Sunday, May 10, 2020

Peckham Rye Women's Liberation & the 1970 Miss World Protest

50 years ago the 1970 Miss World pageant in London was famously disrupted by feminists opposed to it objectification of women. Anti-apartheid protestors also demonstrated against the inclusion of South Africa in the contest. The anniversary has been marked by both a BBC documentary ('Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam') and a fictionalised movie, 'Misbehaviour', starring Keira Knightley.

Both documentary and movie frame the event in a similar way, suggesting that despite being in different camps on the night both protesters and contestants were being swept up in the social changes of the period with for instance a black woman winning Miss World for the first time. The movie incidentally features many scenes filmed in the Rivoli Ballroom in Crofton Park, where the contestants are shown rehearsing for the big night.

Rhys Ifans as Eric Morley, filmed in Rivoli Ballroon in Misbehaviour (2020)
Clara Rosager as Marjorie Johansson (Miss Sweden) stomps out of the Rivoli
Both documentary and film credit the idea of demonstrating against Miss World to the Peckham Rye Women's Liberation Group, and in a number of articles promoting the movie Jan Williams and Hazel Twort from the Peckham group are named as the inspiration (e.g. Daily Mirror, 6 March 2020).

The Peckham Rye group seemed to have been formed in 1969. In London Women's Liberation Workshop newsletter Issue 4 (August 1969) 'Janet Williams from the Peckham Rye group wrote an article about the formation of the group. Her account illustrates a growing feminist awareness many groups probably followed. The Peckham group grew out of a one o'clock club. At the first three meetings, some of their husbands attended and they largely discussed problems with childcare. At the fourth meeting Juliet Mitchell came to speak about women's oppression. After this the group decided to exclude men and change the focus of their discussions from child care to more general theorising about women's oppression' (this summary of the article comes from Kelly Coate, reference at bottom of this piece - I would be interesting in reading the whole article if anyone has it).

Several of the members decided to disrupt a public meeting at Goldsmiths College: 'It had been advertised as an open debate on revolutionary ideas, with the participation of left-wing underground personalities . . we stood up and demanded the meeting should hear us on, and then discuss, the oppression of women. We were booed loudly and asked to strip, told we needed a good fuck, etc. However, we went on to hold the 300 people in the hall to our subject for over an hour'. (Janet Williams, London Women's Liberation Workshop Newlsettter, no.4 , August 1969).  I believe this was the free festival at Goldsmiths organised by Malcolm McLaren and others in July 1969, discussed here previously, which featured R D Laing, Alexander Trocchi and other 'underground personalities;.

The Peckham Rye group were one of four London groups who rotated the editing/production of the women's liberation magazine Shrew, set up in 1969 (see Bazin, reference below).  The following year they were also involved with the first national women's liberation movement conference at Ruskin College in March 1970 where a  paper on 'Women and the Family' was written and presented by Ann Bechelli, Hazel Twort and Jan Williams from the Peckham Rye group

The first demonstration against Miss World was actually held outside the event in 1969, the following year they decided to up the ante and infiltrate the audience in order to disrupt more directly. In the aftermath Jan Williams was interviewed in The Observer (22 November 1970) and described as ‘30-year-old South London housewife Mrs Janet Williams’ who declared: ‘The protest had been planned for a number of weeks. As far as we are concerned it was a great success’.

According to Frankie Green at the interesting Women’s Liberation Music Archive 'in March 1972 women who’d met through Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front women’s group gathered at the council flat of Hazel Twort, a founder of WLM and the Peckham Rye WL group, and began the first feminist band to come out of the movement (to the best of my knowledge): the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band'. Twort played keyboards in the band. I believe she died in 1998.

Jan Williams died in 2010, her obituary in The Guardian is here.

References;

Victoria Bazin (2016) Miss-Represented? Mediating Miss World in Shrew Magazine, Women: A Cultural Review, 27:4, 412-431,

Kelly Coate, The history of women's studies as an academic subject area in higher education in the UK: 1970-1995.

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