It was the most dramatic feminist event since Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse in 1913 in the name of women’s suffrage. Now, the 1970 Miss World protests – during which feminist activists dramatically flour-bombed the stage – is getting a Hollywood makeover. The film Misbehaviour will document the period of fizzing excitement and possibility marked by the demonstrations. “Miss World epitomised everything I believed was wrong,” says one of the protesters, Jenny Fortune. “It felt as if we were stopping the patriarchy in its tracks.”
“We all believed in revolution back then,” says Jo Robinson, another one of the activists who hurled flour and old vegetables at the host, Bob Hope, that night. “We all believed the world could be changed, and we all believed we could do it.”
Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley play the lead roles in a starry lineup that also includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keeley Hawes, Lesley Manville and Rhys Ifans. The film, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (the first woman to win a Bafta for directing), follows the events leading up to the 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and focuses on two of the protesters: Robinson and Sally Alexander.
The film also pulls back to look at the many broader issues in the story, from the backdrop of the Vietnam war to the political circumstances that led the organisers to arrange for two contestants to represent the different sides of apartheid South Africa – one white (Miss South Africa), the other black (Miss Africa South). Lowthorpe, who decided to make the movie after hearing the women reminisce about their protest on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Reunion, says she wanted to pay tribute to a generation of feminists. “We’ve forgotten how important their contribution was, and how much of a difference it made. I was sometimes almost in tears listening to their stories.”
In 1970, the women at the centre of the protests were in their 20s; today, they are in their 70s. Alexander, played by Knightley, went on to a career in academia, and today is professor emerita of modern history at Goldsmiths, University of London. “We thought it would be a good way of putting the issues on to the table because we knew the TV viewing figures would be high,” she says. High is an understatement – the event was watched by 100 million people, including 22 million in the UK. “We were very wary of the media, and we thought this was a way of getting ourselves a direct line to people’s TV screens.”
Alexander has mixed feelings about how she is portrayed in the film. She is glad it focuses on Jennifer Hosten, from Grenada, being crowned the first black Miss World. “We didn’t know that would turn out to be the most significant element of the night, but it certainly was, given the context of the anti-apartheid movement which many of us were also wrapped up in,” she says. “At the time, we didn’t even know who went on to win the contest – that was the last thing on our minds.” In the event, after the protesters had been bundled out of the hall and the competition resumed, not only did Hosten win, but the black Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen, was named the runner-up. “Looking back, it was ironic this was the year we chose to demonstrate,” says Alexander.
Her main bugbear about the film is that it portrays a bomb – planted outside the hall by the militant far-left group the Angry Brigade – going off the day before the protest; in real life, it was on the evening itself. “There’s no way I would have gone out to demonstrate that night if there had been a bomb the day before: I’m a mother, and my child came first – I wouldn’t have put myself in danger,” she says.
Nor is there any mention in the film of the trial that followed the protest. Alexander was one of five women arrested and put in a cell for the night – the others included Robinson and Fortune. “I was the only one charged with assault, so I needed a barrister,” says Alexander. The others, who were tried for lesser offences, “conducted their own defence, and that was a deliberate and conscious identification with the suffragettes, who did the same”.
The groundwork for the Miss World protest had been laid at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference, which took place at Ruskin College, Oxford, in February 1970. Originally conceived by Alexander and fellow historian Sheila Rowbotham as an event to look back at women’s experiences across time, it attracted far more participants than the organisers expected, and the focus shifted from past to present, ending with demands for the right to equal pay, equal employment opportunities, free contraception and free 24-hour nurseries. “There hadn’t been an event like it before, where women were bringing and presenting brilliant ideas on that scale,” says Fortune. “The flashbulbs were popping up in my head; I was thinking: yes!”
“Hearing the politics of housework discussed was seismic,” says Jane Grant, another Ruskin participant who went on to demonstrate against Miss World. Robinson, meanwhile, had “never come across a philosophy before that said: ‘It’s not you that’s wrong, it’s the system.’”
Ruskin spawned a myriad of women’s groups, many trying alternative ways of living. “We set up a women’s commune in Islington,” says Grant. “We knew that if we couldn’t change the way we interacted with one another, we had no chance of toppling patriarchy. So we decided to live differently. We shared everything, including money – we kept it in a cupboard.”
The film highlights differences between Alexander and Robinson, some of which are magnified. (In real life, for example, Alexander, who was a mature student, lived in a collective household not dissimilar to Robinson’s commune; in the movie, she is presented as living with a partner in a more conventional setup.) But there were contrasts: Alexander was raised in the south-east, while Robinson grew up in Blackpool; Alexander was pursuing feminism through academia, while Robinson was an anarchist not averse to taking direct action – although, in the end, Alexander was also galvanised to protest.
No one remembers exactly who came up with the idea of trying to get inside the Royal Albert Hall to disrupt the contest, but Sarah Wilson, another of the women there that night, recalls there being only five people at the initial meeting to discuss the plan. “There had been demonstrations outside the Miss World contest in previous years, but no one had ever tried getting inside the auditorium before.”
The women bought tickets and arrived solo or in pairs to avoid raising suspicion. “I thought I might be on my own,” says Robinson, who is played in the film by Buckley. “I didn’t know if anyone else had managed to get in. We knew we needed to blend in, so we dressed up. I certainly wasn’t wearing the sort of clothes I usually wore. I was in a pink dress and coat with a floppy hat – it was what I’d imagined would be right for Ascot.” Another protester, Sue Finch, had never been to the Albert Hall before. “I was 10 days away from giving birth to my first child, and it was quite a climb up to my balcony seat.”
The plan, says Wilson, was to wait until the Miss World contestants were all on stage before giving a signal to rain down the flour bombs and vegetables they had hidden in their handbags. There was no intention to criticise the contestants, only the organisers, she says – but they thought choosing the moment they were all on stage together to hurl their missiles would make the biggest impact.
On the night, however, Bob Hope’s tasteless, misogynistic gags changed their plans. “He was so gross,” remembers Wilson. Hope referred to the event as a cattle market, mooing to make his point. Wilson leapt to her feet. “I said to the woman beside me: ‘This can’t go on.’ I started swinging my football rattle above my head.” Finch remembers: “When I heard Sarah’s rattle, I began to throw flour bombs and leaflets over the balcony. And suddenly, all around me were other women doing the same. It was as if snow was falling … it was a wonderful moment …” Fortune recalls it in the same way. “It felt as if we were taking control. It was life-changing – I knew that I was heading into a very different future.”
But how different would that future turn out to be? It’s difficult to imagine that the activists of 1970, poised for dramatic changes in women’s rights, would be satisfied half a century on. Alexander says they were children of the welfare state, and that they believed the narrowing gap in inequality would continue as the decades rolled on. “But it all changed in 1979,” she says, “with the election of Thatcher.”
“We didn’t realise what we were up against,” says Fortune. “We felt very powerful, and we thought things were going to change more than they did.” Looking back to the original Ruskin conference, Finch says there has been little in the way of significant change. “On childcare we’ve done OK. But violence against women hasn’t changed, and, in a way, that’s what our protest was all about. If you treat women as objects, it’s easier to rape and kill them.”
It’s tempting to hope that Misbehaviour will inspire a new generation of women, but Alexander is philosophical; each generation, she says, must find its own way of dealing with the struggle, with political and social injustice. “I do think, though, that the women’s liberation movement was important, and if people don’t know where equality and equal pay came from, then they should know,” she says. “There’s still a great deal to do, and so many young women today are active, and in a different way.” Robinson has the final word: “We are still hopeful,” she says.
Misbehaviour is released on 13 March