Recently on the Women’s March I heard a sound I had not heard for a long time. It was a woman ululating and it took me right back to Greenham Common where women would make this strange keening noise. Mass ululation would freak the soldiers out.
I first went to Greenham in 1982 for Embrace the Base. The camp had started a year earlier as a protest against Nato’s decision to site American cruise missiles at the Berkshire site. By February 1982 it had been decided that this was a women-only protest – and this was crucial: a woman’s place was not in the home, but at a protest. Women could use their identity as carers and mothers to say, this is about the future safety of our children. We weaponised traditional notions of femininity.
Symbolically and strategically this made Greenham special. By casting the political area as male, the women’s very presence became a clear and problematic intrusion. Margaret Thatcher called the protesters an eccentricity, but the numbers grew.
One of the things I remember most, apart from the mud, was how the layout of the airbase clearly represented how power works. The American military were at the core, then the British soldiers and then the police. Outside were this bunch of women, locked out, who would periodically tear down the surrounding fence. We could violate this male space and we were not leaving. A friend came with her little boy and he immediately wanted a gun and to be a soldier. We laughed and argued and were well aware of the contradictions of what we were doing. Greenham women were called woolly minds in woolly hats, but my God, some hard thinking and hard living went on there.
Women in turn were routinely violated, dragged out of our bender tents in the cold of the night. Life was really difficult. The tenacity of the women who lived there was admirable, but there were many splits and some went quite mad. A woman once appeared smeared in mud and was referred to as “Metal Mickey”, because she believed that metal itself was part of the patriarchy. She wore a low-slung belt of bolt cutters.
I sometimes wished we could all prance around in high heels and good frocks, just to disrupt the image that the media built up. In 1983 the first missiles arrived. There were two massive actions: a 14-mile human chain linking Burghfield, Aldermaston and Greenham by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and at Greenham, 200 women dressed as teddy bears entered the base for a picnic. Heavily armed soldiers against teddy bears. This was brilliantly absurd. We went back in December to encircle the base, holding up mirrors to reflect back the military to themselves. Nappies, toys, wool and ribbons were tied to the fence.
In December 1987 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which spelt the end for cruise missiles and in August 1989 the first missiles left the base. But the Greenham peace camp, we were told, had been ineffectual – they claimed they would have decided this anyway.
No, Greenham was powerful. It taught my generation about collective action, about protest as spectacle, a way of life, incredibly hard but sometimes joyous. Still the image of resistance for me is not the famous photograph of a striking miner confronting a policeman at Orgreave, it is the picture of Greenham women dancing in 1982: witchy, unarmed women dancing on a missile silo. This magical, powerful image shows how the peace camp both played on traditional images of the feminine and then subverted them. Greenham created an alternative world of unstoppable women. It changed lives.
Fran De’Ath: ‘I thought if I was an artist or poet I would have a voice, but all I could do was sit in the mud’
As a young woman it didn’t feel like a question of if the bomb dropped, but when. Even people who weren’t against us having nuclear weapons were terrified of nuclear war. I was divorced and my children, who were five and 12 at the time, were living with their father. I felt like when the bomb dropped I wouldn’t be able to even hold their hands, so I just wanted to do everything in my power to stop it.
I always thought that if I was an artist or a poet I would have a voice, but the only thing I could do was sit in the mud. A friend told me about a march from Cardiff to Greenham to highlight the missiles, and afterwards a few people had stayed on. When I arrived there were just a couple of tents and a campfire, but it was a relief to be finally doing something.
Before the first blockade we were all really frightened. None of us had done anything like this before; would the police be rough? Back at the beginning there were men involved, although it was a women-led initiative. But one day a bulldozer arrived and wanted to drive through the camp. We all spontaneously sat down, apart from a group of chaps who wouldn’t. It made us nervous, because we wanted to be non-violent to protect ourselves and we didn’t know if we could rely on them. We had a big meeting and decided that in the run-up to the blockade we would be women only.
It was a shame but it made it more empowering for women. People think everyone at Greenham Common was a hippy, but many were ordinary women who did the cooking, and whose husbands played golf and didn’t mind them coming because there were no men.
