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Greenham Women are everywhere After Greenham Common, activism became a form of self-expression

Greenham's lack of plan was seen as a virtue (Sahm Doherty/Getty Images)

Greenham's lack of plan was seen as a virtue (Sahm Doherty/Getty Images)


August 26, 2021   7 mins

If the 1970s was a period of political conflict and upheaval in the UK, the 1980s was a decade of endings and beginnings. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 marked the final defeat of the trades unions as a political force in Britain, by a conservative government led since 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. But alongside the humbling of the National Union of Mineworkers came a broader political emphasis on the self-sufficient individual.

“Who is society?” asked Thatcher in 1987, in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The unravelling of both state provision and large-scale political organisations was fertile ground for new forms of politics. Thatcher cannot have been pleased when one of these sprouted at Greenham Common RAF Base in Berkshire. The Greenham Women’s Peace Camp was an embodiment of women taking their lives into their own hands, taking responsibility for themselves and their actions, and not being held back by the fact of being women. Like a muddy, plural, mirror image of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, it reflected the new individualism in an emerging form of political dissent.

There has always a danger in reading history backwards from where we are now, of finding in it the seeds of how we understand the world today precisely because we’re looking for them. Out of the Darkness — a new book of stories about Greenham — is told by women who were there 40 years ago. It explicitly eschews any claim to be an official history, but the claim that the Women’s Peace Camp had a lasting influence on politics still deserves to be taken seriously.

Begun by a handful of peace campaigners who walked from Cardiff to the gates of an air base chosen to house American nuclear Cruise Missiles, the camp grew organically after a few people decided to stay on. It wasn’t initially women-only, but after several discussions, a vote was taken and the few men were asked to leave the camp.

The initial decision seems to have been pragmatic. “They didn’t do the washing up, help with the food, look after the kids,” said Jill ‘Ray’ Raymond, “they get drunk, they are violent and they won’t do the washing up.”

Bear in mind that 1981 was only six years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, seven years after contraception became available on the NHS, and eleven years after the first Women’s Liberation Movement conference in Oxford. Social expectations that women would do the housework and childcare, and defer to men, were still strong.

Some of the women also felt that non-violent direct action would be easier without men around, as situations were less likely to escalate. “Some of the squaddies wouldn’t want to hit a woman so they were more careful about violence,” said Fenja Hill. “It was probably less violent because there were no men.”

As the camp grew, though, its existence as a women’s peace camp became more important. Josetta Malcolm, who has since identified as non-binary, described their experience of a women-only camp as being “like therapy, it was like a political awakening…. to just see how things linked up about patriarchy, and nuclear arms, and war. Actually to be in a women-only space and then have your voice heard as a woman is so empowering.”

We can see in this a shift of emphasis from a shared external aim — getting nuclear weapons off the site — to more nebulous goals based on what we would today call identity. Certainly, it was an early example of who you are being as important as what you want to change. But in fact, the focus of the camp was never solely on a shared political aim. There was no plan, no organisation, no strategy and no leaders. These were seen as virtues, not failings.

The method of Non-Violent Direct Action, NVDA, rests heavily on each person taking personal responsibility for what they decide to do. There is no top-down discipline, just “affinity groups” that decide together what action to take. That makes it hard to predict, control or counter. Actions like blockading gates when the mobile cruise missile launchers were trying to leave the base, or cutting through the fence to dance on top of missile silos, disrupted military operations and in some cases embarrassed the government.

Without elected leaders, nobody is accountable to anybody else, except directly and informally. This was seen as in itself revolutionary, modelling an alternative form of society, one without hierarchies. Even the different camps at different gates were not identified by military names or numbers, but by non-hierarchical colours. Each camp developed its own character. Green Gate was spiritual, healing, close to nature. Turquoise Gate was vegan and Violet a refuge for carnivores. Orange Gate was home to families and had the best cake. “Main Gate” became Yellow Gate.

This diversity of the different camps was also seen as symbolic of a wider cause. Feminism was supposed to have room for all sorts of women, who might disagree politically or tactically, but nevertheless be united by the fact of being women. Shared life experiences bound them together, but it was assumed that simply being a woman was enough to outweigh differences.

Even deciding who was, or was not, a Greenham Woman was seen as needlessly divisive. “A Greenham woman is any damn woman who wishes to call herself a Greenham woman,” said Lorna Richardson. “I think it’s antithetical to both the spirit and the practicality of Greenham to divide women into camp women who lived there, and visitors who did not.”

