When I first encountered feminism, in 1979, aged 17, there was one story I heard about over and over from the activists I was hanging out with: the direct action that disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition, in front of a live audience of 100 million TV viewers worldwide, 20 million of them in Britain. Several women had dressed up and bought tickets to the televised event at the Royal Albert Hall in London and, at the height of proceedings, threw flour bombs and shook loud rattles, leading to the programme being taken off air and sending the host, the US comedian Bob Hope, scuttling backstage. The massive success of that action taught me that huge change can come from women being inventive and brave.
At a screening of the film Misbehaviour, based on that protest, I was honoured to sit next to a couple of elderly women who had taken part in the protest. I thanked them for setting an example of proper feminism for future generations, and they told me they have been heartened by what looks like a resurgence of public feminist protest.
At the time of the Miss World protest the movement was only a few months old, having been launched at the now infamous conference held at Ruskin College, Oxford, in February 1970. The way the competitors were judged and paraded around like cattle in beauty contests further entrenched the notion that women were worth nothing unless we were glamorous for men. The notorious “36-24-36” that judges considered the ideal body shape for women became common parlance and gave rise to such sexist monstrosities as the Sun’s Page 3.
My first direct action was with a group of feminists protesting against the tax on sanitary products. We went into a large supermarket, filled our trolleys with sanitary towels and tampons, took them to the checkout and then refused to pay the full amount, insisting they deduct the 15% VAT. Security eventually led us out, but lots of women stopped to ask us about the protest. Most had no idea that an essential product such as sanitary protection was considered to be a “luxury item”. We raised some awareness that day.
I then joined a group of women going out late at night, after the pubs had closed, spray-painting feminist slogans on billboards with messages that were sexist and demeaning to women. Over the billboard depicting a car with the slogan “If this car was a lady it would get its bottom pinched”, we daubed, “If this lady was a car she’d run you down”. Over the image of a naked woman half under a duvet on an advertisement for a bed, which was captioned, “We can improve your nightlife” we sprayed, “Join lesbians united”.
It was clear that public protest was the only way we were going to get people talking about women’s liberation. These were the days before the internet, social media or mobile phones. There was no 24-hour news, and stories were broken in a newspaper the morning after the events had taken place. Feminists became inventive, and we were very successful. There were pickets and protests outside cinemas showing “video nasties” – essentially violent and misogynistic pornography. We’d go in pairs to visit all the local newsagents once a week and remove magazines such as Playboy and Hustler from the top shelves, piling them up on the floor. Other shoppers would often praise us, joining in our protest about women’s subordination being sold as titillation for men.
One of my favourite actions was getting into the offices of the Yorkshire Evening Post after the editor had refused to acknowledge letters of complaint from my women’s group about the way that sexualised images of women, often topless, were strategically and purposely placed next to reports of rape. We found our way into the building and to the editor’s office, and politely explained why this practice was offensive and damaging. It was soon stopped.
Since those early days, before CCTV, when I was young and reckless enough not to care if I ended up with a criminal record, I’ve taken part in countless legal public protests against male violence. Despite the fact that much activism is now online, I still hold with the feminist tradition of being loud, visible and public. I wish more women would walk away from their keyboards and wave a placard or hold a banner outside the court of appeal to protest against injustice to women, such as the recent campaign to free Sally Challen. Public protest is the lifeblood of feminism, and no amount of online activity could ever replace it. I am grateful to those women that launched the Women’s Liberation Movement with such verve and sheer audacity. Let’s ditch the armchair and keyboard and grab the placard and loudhailer with both hands.