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Margot Mifflin
Margot Mifflin
Culture critic and author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo; The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman; and Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood
American History
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Personal website
Book a 1:1 with Margot Mifflin

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On my mind

I write about women's history, tattoo history, books, art, and pop culture. I'm currently at work on a joint biography of the Quaker abolitionist feminist sisters Lucretia Coffin Mott and Martha Coffin Wright.

Why I'm excited to talk with readers

I love talking about the role of tattooing in women's lives, the symbolism of tattoos in literature, the merits and drawbacks of beauty pageants (local or international, drag, trans, or cisgender) and 19th century women who confounded or upended gender expectations.


Margot Mifflin

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My latest
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Margot Mifflin
Where I've written

Looking for Miss America

A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

Looking for Miss America is the first feminist history of the Miss America pageant. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change–the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. Mifflin tells the stories of the women who loved it, hated it, exploited it, rebelled against it, and used it to get opportunities men got without dressing up (or stripping down) and competing against each other on national television.

“Margot Mifflin is the perfect tour-guide on this journey through America’s fundamentals: cheesecake, capitalism, racism, sexism, ambition, and old-school, unabashed glamor. I couldn’t put it down.”

— Karen Abbott, author of New York Times bestseller The Ghosts of Eden Park

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The Blue Tattoo

The Life of Olive Oatman

A finalist for the 2010 Caroline Bancroft History Prize, The Blue Tattoo is the first modern biography of Olive Oatman. In 1851, Oatman was a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a “white Indian” with a chin tattoo, caught between cultures. Orphaned when her family was killed by Yavapai Indians, Oatman lived as a captive for a year before being traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her face and raised her as their own. She was fully assimilated and perfectly happy when, at nineteen, she was ransomed back to white society. She became an instant celebrity, but the price of fame was high and the pain of her ruptured childhood lasted a lifetime. Oatman’s tattoo evoked both the imprint of her Mohave past and the lingering scars of westward expansion. It also served as a reminder of her deepest secret, fully explored here for the first time: she never wanted to go home.

“An important and engrossing book, which reveals as much about the appetites and formulas of emerging mass culture as it does about tribal cultures in nineteenth-century America.”

— Times Literary Supplement

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Bodies of Subversion

A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

Published in 1997, Bodies of Subversion was the first history of Western women’s tattoo culture, starting in the 1850s. Subsequent editions in 2000 and 2013 added 100 new photos (including Janis Joplin, Natasha Kai, and Margaret Cho) additional historical information, and a chapter on tattooing trends in the new millennium. Of interest: new applications such as therapeutic tattoos used for women coming out of gangs, prisons, and situations of domestic abuse; the impact of reality shows on the industry; a profile of a heavily tattooed Lutheran pastor, new artists from Virginia Elwood to cover artist Roxx; and Shelley Jackson’s “Skin” project — a short story tattooed word by word on people around the globe.

“Perceptive and moving…insinuating and complex….’Bodies of Subversion’ is delicious social history.”

— Dwight Garner, The New York Times  

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