The absence of structure and organisation came with limitations, however. Penny Gulliver recalled occasions when Blue Gate was asked to create a diversion for a big action planned by Yellow Gate. After she and her Blue Gate companions broke into the base and got arrested, “then you’d find out they’d had a row at Yellow Gate about who was going to take the pictures and then they called it off, but nobody came and told Blue Gate!”

Visual and symbolic protests were important. The Greenham veterans talk about reclaiming myths and symbols, witches and spiders’ webs, Moon Goddesses and the hand symbol, forefingers and thumb tips touching, that portrays the vulva. This idea of protest as performance or work of art today typifies a new kind of politics, less concerned with taking power and more with provoking an emotional response, both in those witnessing and in those taking part.

“I think Greenham gave me the confidence to be a woman — to be who I was.” said Sue Say, “and recognise that’s not always going to be the same as someone else.”

It’s not new for individuals to gain a sense of their own capabilities, their independence and agency, through taking part in political action. What is relatively new, though, is seeing such internal change as an end in itself. Asked about the lasting impact of Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, many of those involved talk about changes in themselves. Some of them became therapists, including Sue Bolton, for whom “it was about going right back into yourself and realising the whole thing starts from you… And then you change the whole world, just by being yourself and finding out who you are.”

Slogans like “Greenham Women Everywhere” and “Carry Greenham Home” evoke a sense of the camp, not as a tactical campaign to change UK defence policy, but as a state of mind. The mantra “The Personal Is Political” comes up again and again.

That phrase was first used by 1970s feminists, drawing attention to the fact that their home lives, who raised their children and even their intimate relationships were connected with the public world of politics. Laws governing access to abortion and contraception, or the legality of sexual relationships, had a direct effect on private lives. Many women went on from Greenham to work in women’s refuges, in social work or feminist campaigns.

But while women at Greenham were discussing what they should eat, how to share out the domestic work and what it meant to sleep with women instead of men, the meaning of the phrase evolved. Instead of somebody’s personal life reflecting political changes that needed to be made in the public realm, that personal life could itself embody change. Egalitarian cooking arrangements, lesbian sex or cutting off your long hair could be political acts in themselves.

Some aspects of life as a Greenham Woman are familiar from more recent political campaigns. A loose, non-hierarchical structure with no clear goals or strategies was adopted by the Occupy movements. Self-organisation on the basis of an identity, or shared lived experience, rather than around an external political goal, is now a permanent state of affairs. The Extinction Rebellion protests use aspects of Non-Violent Direct Action, though the movement does have leaders and centralised planning.

What has become a central feature of extra-Parliamentary politics, though, is the focus on self-expression. “I want my name on the list of people that says, ‘I do not think nuclear weapons is the right way to go,’” said Margaret McNeill. “It’s putting my name to this invisible charter that says ‘I was there, I witnessed this’.’” Today, the motto “Not In My Name’ has become a familiar sight on demonstrations; it is usually less of a threat to remove from power an elected government, more a disavowal of some policy or action that will go ahead anyway.

The struggle between the National Union of Mineworkers and Thatcher’s Conservative government was not about coal. It was about who had power in the country. The Greenham Women wanted to erode, if not the physical power of guns and missiles, the legitimacy of holding that power. They wanted to change the policies of those in government, but not to take that power for themselves. They explicitly rejected systems that centralised power, but they wanted to be visible, and to render visible aspects of themselves and their lives that they felt had been ignored or devalued.

Thousands of women spent time at Greenham, from a few hours to several years, and later said it changed their sense of themselves and what they could achieve. But did the camp succeed?

The last cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common in 1991 — but most would say that the end of the Cold War did more to bring that about than the constant presence of women at the camp. Some of the women stayed on until the land was finally returned to being a Common in 2000, after almost 60 years of military use. It is now home to arts and business projects, nature reserves and open space.

You could interpret these two changes as victories for decentralised, women-led, non-violent campaigning. Or you could say that change happened when those inside the fence, those with the political, legal and military power, laid down their arms, took down the fence and crept away. But whichever you think is true, Greenham still became a prototype for the shape of political protest today.


Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.

TimandraHarknes

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Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Actions like blockading gates when the mobile cruise missile launchers were trying to leave the base, or cutting through the fence to dance on top of missile silos, disrupted military operations and in some cases embarrassed the government.

