In a previous post I discussed the protest at the Miss World Contest in 1969.
Twelve months later on 20th November 1970 there was another protest but this time a number of women got into the Hall and disrupted the contest for a time which was being broadcast live.
Jane Grant, who had been at the first Women’s Liberation conference at Ruskin college in 1970, helped to organise the protest. She fondly remembers the detailed planning, and stresses that the focus was on the show’s host, Bob Hope, a Hollywood comedian with a reputation for reactionary and racist gags. “It wasn’t about messing things up for the women in the competition or causing harm in any way.”
Sally Alexander concurs. “We had no quarrel with the competitors. Our argument was, why do you have to be beautiful and looked at like this before you get noticed as a woman.”
Sally and her co-conspirators dressed up. “We wanted to fit into the audience so we went in with our handbags and looking good. Inside our handbags we had put flour scrunched up into little pieces of paper. When we got in we realised that there were groups of women dotted all around the hall. You felt, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.” You felt terrified.”
Sarah Wilson was chosen to start the protest. “When Bob Hope was going on and on with terrible, grotesque stuff, I got up and swung my football rattle. It seemed ages before anybody responded – people were lighting their cigarettes to ignite the smoke bombs – but then I saw stuff beginning to cascade down.”
From her position in the balcony, Jenny Fortune saw the signal. She had come with a busload of women from Essex University. “We threw leaflets, bags of flour and smoke bombs – the Albert Hall was covered with smoke and leaflets. It was pandemonium.”
Jo Robinson was sitting on her own surrounded by families and beginning to wonder if the protest was such a good idea. But she was appalled by by the misogyny and racism of Bob Hope’s act and became desperate for the protest to begin:
“Suddenly I heard a football rattle go off – very hesitatantly – and it all went very quiet. And then suddently another football rattle started and just after that there were these almightly howls and screams all round the Albert Hall. And I looked up and I saw in the floodlights all this flour, smoke bombs and leaflets, coming down onto the floor.
Jo jumped and hurled tomatoes at the press, shouting “We’re not ugly, we’re not beautiful—we’re angry!”
According to some accounts they also threw plastic mice. One woman who had been watching Miss World on TV at home nearby actually raced out of her house and joined in.
Guardian reporter Nicholas de Jongh, who was covering the event, wrote: “Sixty seconds noisy, smelly pandemonium reigned. I was hit by a bag of flour, tied in a paper packet. My shirt, suit and hands were splattered with blue paint. Bob Hope retreated, unable to compete with this newer, and frankly more interesting, entertainment.”
Sally again:“We leapt up. I had to climb over people who were horrified at what we were doing. I was certainly determined to get onto that stage and disrupt. When I first leapt up I could see Bob Hope looked absolutely horrified and ran back stage. He took a long time to be persuaded to come back on.” She was seized by four or five policemen and carried out by her arms and legs. “As we were being dragged out some of the Miss World contestants, beautiful young women in all their baubles, were saying “Let them go” to the policemen!”
The contest was won by Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, aged 22. She was an airhostess and the daughter of a barrister. She told The Guardian, “I do not think women should ever achieve equal rights. I do not want to. I still like a gentleman to hold my chair back for me.” (Apartheid South Africa sent two contestants: Jillian Jessup, Miss South Africa, who was white, and Pearl Jansen, Miss Africa South, who was mixed race and came second.)
In its report The Guardian said that there were 30 or 40 women involved who were sitting in three guinea and four guinea seats. The paper quoted Jan Williams, speaking on behalf of the Women’s Liberation Workshop, “The protest had been planned for a number of weeks. As far as we are concerned it was a great success. We never intended to attack the girls.We just wanted to show we were sorry for them.” Bob Hope described it as “one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life. I was flabbergasted. I have never faced a bunch of mad women before.”
In her television programmes review column in The Guardian Nancy Banks Smith wrote:
…this year the contest was worth watching for the uproar from the floor. At the time of writing I don’t know who tried to break up the contest but I’ll tell you this. I”ll join. Include me in. Consider me a member. If it was Women’s Liberation forget the form. I already belong. If Bob Hope’s jokes had been getting over (in the confusion we saw one of his cue cards being held at arm’s length – which is where I would have held it) there would’nt have been a pause to demonstrate in.
One of his jokes about World Wildlife and women’s fur coats had just been stillborn when a football rattle was heard in the polite silence. At first Hope seemed to think that this was some kind of British appreciation…However, a shower of leaflets, some screwed up paper landing on the stage and thundery shouts induced him to say “Who are these pests? ” And he thereupon kindly left the stage.
