Madison Marsh made history this week as the first active duty Air Force officer to be crowned as Miss America. The 22-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, who serves as a fighter pilot, was crowned at the national competition in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday night.
Marsh, who represented Colorado, is a recent graduate of the Air Force Academy with a degree in physics, according to CNN, and she is currently pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her list of accomplishments goes on: she’s a two-time National Astronaut Scholar and a Rhodes finalist with internships for NASA and Harvard Medical School under her belt. At the Kennedy School, Marsh holds a national Truman Scholarship.
“I think the public response to Madison’s accomplishments shows how unifying this win is for women,” said Madison Wilson, state executive director of the Miss Utah Scholarship Organization, a licensed state preliminary to Miss America. “It’s great to see women succeed.” Wilson was at the competition in Orlando to support Miss Utah Sarah Sun and Miss Utah’s Teen Jaylynn Lindley, who was among top 11 finalists.
Wilson oversees the state competition and 32 local programs across the state, and is gearing up for the Miss Utah competition in June with 54 participants.
Who is Madison Marsh?
Marsh is a co-founder of the Whitney Marsh Foundation with her father and younger sister. The foundation honors Marsh’s mother, who died of pancreatic cancer, and holds annual road races in Marsh’s hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas, to raise money for pancreatic cancer research.
“I feel like this one is really important to me because winning Miss America is not about me,” she told TODAY. “I think of all of the women that came before me. The first people that served in combat. The first female astronauts. The first female everything.” For Marsh, the victory is “about all of the other women that I get to represent around the globe,” she said.
In the Miss America pageant, 11 semifinalists participated in four rounds of competition, which included a runway walk, a “hot topics’’ discussion, a talent show and an evening gown presentation, according to CNN. During the discussion round, Marsh talked about her late mother’s battle with cancer. For the talent round, Marsh chose a spoken-word poem about receiving her pilot’s license at 16.
For Marsh, participating in a pageant and serving in the military have some overlap. “When I put on my uniform, I serve and I represent our country,” Marsh told the Harvard Crimson. It was the dress-up that initially attracted Marsh to the pageants, she told the Crimson, but she soon began to appreciate the pageants’ commitment to community service and leadership, according to the Crimson. “When I put on the crown and sash, I’m serving, representing my community,” she said.
In her studies at Harvard, Marsh is interested in combining her background in cancer research policy: “trying to translate it to make sure that we’re enacting policy that’s equitable for all patients,” Marsh told the Crimson.
Looking ahead, she is committed to working with her foundation to help find the cure for pancreatic cancer, she told TODAY. “I would love to dive deep into my non-profit, the Whitney Marsh Foundation, and making it one of those large cancer non-profits that you hear about, like Susan G. Komen or a PanCAN (the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network), and diving into that to make national policy that meets the needs of all pancreatic cancer patients because, like I said, it’s severely underfunded,” she said.
What does Marsh’s win mean for women and girls?
For Madison Wilson, who grew up in Springville, Utah, pageants have become a kind of a home. She did ballet growing up and was kind of shy, she said, but getting involved with the Miss Utah Organization helped her become more confident. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a place,” she said. “This organization helped me find a voice and feel that I can make a difference.” She competed in the program and became a volunteer after she got married.
Marsh’s win is significant, she said, because it challenges the stereotypes around pageant competitions. “When people think of pageants, there may be a stereotype that pops into their mind,” Wilson said. “I think Madison’s win shows that there is so much more to the title holder opportunity and to the Miss America program than the stereotype.”
For the younger participants in the program, Wilson said, Marsh’s win shows that Miss America continues to break barriers. “You can achieve excellence in education — there are so many doors waiting to be opened, you just have to put in the grit and hard work to chase those dreams.”