Issue 245 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Greenham women

An uncommon struggle

Judy Cox recalls how a women's peace camp forced the world's military powers on the defensive
Greenham common was about direct action
Greenham common was about direct action

The final farewell of peace women to the camp at Greenham Common ends a symbol of protest against the madness of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

For 19 years women have maintained a camp at the site of the US airbase at Greenham Common in Berkshire. It began in 1981, when a small group of women marched from South Wales to Greenham to protest against the siting of 96 cruise missiles at the US-controlled airbase and decided to stay. Within a few months the camp became a focus for hundreds of thousands of peace activists and feminists across Britain. Thousands supported the camp financially and took part in mass demonstrations there--in December 1982, 30,000 demonstrated at the base. The women repeatedly made a mockery of the high security at the base by cutting through fences and stopping the movement of the missiles. Greenham inspired similar actions up and down the country--I remember spending freezing evenings at the Fylingdale's early warning system in North Yorkshire (which may be used again in the proposed US Stars Wars system). Many women expressed great excitement at being involved in a method of protest which we felt to be completely new and different.

How did this initially small group have such an impact? A part of the explanation lies in the courage and heroism of those involved, suffering truly awful conditions not just for the odd weekend, as us part timers did, but for months and years on end. Even worse was the brutality of the police, who had no respect for non-violent tactics. (I remember Michael Heseltine suggesting that women who entered the base risked being shot!) The tactics used contributed to this atmosphere. Women defying the courts, supported by 'witnesses' like EP Thompson and Tony Benn. Actions like the dawn raid where about 40 women broke into the camp and danced on the roofs of silos added to the symbolic power of this protest of ordinary women against American military might.

Yet on its own, none of this would have been enough for the camp to strike the nerve it did. It combined several different currents and had an impact on them. Firstly, there had been a mass Europe-wide campaign for nuclear disarmament. Hundreds of thousands went on CND demos in the early 1980s but were left frustrated with little to do between the big actions. Secondly, there was a strong current of hostility to US imperialism. The fact that the US military would have sole control of the launch of the missiles from Greenham fed support for the protests. Most important, however, was the women's movement. The women's movement was in decline from its campaigning high point in the early 1970s, focusing increasingly on the exploration of alternative 'women's lifestyles'. The politics that increasingly dominated the camp marked a decisive turning point--away from fighting for liberation, towards celebrating women's peaceful, nurturing natures while vilifying all men as collaborators with the system. All this combined together with the feeling that the majority of ordinary people had landed us with Thatcher and Reagan, and that therefore it was down to the heroic minority to perform the brave actions necessary to save the world.

Of course, many were critical of the politics of the peace women--I remember one memorably cold day, knee-deep in mud, waving a mirror to reflect the evil back into the base, and even at the time I had a suspicion this would not end the nuclear arms race. Socialist feminists such as Lynne Segal argued against the idea that women were inherently peace-loving and nurturing and should 'take the toys from the boys', by using the example of the mainstream Suffragette movement collapsing into the jingoism of the First World War. However, they argued that the camp, was a new, democratic method of fighting back, superior to the old revolutionary left. Revolutionary socialists applauded the enthusiasm of the protesters but were critical of the elitism inherent in the camp and the vilification of ordinary men as collaborators with US imperialism and nuclear barbarity.

Inevitably the sense of excitement at the camp could not be sustained. The camp became an increasingly bitter, internalised place to visit, where the lifestyle of the protest had become more important than the cause itself. What had seemed like a short cut to effective action became a long road to disillusion for many. Others turned to the Women Against Pit Closures movement during the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85 and found a struggle that proved in practice how working class men and women could unite and challenge the system we all hated effectively. There is no doubt that the women were a severe embarrassment to the US military and the Tory government, but in the end it was probably the end of the Cold War that really did it for the missile site at Greenham (the US signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union and the missiles were finally removed in 1991).

Appropriately enough for Blair's New Britain, the site is now a trendy business centre, but at least the last peace caravan is going to be preserved at the forthcoming visitors' centre, and a monument to the camp has been proposed. Lynne Segal sees the camp as a symbol of a past era of protest, while journalist Joan Smith applauds it as an enduring symbol of how ordinary people can challenge the most powerful forces on earth. But there is no need for nostalgia when a new era of rebellion on a world scale is opening up. The anti-capitalist movement today is flowing in the opposite direction to the currents of 20 years ago. In the early 1980s we were retreating from general opposition to the system into self limited, increasingly moralistic single-issue campaigns that led away from challenging capitalism. Today's movement has the potential to involve all those who want an end to war and militarism, and all those who want to fight for liberation in a challenge to the very system that breeds all the horrors we protested about.


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