“Women are Angry”: Remembering the Feminist Protests at UK Cinemas of November and December 1980, Forty Years On

by Hannah Hamad

17th November 2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of the tragic death of 20-year-old University of Leeds student Jacqueline Hill. She was the thirteenth and final woman known to have been killed by the serial murderer of women who came to be known colloquially and infamously as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’.

After the media circus that has accompanied the recent death of this individual, I will not state his name here, so that looking back on this time in UK history might better serve the purpose of remembering Jacqueline (albeit remembering her in the context in which she died), the twelve other women killed by this person, and indeed all victims of violence against women.

Jacqueline’s death, especially its aftermath and the impact it made on women, was part of a series of events that took place in the UK over the course of November and December of 1980, at an intersection between film culture, feminist activism and the hunt for the perpetrator of these killings. This hunt came to an end just seven weeks later, when he was apprehended on 4th January 1981, after an investigation lasting five and a half years. Looking at these events is a useful entry point into understanding something of the relationship between media, misogyny and feminism at that time.

As democracy campaigner Vicky Seddon wrote in the aftermath of the events, contextualising and historicising the ongoing social and cultural problem of men’s violence against women, developments in the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ case toward the end of 1980, and women’s reactions to these developments, “made violence against women a national issue.” [i]

A related series of social and cultural phenomena at the time gave rise to escalating feminist activism, a surge of interest by international news media in the ‘Ripper’ case, and for film to become the particular focus of women’s anger. An event of note in this regard was the UK theatrical release of serial killer thriller Dressed to Kill on 9th November 1980. It carried notoriety from its US release earlier that year, where it had been met with protest by feminists on account of its depiction of murderous and sexualised violence against women. The UK release likewise became a lightning rod for feminist activism but released as it was into the charged atmosphere of the ‘Ripper’ killings, protests unfolded differently from and independent of those in the US.

Eight days later on 17th November, Jacqueline was murdered. Two days after that, police confirmed her death as a ‘Ripper’ killing, whereupon media interest in the case skyrocketed, and feminist outrage at the cultures of violent masculinity they viewed as having enabled these murders escalated.

The next significant event was the two-day Women’s Liberation National Conference, which took place with the theme ‘Sexual Violence Against Women’, and began five days after Jacqueline’s death, in Leeds, the focal point of the ‘Ripper’ investigation, on 22nd November. It was spearheaded by the Leeds chapter of the group Women Against Violence Against Women, co-organised by Leeds Reclaim the Night founder Sandra McNeill [i].

McNeill and her colleagues had been planning the conference for months. But as she explained in an interview about it with me in 2018, “a week before the conference… [name of perpetrator] killed Jacqueline Hill,” and the number of delegates planning to attend went through the roof [iii]. It became, as she described it, “a very large conference, with a lot of very angry women at it… [and] a lot of women were very, very angry about the Yorkshire Ripper… and wanted to take direct action.” [iv] One of the first manifestations of their anger came at the end of the conference when delegates gathered for a Reclaim the Night march through Leeds city centre.

When it passed Leeds’s Odeon Cinema, which was showing Dressed to Kill, some members of the march invaded the auditorium, and threw red paint at the screen, symbolising the blood of women killed by men’s violence, and protesting what they understood to be the film industry’s complicity with the perpetuation of violence against women.

This action garnered a great deal of press attention [v], and ensuing weeks gave rise to a spate of similar action at cinemas all over the country, screening various films that explicitly depicted violence against women, or that were thought to be profiting from violent sexual objectification of women by men [vi].

Sally Vincent, writing in the New Statesman in December 1980 as the events in question were unfolding, drew explicit links between the “present reign of terror” [vii] that characterised life for women in Britain during the ‘Ripper’ years, encompassing experiences that spanned the spectrum from the quotidian misogyny of everyday street harassment at one end, to the murderous brutality epitomised by these killings at the other, and the popularity in UK cinemas  that at time of what she calls “ripper films.” [viii]

Vincent argued that films screening in UK cinemas at her time of writing, specifically The Shining, Dressed to Kill, and especially He Knows You’re Alone, negotiated common-sense acceptance of “the universality of Man as Ripper,” [ix] and that they were complicit in normalising discourses of victim-blaming and the excoriation of women’s sexual agency that characterised police attitudes towards victims in the ‘Ripper’ case, and media reportage about them.

The protests at UK cinemas in 1980 thus accompanied the release of a cluster of films that became cultural talking points due to explicit depictions of male violence against women, and were targets for feminist opprobrium. The grounds for this ire were twofold: the depictions of such violence against women (commonly from the viewpoint of male killers) in the films themselves, and marketing campaigns that offered up the brutalisation of women as a selling point.

My research on this topic thus explores how and why film culture in the UK became a focal point for feminist activism and campaigning in the Yorkshire Ripper years. It aims to shine a new light on an important part of the history of the UK women’s liberation movement at a noteworthy intersection with the cultural history of film.

Hannah Hamad is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Cardiff University, School of Journalism, Media and Culture, and author of Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary US Film: Framing Fatherhood (New York and London: Routledge, 2014).

This blog post comes from initial findings of exploratory research towards Hamad’s new project on media, culture and misogyny in the Yorkshire Ripper years. The first output from this work is available now as “The movie producer, the feminists and the serial killer: UK feminist activism, misogynist 70s film culture and the (non) filming of the Yorkshire Ripper murders” in James Fenwick, Kieran Foster and David Eldridge (eds), Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), pp. 235-250. Hamad is currently working on her second book Film, Feminism and Rape Culture in the Yorkshire Ripper Years which is under contract with BFI Publishing (in partnership with Bloomsbury) and due to be published in 2023.

All of her research on this topic is dedicated to the memories of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, and Jacqueline Hill, and to all victims and survivors of violence against women. #EndViolenceAgainstWomen

Notes

* Sexual Violence Against Women conference flyer image from The Sandra McNeill Collection, Feminist Archive North.

** Collage of news headlines image created by the author.

*** He Knows You’re Alone poster image – author screen shot: https://lastroadreviews.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/he-knows-youre-alone-1980-review/

[i] Vicky Seddon, “Violence Against Women: Male Power in Action.” Marxism Today (August 1981), p. 14.

[ii] Sandra McNeill, interview with author. Feminist Archive North, Brotherton Library, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds. 5th April 2018.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Jane Gaskell, “Dateline: Leeds.” The Daily Mail, 27th November 1980, p. 13.

[vi] Jean Stead. “Now is the Time to Stand Up and Fight.” The Guardian, 5th December 1980, p. 10.

[vii] Sally Vincent, “The Ripper: Rape and the Moviemakers.” New Statesman, 19th December, 1980, p. 13.

[viii] Ibid., p. 12.

[ix] Ibid., p. 12.