Five women appeared in the magistrates court on 22nd December on a variety of charges including assaulting the police, threatening behaviour and insulting behaviour. Shrew appealed for support : this is the first Women’s Lib trial since the suffragettes . ..please come to Bow Street…and bring your friends, your banners, your lunch and your support.
They were Jo Robinson (28) , Catherine McLean (20), Mair Twissell (27), Sally Alexander (27) and Jenny Fortune (21) At the hearing Sergeant Geoffey Bowers alleged that Sally had been one of the two women who ran towards the stage. “I grabbed her as she climbed a barrier leading towards the stage. She struggled violently and screamed. In her right hand she had a lighted cigarette which she stubbed out on the back of my hand.” At the police station they searched her bag and found a bag of flour, four plastic mice and an over-ripe tomato. Inspector Eric Warren claimed that Jenny was trying to light smoke-bomb. Outside the court supporters paraded with banners which said “Beauty Contests Enslave” and “Support Women on Trial for Miss World.”
Jo was heavily pregnant and repeatedly used her right to ask for a loo break, which eventually annoyed the magistrate. When she threatened to relieve herself in the court, a fracas ensued. The women on trial were rearrested and spent the night in Holloway prison, and ended up being fined for various offences. Nevertheless, Fortune describes the experience as an “epiphany . . . It was the most fantastic feeling: facing your fears – and my fears were my family’s fears: if I stopped being a nice middle-class girl, I’d get into bad trouble.”
The Women’s Liiberation Worksop Shrew carried a lengthy jointly-authored report of what had happened. This began:
The Miss World competition is not an erotic exhibition; it is a public elebaration of the traditional female road to success. The Albert Hall on th evening of November 20th was miles away from the underground world of pornography. The atmosphere was empahtically respectable, enlived by a contrived attempt at ‘glamour’. The conventionality of the girls’ lives and the ordinariness of their aspirations – Miss Grenada (Miss World) “Now I’m looking for the ideal man to marry.” – was the keynote of all the pre-and post -competition publicity. Their condition is the condition of all women, born to de defined by their physical attributes, born to give birth, or if born pretty, born lucky; a condition which makes it possible and acceptable, within the borgeois ethic, for girls to parade, silent and smiling, to be judged on the merist of their figures and faces.
After detailing the individual experiences of some of the women involved, it concluded:
How was it, with so many odds against us, that the demonstration was successful? The spectacle is vulnerable. However intricately planned it is, a handful of people can disrupt it and cause chaos in a seeming impenetrable organisation. The spectacle isn’t prepared for anything other than passive spectators. Bob Hope made more connections than we had ever expected to put across; his continual emphasis on Vietnam revelealed the arrogance of imperialism behind the supposedly re-assuring family of nations facade.
At the second hearing on 12th February 1971 three of the women decided to conduct their own defence: Catherine, Jenny and Jo while Nina Stanger represented Sally. The Guardian report said:
On the face of it the trial should have been clearcut and simple. But the magistrate was clearly ill at ease with the tactics used by the three women who presented their own defence. At no stage was there any meeting of minds. On one side was the magistrate, determined to see justice done: the charges were clear, he waited for the evidence. His opponents were four women determined to assert that the trial was not about criminal offences but about the position of women in society. ..they refused to be intimidated by the awe in which courts are held in Britain. All, particularly Miss Fortune, were very articulate, only relying on occasions on their legal advisers for assistance.
During the hearing the women tried to establish that their questions on the position of women in society were relevant. They tried to ascertain what each Crown Witness felt about Women’s Liberation and what the attitude of each was to women in general.
The women’s attempts to turn the court into a political theatre to promote their views very much echo what they the suffragettes did in the many trials of women arrested on numerous protests in the earry C20th.
Catherine and Jo were fined £10 for insulting behaviour and £10 for throwing a stink bomb. Sally and Jenny were fined £10 for threatening behaviour. The charge against Sally for assaulting a policeman was dismissed. Charges against all four for possessing offensive weapons ie stinkbombs were dismissed.
Looking back in an interview 2014 Sally reflected: “We were exhilarated by the demonstration and exhilarated by its success and astonished by how successful it had been. I do see Miss World as one of the spectacular consciousness raising episodes. It did leave its mark.”
Some of the women continued campaigning for different causes. Jenny Fortune became active in the Claimants Union and in housing politics in east London – campaigning for women’s right to housing in their own names. Sue Finch became a peace campaigner, and in 2010 was among demonstrators who closed down the Aldermaston weapons base. Sally Alexander became an historian and eventually a Professor. Her work includes Becoming a Woman: And Other Essays in 19th and 20th Century Feminist History. Jo Robinson was involved in a radical commune movement called Wild.
Here are some clips