In the early days the public was very supportive. I would dress smartly and go to Newbury with a clipboard, asking people to come and have a cup of tea with us at the camp. Many did. After the fence went up around the base I went to a department store in my tweeds to speak to the manager and said, “What I would really like is some chains, padlocks and bolt cutters.” And they gave them to me!
The blockade itself was very cold. There were some Buddhist monks with us and when they left they handed me the flowers from their shrine. I was quite feisty, but I was deeply moved by that.
In the end I left because I didn’t like the separatists trying to tell me what to do. But Greenham changed my life. I learned everyone had something to offer. I did a lot of public speaking, which I had never done before, at a packed Manchester town hall and even on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Before Greenham I had been working as a cook, but afterwards I went to Canada and studied conflict resolution and mediation. I worked for the UN and wrote the Afghan electoral law. That would never have happened without Greenham. HK
Mary Millington: ‘Police would follow you into the bushes. It was quite unpleasant’
The camp had advertised a festival for the spring equinox and I had planned to go with my daughter but she was ill. But when she went to live with her father, I was free to go and live at the camp.
I went on a visit in July 1982 to check it out. The base wasn’t marked on the map, so I walked up to where I thought it might be, and hit upon this area with five fences and military vehicles going between them. The common itself was quite beautiful: birch trees, silver trees, butterflies; but the ugliness of the military might was quite shocking. It was where they were building the silos for the cruise missiles. I had come up to what was later known as the blue gate but no one was living there then.
I moved to the camp in early August. There were some caravans but I lived in a tent. Then, in October, all the caravans were taken away in a big eviction, so I donated my tent to two children, and we set up a big plastic sheet over a washing line between two trees for a sleeping area.
Initially one of the women thought I was a police officer and I wasn’t invited to meetings. But eventually one of the Oxford Quakers, who had first told me about the camp, brought some money and then they knew I was OK.
We had the Embrace the Base demonstration that December. Afterwards there was a great build-up of helicopters overhead, with lights day and night. They had police outside the nine-mile perimeter fence, and they had British army personnel just inside the fence all the way round, so you were never alone. At one point police would follow you into the bushes, it was quite unpleasant. We were constantly being attacked with things like maggots and pig shit, and the tents would get slashed with knives, so it was scary. They would evict us constantly, which meant you had to be able to leap up out of bed, fold up your tent and get it into a van. Because of the bylaws, they could seize your property but not you, so when the bailiffs came each gate had a van that drove you away and brought you back when they had gone. If they saw any signs of weakness in us they would come several times a day.
From my point of view it was the best way to live under Margaret Thatcher – to work for peace and live off the meagre dole money. I was about 36 when I arrived and I didn’t leave until eight years later, in May 1990.
Being at the camp gave me a very good relationship with the outdoors – the sun and the moon and the weather. Also being just one person in a movement that wasn’t hierarchical suited me. We were all equally involved. It was wonderful when the missiles went and the fence came down .But of course we have still got Trident – and I haven’t stopped taking direct action against nuclear weapons.
The issue is not dead yet, and I feel like the job’s not finished, although it was extremely satisfying. Women went to court so that that land could not be used again for military purposes. I still go back sometimes and walk across that common with no fence on it; it’s liberating and wonderful. That was our dream. MS
Di McDonald: ‘It was very spontaneous, but between us all we had whatever was needed’
I went to the camp in 1982, and at the time of the first blockade I was still learning techniques for non-violent direct action – going limp and not cooperating with the police but not offering any resistance, that sort of thing. It was about making sure you didn’t hurt yourself or them, because we were concerned about everyone.
The first thing was to make sure you had gone to have a pee behind a bush somewhere, then settle down, sitting in the road, linking arms with other women, wrapped up in lots of scarves and hats with biscuits and chocolate in your pocket to keep you going. Different women brought different things. I was driving my van, transporting women around the base, while others brought songs and some brought first-aid kits. It was very spontaneous, but between us all we had whatever was needed.
There weren’t a lot of women’s groups before Greenham, and those that did exist had formal structures, uniforms and captains, organised like the male model. But at Greenham, everyone was equal, and everyone had the opportunity to speak or not speak in a meeting, because there were no leaders. We had a saying: “The only stars are in the sky”. That made it very difficult for the police and politicians to manage; they needed a leader to talk to, but there wasn’t one. They were very frustrated and didn’t know how to react.
