Miss World protest, 1970
by Harriet Howlett, MA History
Artwork by Surabhi Vanalia
"I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything" - Bob Hope
The Miss World contest was a staple in the entertainment calendar, and the 1970 pageant was the 20th edition of the internationally broadcast event in the UK. That year - on the back of the nascent Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) - a swell of discontent had grown around the event, which was seen as objectifying and sexualising women. Given the popularity of the contest, and its wide viewership, the Miss World pageant was the perfect opportunity to broadcast the WLM and spread their message on an international stage.
The pageant was marred by controversy before it even began. The Miss World panel’s decision to accept two candidates from South Africa, one white one black, provoked public outrage. The Angry Brigade, a left-wing radical group, retaliated by exploding a BBC van outside the entrance to the Royal Albert Hall in an attempt to stop the event being broadcast. It was only once the smoke and debris had been cleared that the families queuing outside were allowed to pass the hordes of angry protestors to enter the venue. They were expecting an evening of frivolity and entertainment, and perhaps a chance to gawp at the 58 contestants, but sneaking in alongside the guests were dozens of WLM members. They were disguised in fashionable outfits, carrying handbags in which they concealed rotten vegetables and other missiles to aim at the judges and the media.
The event was hosted by comedian Bob Hope, who set the tone with a series of repetitive jokes, ranging from sexist to racist and hitting every tone of impropriety in-between. Eventually, his comments became too much for Sarah Wilson, who sounded her football rattle to signify the start of the protest. Smoke bombs, flour bombs, leaflets and rotten vegetables rained from all corners of the hall, stopping Hope in his tracks. Jo Robinson remembers how exciting it was, to hear the yells and cheers of activists fill the Royal Albert Hall, “it was ours! We got that moment and it was ours!”. She recalls how great it felt shouting “we’re not ugly, we’re not angry… no we are angry, we’re not beautiful, we might not be beautiful… we’re angry”. Another activist, Sally Alexander, tried to make her way to the stage to disrupt proceedings even further; she got over the barrier but was carried away by her arms and legs. Such was the excitement caused that one woman watching in her home nearby was inspired to go out and join the throng at the Hall. The contestants protested the arrests and called for them to be allowed to stay, but to no avail. It was “pandemonium” until the activists were carried and dragged from the pageant, and Hope emerged from backstage to continue with his “coyly libidinous” hosting.
Several of the women involved were arrested, and four went to trial – they all spent one night in prison and were fined for various offences. The next day, the media criticism - which feminists of the 1960s and early 70s were so used to - was again trotting out the same adages. The first to comment was The Times, who argued that the WLM exalted “an essentially functionless feminism” because it took issue with an event “traditionally regarded as quite harmless by most people… Then it was race, now it is sex.” The protest made the front page of the Daily Mail, and in The Guardian, Colin Luckhursh maintained that the pageant was comforting in its “reassuring awfulness” and complained that “the girls and gawpers don’t want to be liberated (how else can a feathery chick make a hundred thousand pounds in a year for opening supermarkets?). The gawpers don’t want a total strip show”.
Although the pageant did continue to roll on year after year, showcasing hundreds of women giving the same smile and wave to countless audiences, the feminists had left their mark. Alexander described how she and her sisters had been “exhilarated by the demonstration… and by its success and astonished by how successful it had been.” Their protest put the WLM on the map for thousands of women and alerted them to the basic inequality and sexism inherent in beauty pageants. Not only pageants, however, as the protest at Miss World brought attention to the basic issue of objectification we still struggle with today. “Our argument was, why do you have to be beautiful… before you get noticed as a woman.” This ran to the heart of a central issue for women’s liberation in Britain – the portrayal of women, and their objectification, and sexualisation, in society.
The women who stormed the stage of the Miss World pageant in 1970 were living in the wake of the so called “sexual revolution”. Mass media took great advantage of the new “permissive” atmosphere to publish highly sexualised images of women in almost any context. Women were overtly sexualised in the workplace, in advertising, in television and media. The pageant was symbolic of a society which failed to take women seriously and remained steadfast in its problematic constructions of femininity. Miss World was the pinnacle of this deep-rooted objectification, and as such, was the perfect way of exposing female oppression. Whilst the WLM took great steps in dealing with these issues, they remain pervasive in modern society. Feminism today still struggles with how to tackle objectification. Women have made great progress in the last fifty years but there is still some way to go before we can be completely free of the blatant sexism endured in that time.
The pageant host Bob Hope once said it was “the condition of all women, born to be 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 bourgeois ethic, for girls to parade, silent and smiling, to be judged on the merits of their figures and faces”. The feminists who protested the Miss World pageant in 1970 had a very different idea. To them, the female condition was one which enabled them to fight for their liberation: “Miss-fortune demands equal pay for women. Miss-conception demands free abortion for all women. Miss-placed demands a place outside the home”.
Campbell, Beatrix, ‘Another World’, The Guardian, November 19th 2010, online [01/03/18], https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/nov/19/feminists-disrupted-miss-world-tv
‘Jo Robinson recalls the protest against the Miss World competition in 1970’, British Library Sisterhood and After Collection, online [01/03/18], https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/articles/activism-and-the-womens-liberation-movement
de Jongh, Nicholas, ‘Beauty o’ershadowed by the Women’s Lib’, The Guardian, November 21st 1970, p. 1
Luckhursh, Colin, ‘All the world’s a stag-party’, The Guardian, November 21st 1970, p. 10
‘Miss World and Women’s Liberation’, The Times, November 21st 1970, p.13
‘Sally Alexander discusses her experience at the Miss World protest’, British Library Sisterhood and After Collection, online [01/03/18], http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-26437815/miss-world-my-protest-at-1970-beauty-pageant
‘Shrew’, British Library Sisterhood and After Collection, online [01/03/18], http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/counterculture/liberation/shrew/shrew.html