Greenham Common Women's Peace Movement
In August 1981, a group of women, children, and men walked from Cardiff to USAF Greenham Common near Newbury, 125 miles away. Their goal was to open up a public debate on NATO’s decision to site nuclear-capable missiles at this base. Many were mothers and grandmothers. Some were active in trade unions, women’s groups, or the movement against nuclear power. In towns and villages along the way they spoke about their opposition to this escalation of the nuclear arms race. When they arrived they tried to deliver a letter of protest to the base commander. He refused to accept it. Some women decided to stay, and others joined what became a round-the-clock protest outside the gates of the base for nearly 2 decades. It took the mainstream media over a year to pay attention. Finally they discovered Greenham when 30,000 women surrounded the 9-mile fence on December 12, 1982. See resources for information on films, articles, books, and websites that detail this inspiring history.
After I visited the peace camp in February 1982 I found myself thinking: “Could I do this?” The campaign spoke to me because it was creative, direct, and led by women. I didn’t live at the peace camp but I participated in some early actions at Greenham and in London. I helped to organize fundraisers, write letters, press releases and short articles. I filmed some of the actions and interviewed women living at the peace camp or involved in the wider network. These became Common Sense: Greenham Actions 1982 and Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams, ideas and actions from the women’s peace movement—co-authored with Alice Cook.
Greenham Women Are Everywhere
Women stayed at the peace camp day in and day out—through cold wet winters, daily evictions, harassment from self-styled vigilantes, and zapping. Many people supported the camp with letters, money, meals, firewood, warm clothes, Gortex sleeping bags, and legal help.
Greenham support groups formed in towns and cities across the country. Women did hundreds of local actions on May 24th 1983, International Women’s Day for Disarmament, linking a range of issues: the high cost of military spending (including Britain’s own nuclear weapons), cuts in the health service, cuts in services for children, elderly people, and those with disabilities, the stockpiling of food across Europe to keep prices high while many low-income families went hungry, and many more.
Media reports caricatured Greenham women as “leftie lesbians,” “gullible housewives,” or “dupes of Moscow.” Reporters described conditions at the peace camp at length—no running water, no electricity, no bathrooms—rather than explaining why women chose to live like that. Nevertheless, Parliament was forced to debate the issue of siting cruise missiles at Greenham Common, and Greenham became a household name as women kept up a dogged campaign of direct action and public education.
Greenham inspired other peace camps in Britain, and in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Sicily, and the USA. Visitors came from all over the world. Pacific-island women spoke about their experiences of atomic bomb tests conducted by Britain and the United States, and pushed Greenham women to take a broader anti-racist, anti-colonial stance.
Cultures of Resistance
This long resistance had its ups and downs, including disagreements, rifts, and re-groupings. Many local Greenham groups became close and women’s friendships deepened through taking action together.
Songs, banners, and creative protests were a hallmark of Greenham actions. Women sang songs by feminist artists like Holly Near, as well as original songs created by the Fallout Marching Band, for example, a political street band. “Like a Mountain (You can’t kill the spirit),” a song about racism written by Naomi Littlebear Morena, became a Greenham “anthem.”
Thalia Campbell made banners, some of them now in the Peace Museum in Bradford. Women created postcards, badges, posters, and handwritten newsletters and zines (this was before computers or e-mail). Your Greenham includes film clips, letters, song lyrics, and interviews that give a sense of the movement’s vitality.
From December 5, 2014 to March 1, 2015, Interference Archives (Brooklyn, NY) hosted Documents from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp curated by Susan Jahoda and Emma Jahoda Brown, including pamphlets, maps, books, and photos—many of them taken by feminist artist Susan Kleckner. Greenham-related materials I collected over the years are now archived at May Day Rooms in London.
Cruise Missiles Came ... and Went ...
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a staunch ally of President Reagan, was re-elected in June 1983. Despite all the protests, the first cruise missiles arrived in November. I was part of a group of British women who filed a lawsuit in New York in November 1983, opposing the deployment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. The suit did not win in court, but we presented the expert testimony the court would not hear to college classes, community groups, on local radio shows, and at rallies, and networked with many US organizations.
Ground-launched cruise missiles are relatively small and designed to fly low so as to evade enemy radar. In theory they were supposed to “melt into the countryside” where they would be less vulnerable targets. In practice this was impossible. The long convoys of military trucks and support vehicles that left the base on maneuvers were visible to Soviet satellites. Women at the peace camp and a nationwide Cruisewatch network also tracked the movements of the convoys and obstructed them, day and night.
In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to eliminate US and Soviet missiles based in Europe, including those at Greenham Common which were shipped back to the States in 1991. Some women stayed on at Greenham and insisted that the land be returned to the community for public use. This happened in 1997 and the fences around the base were taken down in early 2000. The empty missile silos still stand, among many Cold War relics, and are subject to inspection by Russia under the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.
Since then, women have campaigned for stones to be erected at Greenham to commemorate women’s activism there. Over the years, thousands of women circulated through the peace camp or local Greenham groups. Many carried the spirit and experience of this movement to protest militarism at other bases, or to other projects and campaigns.
Here is a list of resources related to the Greenham Common movement.