I am very, very happy to be here at this cattle market tonight,” Bob Hope tells a packed-out Royal Albert Hall. “Moo. It’s quite a cattle market, I’ve been back there checking calves.” The hall swells with laughter until a cracking sound from somewhere in the gallery cuts through, stopping Hope mid-gag. He peers out at the stalls, looks up at the balconies and the boxes. Crack, crack, crack – louder now – the sound ricocheting around the grand auditorium. A small white object flies through the air and lands, bursting into a puff of white on the stage floor. Another follows, and then another, and Hope is under fire from an assault of flour bombs. Missiles of rotten fruit and vegetables come next, pelted from the gallery. The 67-year-old dives for cover as a group of women begin to shout: “We’re not ugly! We’re not beautiful! We’re angry!”
It’s 20 November 1970 and the flour bombers have infiltrated the Miss World finale where 58 female contestants wait in the wings to be paraded and broadcast live on the BBC. Like the Bake Off final, it’s a national institution, the television event of the year. Over 100 million people worldwide have tuned in to see who will take home the crown. The broadcaster pulls transmission as the event descends into chaos. The protesters are escorted out by police.
“I was still trying to get a little toy smoke bomb lit when there was this heavy hand on my shoulder,” Jenny Fortune – who was 20 at the time – tells me over the phone from her home in Sheffield. Fortune, now 71, had planned the demonstration alongside fellow members of Britain’s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). The group was incensed by the contest’s objectification of women and wanted to make a dramatic statement against misogyny. They had been inspired by a similar protest the preceding year by the American WLM who had thrown bras in a dustbin and crowned a sheep Miss Universe.
Fortune laughs as she admits the group had never actually considered they might get in trouble with the law for their direct action that night. She was hauled into a police van and spent the night in a cell alone.
Fortune never really believed they’d pull it off; she was just excited to be a part of something. The group – around 60 in total – had bought tickets for the Miss World event and slipped in through the front door with the other guests, dressed in an array of clothes they’d borrowed from friends or found in charity shops. “It was a very glamorous event where people dress up in mink stoles and tiaras and evening dress – so it was ridiculous we managed to get in wearing this ensemble of clothes. I was wearing this tatty old Afghan coat and had squeezed into a borrowed purple velvet dress that was a size 8 when I was a size 14. We must have stood out a mile.”
The group took their seats and waited for the signal. It was to be made by Sarah Wilson using a football rattle. “Nobody – not even Sarah – knew when we were going to start the protest”. But Hope’s jokes proved too much to stomach and Wilson stood up, earlier than planned, raising her arm high and spinning the rattle above her head: “It was fantastic.”
Fifty years on, numerous documentaries, articles and a Hollywood film – Misbehaviour starring Kiera Knightly, released earlier this year – have told the story of the infamous night. Now, Fortune and five of her fellow protesters have decided to tell their version of events. Misbehaving: Stories of the Protest Against the Miss World Contest and the Beauty Industry, is a collection of essays by women who were there. “There’s been so much done about it and of course we’ve never been happy with any of it – so we thought we had to write it as we felt it was,” says Fortune. “Unless you were there, you don’t understand what it felt like. We wanted to put the record straight.”
Fortune had joined the feminist movement after attending the UK’s first WLM meeting at the Essex Revolutionary Festival in 1969. Listening to feminist theorist Shiela Rowbotham deliver a talk, Fortune said, “set off lightbulbs in my head.” She tells me, “I remember thinking, wow, OK, I’m not the only woman who thinks these things. I realised why my mum was so angry, why she left my dad and struck out on her own. It was like somebody opening the shutters and letting the daylight in. Oh, that’s what feminism is about, it’s against oppression and exploitation.”
Although the Miss World protest wasn’t the group’s first, it was undoubtedly their most impactful. After the commotion died down, Hope resumed his set. “Anybody who wants to interrupt something as beautiful as this must be on some kind of dope,” he said. The show went on that night, but the group’s protest was to make headlines worldwide the following morning and bring national awareness to Britain’s nascent women’s movement, inspiring many more to join the cause.
The flour bomb attack was a great statement for women’s liberation but it did overshadow another historic moment to take place that night. A Black woman was crowned Miss World for the first time in the pageant’s 20-year history – Jennifer Hosten, 23, representing Grenada. Another Black woman, Pearl Jansen representing South Africa, also came runner up. A white woman, Jilian Jessup, was entered into the pageant as the official Miss South Africa, but Jansen had been permitted to enter as Miss Africa South. The decision sparked outrage and anti-Apartheid protests. Hosten’s win later triggered allegations that the vote had been rigged.
It was certainly unfortunate timing for the protestors – part of a movement later criticised for being too focused on the plight of a singular type of woman and drowning out the voices of women of colour. Although the WLM members say they weren’t protesting against the Miss World contestants but against the sexism of the event, their direct-action taking place on the same night a Black woman was crowned Miss World did not go unnoticed.
Fortune says she sometimes feels “embarrassed” telling people about the flour bomb protests. “A lot of people nowadays think that feminism is a slightly snobbish middle-class thing – which of course it isn’t. But I don’t want to be known for being the woman who stopped the Miss World contest if we’re not addressing the fundamental context of how women are exploited in the context of class and race.” The main barrier to today’s feminism, Fortune thinks, is that “there’s an awful lot of sniping. We’ve got to support each other’s struggles and start listening to one other again.”
Fortune’s mother, unimpressed, collected her from prison the morning after the protest. Her father never spoke to her about it and she never went home again, save for a few family Christmases. Instead, she moved into a commune in Islington, London with her boyfriend and a few other members of the group. Fortune went on trial for the protest and was convicted of breaching the peace and discharging a missile with intent to endanger the public, spending a night in Holloway Prison. But it was the start of a life of activism. “We announced to the world that the Women’s Liberation Movement was in the UK and that we meant business.”
It took another 14 years before the BBC stopped televising beauty pageants. Announcing the news in 1984, Michael Grade, the controller of BBC One, said: “I believe these contests no longer merit national airtime. They are an anachronism in this day and age of equality and verging on the offensive.”