences to judge women solely upon their looks. This criticism can be traced back to Women’s Liberation protests at the 1968 Miss America and 1970 Miss World contests in Atlantic City and London, respectively. One former protester recalled that the Miss America contest ‘taught young girls that the important thing in life… was to get a man, to be sexy, to be superficial’.
Such objections continue to be voiced today. Professor June Purvis recently opined that modern beauty pageants cannot be separated ‘from the decades of objectification and sexism that they are originally associated with… It has passed its sell by date’. For critics, Miss World is Miss Exploited, and should be Miss Anachronism.
These claims do hold truth. Contests often idealise highly conservative visions of youthful womanhood. Miss World cannot be divorced or have children. As a fig leaf to equality, neither can Mr England. Contest organisers also exercise extensive control over winners’ images. In 2019, Miss Nevada had her crown taken away for posting right-wing comments online. Likewise, Miss Crimea nearly lost her title for singing a song, perceived to be pro-Ukraine. Beauty queens, then, appear to be constrained by organisers’ desire for the role to be ‘apolitical’.
Yet, contests continue to be wildly popular. In 2019, almost 20,000 women entered the Miss England contest. When asked why they chose to participate, the buzzword refrain of most beauty queens is that they feel ‘empowered’ by competing. It is, however, left unsaid exactly how it empowers them. Taking these contestants seriously, it is worth considering how beauty contests can be perceived as a form of empowerment.
One means of answering this question is to look at one of the first major British beauty contests: the Railway Queen. Established in 1925 and running until 1975, Railway Queens were crowned annually at the Railway Employees’ Carnival at Belle Vue stadium, Manchester. Eligible candidates were daughters, aged between 12 and 16, of unionised railway employees. Wearing full regalia of tiara and velvet robe, Railway Queens served terms of a year performing sundry official engagements: giving speeches, cutting ribbons, and presiding over civic occasions.
The chief duty of Railway Queens was to serve as an ‘Ambassadress of Peace’ for the railway trade unions. After the devastations of the Great War, the Railway Queen advocated that no war could be ‘great’. Their chain of office was symbolic of this. Dubbed the ‘International Chain’, it was comprised of gold links given to each Railway Queen during official overseas visits. It symbolised the uniting of railway employees around the world in an ever-growing ‘chain of peace’.
During their international tours, Railway Queens undertook the role of diplomatic envoy. In 1935, fourteen-year-old Gracie Jones undertook a five-week tour of North America, travelling from New York to Montreal. The countless formal gift exchanges, speeches, and ceremonial duties Gracie performed were key to underpinning cordial transatlantic relations between Anglo-American trade unions. These overseas trips were also major media spectacles. When Railway Queen Audrey Mosson visited Moscow in 1936, she was filmed meeting Josef Stalin. This was then projected in cinemas across Britain and the Soviet Union.
Railway Queens’ own voices were palpably heard during such tours. Jones was interviewed by the Washington Post in the United States, where she stated ‘‘I had heard they [Americans] were rude and abrupt but I find them attractive, attentive, and altogether pleasing’. During Railway Queen Ena Best’s 1928 visit to France, she was the only member of the party who could speak French.
Alongside her many official speeches, she also had to order everyone’s meals. Railway Queens, then, were prominent trade union ambassadresses who undertook a demanding and skilled diplomatic role. Thus, becoming a Railway Queen was one of the few means by which young, working-class women could participate directly in international politics.
Serving as a beauty queen, therefore, did not reduce winners to objectified ornaments, nor ‘apolitical’ ciphers. For Railway Queens, it was an overtly political platform that enabled working-class women, typically overshadowed, a prominent, active role in transnational trade unionism.
So too, contemporary beauty queens continue to act as spokeswomen for various causes or ideals, whether supporting suicide prevention charities or campaigning for increased smear testing. Some women have even started to use beauty contests as a platform to diversify, even challenge, societal beauty standards. Women of colour participate to show beauty is not exclusively white; others project body positivity as Ms Curvaceous; still others compete without makeup to rail against convention.
Despite the looks-focused nature of such competitions, for many women it is evident that beauty queens are not merely gratuitous objectification. Indeed, for those whose perspectives and identities are otherwise marginalised, competing is a vital means of securing the limelight. Ultimately, where some women decry Miss Anachronism, others see Miss Empowerment.
Conner Rivers Scott is a WRoCAH-funded PhD candidate in the department of history at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research looks at British inter-war newsreels and their place in everyday life. In particular, this research will examine the ways in which newsreels (re)presented the public to itself between c.1920-1939, a time when the public was politically and socially reconstituted. More broadly, his research interests include twentieth-century British gender history, media history, and histories of everyday life.
 Daily News (21 Aug 1928), 10; Daily Herald (27 Aug 1928), 7.
The New York Times (20 Jun 1934), p.22; Los Angeles Times (22 Jun 1934), p.5.
The Washington Post (21 Jun 1934), p.12.