Being at Greenham taught me how ageist I was. I was about 40, and I thought that old people didn’t do protests, but I learned an enormous amount from women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lived on the camp and were brilliant. It’s interesting to reflect on that now, thinking of myself. It empowered women to think differently about their own abilities and be clear in their beliefs. LH
Lynne Jones: ‘I was told, you can’t just resign and go and live with a peace movement’
When Greenham started, I was in my first proper job as a doctor in Liverpool, and started hitchhiking up and down. I would spend a night or two at the camp, and then go back to work.
At the first blockade, we walked out to fill the main gate at 6.30pm, with policemen and lights in our eyes, and we sat down. Women were doing the same at six other gates. The rain poured down steadily and we sat there, wrapped up, throughout the night, taking turns to do four-hour shifts. People brought us hot tea and played fiddles – there was a good, friendly atmosphere. It was a very gentle action. No one was waving or screaming or holding confrontational banners, it was just women using their bodies to block gates, which was highly symbolic. The police were a bit bemused.
In the morning, we discovered the base intended to work as usual – they had created a new gate. A policeman told us this was their gate, and if we sat there, we would be arrested. He was very courteous and gave us five minutes to think. The decision was unanimous, and the first group of women sat down.
The action was later called a failure, but it wasn’t, even though it didn’t bring the base to a grinding halt. We didn’t win, but you can’t take control until you feel powerful, and not one of us left that day without feeling stronger and more sure of our power to act.
I felt powerful enough to go home to Liverpool and hand in my notice. Suddenly I had no income, no home, and I was moving to live outside a nuclear missile base. I was told by my consultant at the time, “That’s the end of your career. You can’t just resign and go and live with a peace movement.” I can still see the horror on her face. Even my friends at Greenham rang me and said, “You can’t resign, the world needs doctors!” But I told them I thought nuclear weapons were a bigger health threat. I stayed at the camp for four years.
When I went back into medicine four years later, I was a radically different person. That’s why I’ve ended up working in war zones and refugee camps, and now with the migrant crisis. From Greenham onwards, for me, politics, medicine, human rights, justice and peace have all been intimately entwined. MS
Maureen Wilsker: ‘My husband was a refugee from Nazi Germany. We know what happens when people go to war’
I went to Greenham on the first day of the protest, when men were still involved. It was a December day, and we all took candles. I remember feeling triumphant to see so many people, but sad, because of what it was for. I was in my 50s, with five sons in their late teens and early 20s – that was another sadness, to see the Scottish soldiers on the other side of the fence and realise how many young men were excited to guard something at Greenham. Most of all I remember the adrenaline; the long walk home but not feeling tired at all.
The idea for the first blockade was an instinctive thing. There was a sense of impotence, that we couldn’t do much at Greenham, but we could do this. It was exciting – it’s always exciting to spend days surrounded by like-minded people when you’re in a minority, it’s like a blood transfusion. Many of us lived our lives in a very middle class, conservative, pro-war atmosphere, where white poppies were things to be ashamed of. The smell of Greenham was wood fires, food cooking – it was like being on a Girl Guides’ camp. The feelings were so high and intense that the number of people didn’t matter. You were just aware of the commitment, that this was a historic moment. My father was a communist, and I had walked with him, at age five, against the Spanish civil war. That same awareness of history was there at the first blockade.
Greenham made me angrier. It’s hell to think of your children going through war. My husband was a refugee from Nazi Germany – on that side we have no family. We know exactly what happens when people go to war. MS
Clare Dimyon: ‘We could see other transit vans full of women and giggled at each other’
First there was the march from Cardiff to Greenham to say, “Look, we don’t want this”. That didn’t appear to achieve anything. So there was an accumulation, resulting in that first blockade of the gate. But Embrace the Base was different; it was unique. This was when 30,000 women slogged down the motorways. I went down from Leeds on the M1. As we passed the service station at 5am, we could see other transit vans full of women and giggled at each other. There were traffic jams to the base, it was very exciting. MS
Paula Allen: ‘I’m reminded of how courageous, strong and organised those women were’
I had met Lynne Jones while photographing the Women’s Pentagon Action about a year and a half before. She phoned me and said, “Women have arrived at a missile base in Newbury, Greenham Common, and they are refusing to go home. I think you should come.” Within days, I had flown to England.
