Jo Robinson discusses Miss World contest



Jo Robinson recalls the excitement she felt at the women’s liberation protest against the Miss World competition in 1970. The protestors aimed to create as much disruption as possible in order to gain maximum publicity for their cause.

What was Miss World and why did feminists disagree with it?

The Miss World beauty pageant began in the UK in 1951. From 1959 until the 1980s it was backed by multi-national companies, broadcast by the BBC and watched by all the family. Women from all over the world competed within their countries, then came together in London to battle it out in a variety of different costumes to be crowned the most beautiful woman in the world.

Feminists found the idea of women being judged by how they looked to be insulting and undermining. They organised the protest in 1970 to challenge the assumptions behind the show, its connections with big business, and the association between the event compère, Bob Hope, and the American intervention in Vietnam. Hope had paid several visits to entertain the troops in Vietnam. The WLM slogan was ‘We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry!’ The protestors were not attacking the women taking part in the contest, but rather the organisers and the press who publicised it.

You can find out more about other WLM campaigns and protests in Activism.

Jennifer Hosten, who won the 1970 Miss World competition, has subsequently explained that the competition offered her opportunities to travel, study and work that, as a black woman from Grenada, she might otherwise not have had.

What happened next?

Miss World still takes place but the BBC stopped broadcasting the event in the 1980s. Miss England also exists and the contest sends its winners to Miss World each year. Beauty pageants also take place all over the world: Miss Universe, Miss Earth, Miss America, Miss Teen America are just a few examples. There are also hundreds of pageants for children in which girls as young as four or five are dressed up in fancy costumes and have their hair and make-up done. Many people feel this contributes to the over-sexualisation of children. Several universities also run beauty pageants. In London the 2010 Miss London University attracted condemnation from people who took inspiration from the 1970 protests.

The power of social media

Social networking sites can also perpetuate the emphasis on physical appearance among young people. An early example called Facemash asked students to rate their fellow female students’ attractiveness. Currently Facebook hosts pages such as ‘Most Beautiful Teenager’ inviting young women to post photos of themselves online, and other site users to ‘like’ the photos. The number of ‘likes’ a photo gets determines whether the young woman in the photo is ugly, okay, pretty, gorgeous, beautiful, most beautiful or out of this world. A feminist analysis of these pages would ask why girls and women should be judged primarily as physical and sexual objects and set in competition with each other for men’s attention.

What do you think of beauty pageants? Is judging women on their appearance in this way ‘entertainment’?

Do you think it is OK for children to be judged in this way?

Compared with the revelations about women’s bodies that are widely available in the media today, beauty pageants might be considered rather tame. What do you think about the obsession with women’s bodies in newspapers, magazines and on social media and why do you think this exists?

Image details
Miss World boardgame image courtesy of The Women’s Library, photographer Bob Pullen
Why Miss World? pamphlet © Jo Robinson, Sally Alexander, Jenny Fortune, Mary Kelly and a collective of other protestors
Anti Miss World photograph © Getty Images
No! Miss World! No! photograph © Getty Images



Before I got there I didn’t have it clear where we were going to meet, so I ended up sitting there, like, oh my God. And then all these families, all these nice people, come to see these nice girls and this family entertainment, there I am, this lone protester. You know, they’d come to see a beauty being crowned, they were all for it. I really began to think, why are we so against it, everyone else likes it, what’s, you know, what’s it all about. I really had big dilemmas, sitting there.

The Albert Hall was quite, an enormous place, obviously, and I was sitting on my own in a seat, but nearby I could see the judges. I decided to start planning my strategy, so get over my nerves, plan my strategy. Saw the judges sitting there - Joan Collins was one of them - all lined up, quite a long way off, and then gradually some of the girl contestants came in and walked through holding their numbers, told where to walk, how to walk, hold themselves up, where to sit, where to stand, how to look, hold their heads up and all that, all this is going on. And so I could see it for myself, of how they were beauties under control. And then, Bob Hope came on to compere, he was a very well-known funny figure and then gradually he started making jokes about it being a cattle market, because he must have seen the sign outside, and saying, oh, he’d have to go backstage to check the calves, ha ha ha. And then he descended into these jokes where he was going on about he’d have to take the winners to Vietnam on a tour to get the boys hot to fight the Viet Cong. And he went on about Vietnamese people, you know, being sort of, you know, racist remarks, slitty eyes and sort of… He just descended and descended and descended, his gag writers, he’d have forgotten about them because most of his jokes were well written before and he was just making it up as he went and it just got so… oh, for God’s sake, where’s those rattles, when’s this thing going to get started.

And suddenly I heard a football rattle go off, very hesitantly, and it all went very quiet. And then suddenly another football rattle started up and then just after that there were these almighty howls and screams round the Albert Hall and I looked up and I saw in the floodlights all this flour, smoke bombs and leaflets all coming down on to the floor through the floodlights, and I was just mesmerised. And I suddenly thought, oh I’ve got to do something, now I’ve got to get to work. And I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to start, it was like so exciting, all these women scream and the show stopped and it was ours, we got that moment and it was ours, this was our moment to tell the whole world about feminism and everything, I was so excited. I was so scared and I was so everything, but I looked across at the judges because I thought, I’d eyed them up as a target, and I thought God, it’s too far to go, they’re right over there. So I looked in my satchel, thought oh, I’ve got all these vegetables, and I looked round. Nearby there was a sort of scrum of media and we hated the media because they always wrote about women badly, so right, you’ll do, you’re the target, so I went over and I just selected a great big lettuce and, take that! And I looked in and got some squashed tomatoes – take that! And just threw and threw at the press, shouting, ‘We’re not ugly, we’re not angry, we’re…’ – no – ‘We are angry, we are angry, we’re not beautiful’, ‘We might not be beautiful…’, you know, all that, shouted out, felt great.

Jo Robinson discusses Miss World contest
11 November 2011 - 4 December 2012
Jo Robinson
Sound recording
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
© British Library
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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