Fighting yesterday's battles

Gender equality has advanced so rapidly in the last fifty years that Miss World no longer has any so

Such is the irrelevance of the Miss World contest to modern day life that I had to be reminded that it still existed. For the record, it is to be held in the Crown of Beauty Theater, Sanya in the People’s Republic of China on Saturday 1 December. Do put it in your diary.

A staggering 106 nations are entering their most beautiful women (Saudi Arabia is a notable exception) and the final contest is to be judged by a celebrity panel including Nancy Dell’Olio, Annabel Croft and Julia Morley, President and Chairperson of Miss World, International.

Julia Morley is, of course, the wife of Eric Morley – the founder of Miss World in 1951. One only has to see grainy 1950s pictures of beauty contests, which were standard delights in the holiday resorts of that time, to realise how the world has moved on since then. Thank goodness. The beauty contests in those pre-feminist times reinforced the subservient and secondary role expected of many, if not most, women.

By sheer coincidence my eye caught a newspaper item recently on quite outrageous advertisements that were deemed perfectly acceptable in the 1950s and 1960s. It was apparently legitimate for a husband to smack his wife if she produced “flat, stale coffee” (1952), for a man to ask whether it was “always illegal to KILL a woman” if she missed the post (1953), to ask “you mean a woman can open it?” when she was faced with the seemingly insuperable task of opening the screw top on a bottle of ketchup (1953) or state that the “Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for!”, with adoring wife looking adoringly at the Kenwood Chef (1961).

Even now when I see these adverts, and the implicit assumptions of female inferiority, subservience and stupidity behind them, I can remember the passion with which my hackles would rise.

I remember too the blatant discrimination against women in the workplace. Even as late as 1968, when I was applying for my first job (with the Bank of England), women were being offered a lower salary than men for identical work – though this blatant inequality was being phased out. The 1970 Equal Pay Act was a long overdue piece of legislation – as indeed was the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. The feminist movements of the 1960s (which was, in so many ways, not a golden age) and the 1970s dealt with genuine grievances with which I was deeply sympathetic.

But fast-forwarding to the 21st century, these horrors of the mid 20th century seem unbelievably dated. The past is indeed a different country. Women’s lives have been revolutionised and are, speaking as one brought up in the post-war years, incomparably better. Most young men today would not, surely, entertain the sexist views of women that were commonplace in my youth. The nauseating views of Michael Caine’s “Alfie” (1966) are, thank goodness, largely consigned to the past.

Beauty contests, including Miss World, have simply lost their social significance. In the mid 20th century they could justifiably be seen as treating women as “diverting playthings” for men. That is how women were all too often viewed. But this is no longer the case. If women wish to participate in them, and people wish to watch, then I would criticise neither. Those who do criticise them are, in my view, fighting yesterday’s battles.

There are upsides to the Miss World events. £250m has been raised for children’s charities apparently. And the sheer wackiness of some of the contestant’s interests and ambitions is modestly entertaining – not least of all of those who, apocryphally, would like to be a “model or a brain surgeon”.

The current Miss World, Tatiana Kucharova, is an animal lover. She has “many pets, including rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, a bird and a turtle”. Her personal motto is “always be an optimist”. And why not?

Ruth Lea is an economist by profession. She is currently Director of Global Vision and Economic Adviser and Director at Arbuthnot Banking Group