I was struck by the headline of Katie Halper’s essay on Bess Myerson at Feministing: “Bess Myerson: The only Jewish Miss America, pianist, politician you’ve never heard of”
I remember Bess Myerson because I was a compulsive game-show watcher, and she was a regular panelist on I’ve Got a Secret. I knew she had been Miss America, and I knew she later became a highly influential consumer watchdog and advocate, and that she ran for U.S. Senator. When I saw Halper’s article, Myerson’s face and voice came back to me instantly.
Until I started reading about her, I didn’t know she was the only Jewish Miss America, ever, let alone that she refused to take a “more attractive” name when urged to do so by pageant organizers. Or that she got fewer offers to be a sponsor, and some country clubs and hotels barred her during her celebration tour. I didn’t know she was a pianist, and somehow I missed the fact that she was involved in a major money/politics/sex scandal in the 1980s and–even though a jury acquitted her on all counts–dropped out of her public life as a consumer advocate after that.
According to various obituaries and biographies, she didn’t like being described as an early feminist, saying she just did what she had to to survive.
Whether or not she was a feminist, she was a world-changing woman.
Had Halper not heard of her just because people drop out of sight and memory quickly? Because Myerson’s 15 minutes (in her case, more than forty years) of fame are over? Because women’s history is still a backwater, easily ignored or forgotten? Because Myerson was discredited in her later years, and thus lost status as an important woman?
Probably, all of the above. But I can’t escape the lingering sense that a white man with comparable credentials would be better known now than Bess Myerson is … and I can’t escape the near-certainty that none of her male game-show panelist colleagues ever did as much good in the world offscreen as she did.