Tomorrow is the anniversary of the flour-bombing of the 1970 Miss
World. What happened to the women behind the protests?
19 November 2010
Forty years ago tomorrow the televised Miss World beauty pageant was
hit by tomatoes as well as smoke-, flour- and stink-bombs. Millions
of TV viewers watched the first headline-grabbing act of the newly
formed Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) as they chanted: "We're not
beautiful, we're not ugly, we're angry." Born that summer, the
movement flourished for a decade, and sparked hundreds of feminist
groups all over the country.
In 1970, Miss World was as much of an institution as the Queen's
Speech or Armistice Day on British TV, but the protest at the Royal
Albert Hall in London marked the beginning of the end. Dropped by the
BBC at the end of the decade, it is now available only in the more
obscure parts of the multi-channel world, although it thrives
overseas. "It seems incredible that it was on TV," says Sue Finch,
one of the protestors. "It really was a cattle market."
Jane Grant, who had been at the first WLM 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."
Sarah Wilson, a veteran of 60s revolutionary politics, 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."
One woman who had been watching Miss World on TV at home nearby
actually raced out of her house and joined in.
Fortune was among several women to be arrested. Finch, who was nine
months pregnant, was seized by bouncers "and literally bounced out".
Grant was held in a room in the hall until about midnight.
Four of the women decided to conduct their own defence, including
Jenny Fortune and Jo Robinson. Robinson 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."
Some of the women continued campaigning. 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 earlier this year was among demonstrators who
closed down the Aldermaston weapons base. The movement is part of the
current feminist renaissance. Some of the Miss World veterans will be
joining a Reclaim the Night march started in the 70s, revived in
the 00s against violence and sexism in the streets.
Not everything has marched on, however. This week saw another
anniversary: 40 years ago, the Sun launched its Page 3 parade of
naked women. Yesterday, in that paper feminist Germaine Greer wrote
in support of the feature. The women's liberation movement changed a
bit of the world on 20 November 1970 they didn't change everything.