But in all cases embarrassed themselves, because everybody but they could see that if they’d tried that on in the USSR, they’d have been liquidated.
And yet it was the West they wanted to disarm and they thought only the USSR should have nuclear weapons.

most would say that the end of the Cold War did more to bring that about than the constant presence of women at the camp

They obstructed that outcome and made it less likely by siding with the USSR and encouraging it to believe that the West was too decadent and cowardly to defend itself. They hindered the end of the Cold War and may have contributed to the USSR thinking it might win it. Their contribution was akin to that made to the Allies by Lord Haw-Haw.
They weren’t “peace campaigners”, FGS. They were Marxist capitulards who wanted us to surrender to the USSR. They were regarded as mugs at best, a disgrace at worst and not once did they ever express gratitude for the dole they were still drawing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The irony is that if there was no dole they would not have been there, could not have been there.

Tim Bartlett
TB
Tim Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

My wife was a local and involved on the periphery of all this. When talking about this article said that while a significant number were signing on, the majority she thought were independently wealthy / family money and from the upper echelons of society. I was wondering if this chimed with your experiences?

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

I did’nt know any of the campers personally so I can’t say. The solidarity walks were made up of all kinds of women; young mothers like myself, pensioners, professionals – teachers, doctors etc, the rich and famous, trade unionists, all sorts. It was of it’s time and brought women together for peace, I think the intention of most was sincere + it was a great day out.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago

I was there briefly and returned a couple of times to join walks of ‘solidarity’ around the perimeter fence. Needless to say, with maturity and a better knowledge and understanding of how the world works I have revised what I thought in my early twenties back then.
Surely it is fairly clear from the article that romantic illusions as much as naive politics were at the root of what went on. It was like an elaborate game of mummies and daddies (initially) being played under the bushes in the garden. The mummies took over, had different coloured gates etc. Similar experimental life games were being played by lefties all over Britain.
The first time I was there was with my boyfriend, we were just passing through on a camping trip, we had to put up our tent well away from the camps, because he was a man obviously. Near to where we set up there were some gypsy caravans. A kind gypsy lady gave us some water and invited us into her beautifully decorated home for a cup of tea. We had a pleasant and interesting half hour.
To me, looking back, that makes sense, that was real life, the other was just a game.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

You have to laugh, really, at how the loony left eats itself. Today you couldn’t have a wimmin’s camp at all because transvestites would turn up and insist they were women. So you could have a women’s camp that was forced to admit men, but you couldn’t have a men’s camp under any circumstances.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I think you mean transgender people, who may or may not have transitioned or have any intention of transitioning. A very dubious category and even concept.

Transvestism isn’t the same thing. It only exists as a concept at all because of strict dress codes between men and women in Western society, even today. It’s funny how so few people are ‘radical’ in challenging these codes. Grayson Perry is one who plays with the issue, while not claiming to be anything other than male.

Clothing is a fairly superficial issue and dress codes can change. While glamour hasn’t been notable for a long time in menswear, except for a few in the 80s New Romantic movement, the Regency dandy was often more spectacularly dressed than his female counterparts.

Saul D
SD
Saul D
2 years ago

The legacy of Greenham Common is environmentalists who keep blocking nuclear power despite it being the key technology for reducing carbon emissions, and our only hope for cheap electricity.

Francis MacGabhann
FM
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Utterly self-absorbed group of complete narcissists. Thought it then, think it now. Even the language of an article bigging them up is like wading through treacle, probably because that’s the kind of deadening effect these women had on everything they came in contact with. Why would anyone think this kind of self-regard is novel or interesting just because it was women engaging in it?

Paddy Taylor
PT
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

“No such thing as society”
Does this really have to be explained again? It gets trotted out almost daily by people who are either too lazy to set the quote in context, or too dozy to understand it, if they do.
Two or three generations of young people ‘hate’ Mrs Thatcher, not due to any direct experience but via a process of cultural osmosis, because they’ve been fed the narrative that selfishness was baked into the country by Thatcherism. To “prove” this, teachers – in fact anyone on the left – repeat the line “There’s no such thing as society” … one of the most quoted lines of 20th Century British politics.
Yet see it in context and obviously it means something completely different:
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it: ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
The message (although phrased less elegantly) is very much akin to JFK’s famous line from his inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” which, I presume, would be a sentiment many would approve of, particularly at times like these.
If JFK is not their bag either, then perhaps Tony Blair, who (even less elegantly) echoed the sentiment of her comments almost exactly when he called for:
” A welfare state based on rights and responsibility where we gave opportunity to people on benefit to get into work; but demanded responsibility in return. …… We believe passionately in giving people the chance to get off benefit and into work. … But with the chance, comes a responsibility on the individual – to take the chance, to make something of their lives and use their ability and potential to the full. ….. Only in this way will we drive up social mobility, the great force for equality in dynamic market economies. To do all that, ours has to be an enabling welfare state – one which helps people to help themselves. “
Any PM worthy of the job realises that the state should be there to provide a safety net, but not a hammock.
Mrs Thatcher wanted people to become masters of their own destiny once again, rather than subjects of the state, reliant on hand-outs. She believed the pervading culture of entitlement encouraged apathy and a poor work ethic. That is not selfishness.
Contrary to what has become the received wisdom, Mrs Thatcher did not cut back on the welfare state. Instead she was keen to encourage private enterprise to reduce people’s reliance on the state.
Frankly I don’t understand why she isn’t held up as an example by people from across the political spectrum. Here was a lower middle class grammar school girl who, by dint of hard work, determination and vision, succeeded in a male dominated world of entrenched privilege. She believed in a genuine meritocracy (far more than any PM since), and the empowerment of the individual who could achieve their potential without a stifling state. Much of this she achieved, which is, in no small measure, why she won successive large majority election victories.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago

