New film Misbehaviour, out this month, dramatises the protest at Miss World 1970. Jo Robinson, a participant, tells what happened on the night.
‘The lightning rod was that we all went to the first ever Women’s Liberation Conference in Oxford [in February 1970]. It was amazing. Sheila Rowbotham spoke, men ran a crèche. There were over 500 women – we couldn’t all fit in.
It was exciting because people were speaking about what it was like being a woman and the inequalities that we were feeling in life in general.
The thing that I remember most was a paper on the politics of housework given by two women who called themselves housewives from south London. They looked down into their sinks, saw the dirty pots and thought, why should it be mine?
Out of it came consciousness-raising groups, where people met and discussed what it meant to be a woman. We couldn’t help but think about our mothers and what they had been through in the austere post-war years. During the war they all went out and worked in factories and so on, then the minute the soldiers came back they were all forced back into the home.
A lot of people think consciousness raising was just about looking into ourselves and it was very mysterious and very personal. It was personal, but it was also very revealing. Through the act of talking together about our role in society that was so oppressive, we began to see that it shouldn’t be like this. We started seeing the world in a different way – we had a new, feminist gaze, like having a pair of glasses that meant you could see the world differently. It was like having a super power.
It was all so exciting to us, the idea of something called “the liberation of women” – what did it mean? To me it meant everything; it meant the world having to change, being changed, by our self-discoveries of how we really wanted to be.
The women who talked about the politics of housework afterwards came up with the idea of taking the opportunity of the Miss World competition in November to make ourselves known. It was an obvious target to announce to the world about women’s liberation and what it stood for.
Where better than at a very old fashioned competition to find the most beautiful woman in the world? It’s such an old fashioned notion that there could be a woman who is the most beautiful in the world. It brings up Walt Disney and all the ideas of women as princesses. It was not a realistic prospect for most women who were scrubbing houses and working in shops and factories.
Our aim was to stop the spectacle. We wanted to make the point that The Man was making money out of women. We also wanted to challenge the whole idea of beauty.
But we were not against the contestants; we didn’t want to show them any animosity. So we were very careful to make sure that when we made our attack on the spectacle, as we called it, the women wouldn’t be on stage at the time.
What you have to remember is that this whole thing was arranged by word of mouth – we didn’t have mobile phones! So if we were going to get into the Albert Hall, which is absolutely huge, how were we going to coordinate? We knew that we’d be sitting dispersed around the hall, wherever we got seated, and we’d need a signal. So Sarah Wilson from our group got a football rattle.
We had bought some tickets in advance. But I knew that to get in there with the “Kensington mob” I’d have to dress up like I was going to Ascot. So I put on an old pink corduroy coat, the only nice coat I had, and I got a big, pink, floppy hat to complete it. When we got in there, first of all it’s stunning to go into the Albert Hall and look up at the huge ceiling, but then I looked around and realised I couldn’t see anyone I knew. I realised I was just going to have to stand up when I heard the signal and then we would all be able to see each other.
Meanwhile I was sitting there with all these people I had never seen before in my life, knowing we were going to announce women’s liberation to the world and thinking about what effect that might have on women. It was unnerving.
When the host Bob Hope came on he kept up this sexist tirade about the war in Vietnam and how we were going to get the troops hot so they could go out and fight.
I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do when I heard the signal. But I did have an arsenal in my bag of flour bombs, smoke bombs, a water pistol and rotten veg.
When the signal went I stood up. I was four months pregnant and I just held my belly, thinking this is the moment! I looked in my bag at all these things and I looked around and thought well all these people are nice around here, so I need to go and find a target. I walked down towards the stage and saw lots of press. The sexist, male press had never written anything about women that we liked, that we could identify with, so I thought, right, and I got out some big old lettuces and tomatoes and started lobbing them at the press saying “take that! take that!” I got some leaflets out and threw them saying “read about us!” The leaflet was addressed to all women – read why we’re here.
Our slogan, which floated down from the balconies on posters, was “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, WE’RE ANGRY” And at the same time the people up in the balconies threw flour bombs and they fell through the floodlights like snow. As they landed on the stage, thwack, all the flour flew up and Bob Hope stepped aside and then fled the stage. As someone said later, the patriarch was driven from the stage!
Little did we know at the time that it was being broadcast live across the world by the BBC. Something like 27 million people were watching. We couldn’t have picked a better moment to announce women’s liberation to the world. Our actions only lasted about ten minutes in real time, but it changed the world. I always say it’s ten minutes that shook the world.
I suddenly noticed it had gone very quiet and I realised that everybody had probably been arrested and dragged out, and I needed to get out. I could see an exit sign up in the balcony and I headed for it. As I climbed over people in the rows to get out I saw this bouncer coming towards me. I looked in my bag and found the water pistol, so I got it out and held it up. I had forgotten that I’d put blue ink in the water pistol and I sprayed dark blue all over the bouncer’s white tuxedo. He froze. I ran to the exit and got out onto the street. I started walking very slowly then I heard footsteps behind me, so I started running. He tripped me up and I fell over nearly into the traffic.
He said, “I’m a plain clothes policeman, empty your bag” then my friend came over and said “Leave that woman alone, she’s pregnant.” He let me go. I saw some people that I knew who were going to the after party for the contestants at Café de Paris in Piccadilly. We got there and the coach pulled up with all the contestants in and we started shouting “Mecca pimps! Mecca pimps!” I looked in my bag and found another smoke bomb. I lit it and held it up – and was arrested by the long arm of the law and taken to Bow Street prison cells for the night, with some “women of the night” who said “Just plead guilty and get it over with quick, love”, and we said no! We wanted to say why we did it. We defended ourselves in court, which gave us an excellent opportunity talk about what happened at Miss World.”
‘We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly. We’re angry – and we’re still angry now!
“Of course it’s great to feel good about ourselves, make ourselves feel as beautiful as we can (if we can). It’s fun to dress up and change hair styles and make up.
But that shouldn’t wipe out talking about the fact that we have had to fight for the right to have our own housing, decent jobs with decent wages and pensions, nurseries for our children, equality in the home with our male partners, feeling good about our bodies, our biology, our sexuality.
All this felt like a brave new world we were fighting for in the 60s and 70s, and we can see how easily this is being taken away from women again, but through different forces – austerity and deprivation, celebrity culture, the insecurity of the gig economy, the loneliness of social media. We are seeing women with children on their own, or with health problems, or from immigrant backgrounds, living in terrible circumstances again – and blaming it on themselves, or being blamed.
Of course women want to make the best of ourselves and feel good about ourselves, but the beauty industry and celebrity culture is still there fundamentally to disguise what is going on and make money out of us, still there to make us measure ourselves up to a stereotype which is unachievable, or unaffordable for most of us. It makes young women feel bad about themselves: the suicide rate in young girls and women aged 10 to 24 has risen by 83 percent in the last six years. “
Jennifer Fortune, Sue Finch, Jane Grant, Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson — participants in the protest
Misbehaviour is released in cinemas on Friday 13 March. Read our review online from 10 March.
A BBC documentary about the protests will air on BBC Two on 17 March.