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Women and Deafness: Double Visions|
Miss Deaf America, explicitly described by this ad, serves as an ambassador of beauty and vitality to mainstream society, but she also reflects cultural Deaf ideals. Billington is “talented and beautiful,” challenging mainstream notions of disabled citizens (including deaf people) as dependent, incapable, and unappealing. Her possible performance of patriotic songs suggests commonality with mainstream society, of full and equal citizenship status, while also celebrating a deaf body and sign language. But gendered expectations also strongly informed her purpose at Deaf conventions. She was ornamental to the men and appealing to the eyes more than the mind (for she was not a main “speaker” at these venues). Additionally, she was a role model for young deaf women, who presumably saw her as successful—as what a deaf female should want to be. As Miss Deaf America, Billington and her successors held a special place in the community because they instilled pride and served as a symbol of unity, vitality, and happiness. Still, these queens, while visually testifying that deafness can be positive, rarely had the opportunity to “voice” their opinions on issues that complicated the community. The fact that the sponsoring organization—the NAD—did not allow female members to vote until 1964 or that it did not elect a female president until the 1980s serves to mirror this muted voice, to reflect on this muted place of female “deaf, though beautiful.”
The requirements for contestants in the Miss Deaf America pageant (and Miss Gallaudet and many other state-level contests) reflect mainstream pageant rules but also reveal physical and cultural Deaf components. For example, young ladies must be between eighteen and twenty-eight, never married (and may not marry during their reign if selected), without any children, free of any criminal record, and must be an American citizen.27 In addition to having “talent, poise, charm, intelligence, beauty of face and body, social ability and maturity,” a contestant must submit a certified audiogram and possess a hearing loss of 65 decibels or more (American Standards Association) or 75 decibels or more (International Organization for Standardization) in both ears. According to official documents, contestants are not required to possess American Sign Language (ASL) skills or other culturally “Deaf” attributes, such as attendance at a residential school, membership in Deaf clubs or churches, and so forth. It is nevertheless culturally understood that sign language is the preferred mode of communication at these pageants.
The role of sign language in pageants has specific historical gendered meaning. The most popular talent performances for contests, from the 1920s to the present day, are signed recitations of poems or signed-songs.28 This kind of signing has been traditional for women in the broader cultural Deaf community, and it is one of the few areas where they received praise for their signing. Frequently at commencements and conventions, Deaf women have signed the national anthem or a piece of poetry. Seen as