Issue section: 

The year 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of two important events in the struggle for women’s liberation: the first women’s liberation conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, and the disruption of the Miss World contest at Albert Hall.

Although the main focus of the book is the planning and disruption of the beauty contest, the ideas and demands of the women’s liberation movement (WLM) form the backdrop.

Many contributors were at the WLM conference and write of their excitement about the discussions leading to the four key demands: equal pay; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; free nurseries. This was in the days before the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts.

I well remember in the early 1970s being told that I couldn’t apply for certain office jobs because they were for men only and having to give the name of my ‘husband’ when I went to get the contraceptive pill.

The Miss World contest – which still takes place today – showcased the objectification of women. The contest was opened with a parade of women in their national costume, followed by them parading in swimwear.

The women were expected to conform to a certain view of beauty, with the ‘perfect’ 34-21-34 body. They were also interviewed with most giving their ambition as working with children. Mothers and married women were excluded and participants had to appear to be virgins.

Protests against the Miss World contest had taken place in the US in 1968, with protesters always making clear that their target was not the contestants but the objectification of women and the way they were commodified.

News of the planned protest spread by word of mouth – most people didn’t have landlines and it was of course before the days of mobile phones and the internet.

Some women protested inside the Albert Hall and others outside. Once sexist host Bob Hope got into his stride speaking of how the winner would accompany him to meet troops in Vietnam – to get them hot to fight the Cong – the signal was given.

Women threw leaflets, flour bombs, smoke bombs, flares and rotten vegetables. Banners were unfurled and slogans shouted. The contest – broadcast live on television – was interrupted.

Many of the women taking part in the protest were involved in the fight against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, and had been inspired by events in Paris and elsewhere in 1968. They have continued to fight against inequalities today, for women’s rights, against racism and for a better world.

The book shows how ordinary women can change the world. It is beautifully illustrated by their artwork, cartoons and photographs from the 1970s onwards. A joy to read.

Ed. Sue Finch, Jenny Fortune, Jane Grant, Jo Robinson & Sarah Wilson
The Merlin Press