“The last cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common in 1991 — but most would say that the end of the Cold War did more to bring that about than the constant presence of women at the camp.”
Just like universal suffrage had little to do with suffragettes who actually hindered the process, more to do with millions of men who didn’t have the vote but still suffered and died in the trenches in WW1 and made it impossible, by their sacrifice, to be denied the vote.
History is not often made by those who shout the loudest afterwards to claim credit for it.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I think there is no question that the suffragettes delayed women’s suffrage by at least a decade due to their terrorist activities. I find it really depressing to have them constantly held up as a marvellous example of courage. Women in other countries across Europe were being given the vote from the end of the 19th century onwards without arson, bombs and criminal damage going on.
O the lies people tell themselves.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The book ” The Strange Death of Liberal England ” looks at the politics of Britain pre and post WW1. How much did the The Suffragette Movement distract The Liberal Party from studying Germany and preparing for war ? Was it women working in factories and serving as nurses at the front in WW1 which really gave them the vote?

Clara B
CB
Clara B
2 years ago

I’m no fan of Thatcher but that quote (‘there is no such thing as society’), cited to show she espoused a radical form of individualism, is not the complete quote. She actually said: ‘…there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families …. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours’ (italicisation added).

Hersch Schneider
HS
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

Empty, meaningless platitudes that require no self-sacrifice whatsoever- the hallmark of today’s generation of professional protesters.
Solely driven by vanity and self righteous b*llocks.

Malcolm Knott
MK
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The Greenham Common women were a thundering nuisance and achieved precisely nothing. The Guardian adored them, the locals deplored them and the government ignored them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Malcolm Knott
Bill W
WW
Bill W
2 years ago

The best air shows I ever went to were at Greenham in the 1970s.

Christopher Chantrill
CC
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

“Activism” is the modern version of the medieval romance.
Back then the ruling class amused itself with stirring tales of noble knights on their chargers rescuing damsels in distress on their palfreys. In between times, these noble chaps would go questing for the Holy Grail.
Even the noble ladies were in on the fun. Eleanor of Aquitaine, I believe, loved a nice medieval romance of an evening.
Activism is a fantasy of revolution, acted out by the scions of the educated ruling class, long after the modern revolutions were decided.
When the current ruling class is shown the exit, it won’t be anything like Greenham Common or Extinction Rebellion.

ralph bell
RB
ralph bell
2 years ago

A moving essay that evokes feelings of nostalgia for me.
It seems definitely a commune type experience for the people involved that had a profound and enriching effect on their lives.
I think they were brave and did mark a change in putting pollical pressure on the powerful from the concerns of ‘the little people’.
They certainly made the media raise the issues.
The dole payments led to lots of positive outcomes, in the arts, music a politics. It wasn’t all negative!

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

It’s complicated. I think the dole (universal credit) was/is probably necessary in our overcrowded, consumerist society, which is also a ‘liberal democracy’; there is not enough work for the amount of people + the dole is spent on food, clothes, rent and bills, ie, it goes straight back into the economy.
The downside is it’s demoralising on a personal level and that has repercussions on all of us.
If there’s a better answer to dealing with lack of work or the inability to work I don’t know what that is.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

A condition of eligibility for the dole is that you need to be actively seeking and available for work. It is clear that none of these ghastly self-centred creeps was available for work so frankly they should have been either denied benefit or jailed for benefit fraud.

Andrew D
AD
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

‘Going on the dole’ was often nothing to do with need. It was viewed by many on the left as a moral obligation, for example for students during the long vacation. I remember my lefty older brother being rather shocked when I got a holiday job instead.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Plenty of proto-trustafarians also, one would imagine.