Greenham was like pouring water on the seed of my activism and photography – it kept growing and growing. I moved in and lived there, on and off, for three years. I was a participant in that I lived in a bender, I cooked meals, but I was also developing my skills as a photojournalist.
In February 1982 the decision was made to make the camp women-only. That was really significant for the blockade in March because it was the first women-only action. I remember the energy and desire and creativity and courage of women who were doing civil disobedience together; it was extraordinary. I was watching and photographing women who were laying bodies on the ground, who were blocking entrances right around the nine-mile perimeter fence.
At times, I would put down my camera – I still only photograph when I think that photography is the best form of activism I can take at that moment. I photographed that first blockade because it was more powerful for me to photograph the women – it was also a form of evidence-gathering.
It wasn’t a game; women were there because it was necessary. Something really diabolical was about to happen – it wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t fun. There was an incredible spontaneity and relentlessness of action: women climbing over the fence, women invading the base, women blockading; the presence of women on a daily basis, creating community, building fires, getting evicted and returning, and cooking a meal for 80 in the pouring rain – it was all incredibly impressive.
In a way, Greenham was where I went to university. There was nowhere else I was able to get the education that I needed, that I felt was relevant to living on the planet. I still turn to Greenham a lot for a sense of guidance and I still think that occupation, where women march and they don’t leave, is a good idea. Looking back at my photos, I’m reminded of how courageous, strong and organised those women were – it was incredibly exciting. The actions were beautiful. I’m now very involved with the work of V-Day, which was founded by Eve Ensler. I met Eve towards the end of my time at Greenham – we have been in sister solidarity since. LH
Angie Zelter: ‘A young soldier was jabbing me with his rifle, saying, “Do I shoot her?”’
I spent three years working in Cameroon, in community development. One day an old Cameroonian man asked me why I was there. I explained I was trying to help, and he said, “If you want to help go back to Britain, and stop them exploiting Africa”. That’s when I realised my main work should be about my own country and what it does to the rest of the world.
Disarmament was the major political issue at the time and I organised a protest outside the House of Commons. We chained ourselves to the railings. I was arrested, but I had done very little activism before I went to Greenham. I was a potter with two young children – my husband made furniture and we lived in Norfolk.
The first time I went to the camp was with some other women from Norwich. After that I kept going down for weekends. We would come in and get arrested, which the women who needed to look after the camp during the week, couldn’t. I was there for Embrace the Base. But people forget if there is enough public disquiet and you are peaceful, you can create change.
My brother was in the RAF and was sometimes on duty at Greenham. It was difficult for him because I would send him anti-nuclear stickers and he would be hauled up by his commanding officer. We made an arrangement that we wouldn’t be there at the same time. He didn’t like nuclear weapons, but when you are in the armed forces people think they have to obey orders. I asked him one day, “What would you do if you found me in a high security area?” He said, “My orders would be to shoot you.”
We learned tactics as we went along. One day I got into a high-security area, and a young American soldier was jabbing me with his rifle while saying on his radio, “I’ve given her the three warnings, do I shoot her?” I sat down and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything. Take your time.” You become strong.
When I got arrested and went to court I saw women defending themselves in different ways. Some said nothing, some sang, some danced, some were rude, others polite. It made you realise everyone finds their own voice, and it was the diversity of voices that was important.
Sitting talking round the fires after a protest we would talk about the connections between issues. How things like climate change, human rights, wars and the arms trade are all connected. Afterwards I started the Snowball Civil Disobedience campaign to encourage people to cut one bit of fence around an American base – and then encourage two more people to do it.
Thousands took part. I was also one of 10 women who in 1996 caused £1.5m damage to a Hawk jet which was going to go to East Timor. We spent six months in prison, but won the court case. I spent five months in prison with a group of women who damaged a barge involved in testing for Trident, but the judge found us not guilty under international law. All these things came out of the thinking from Greenham – what is the law? The law is to keep people safe. HK
Hiroko Hatakeyama: ‘The determination to fight on that I saw in those tiny tents gave me courage’
I spent four days at the Greenham Common camp in October 1983. As a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, I had been involved in antinuclear campaigns in Japan, and wanted to see what was happening in Europe. I was worried about taking time off from my job, but I left my daughter with my family and went to Germany, then England, with two other women from Hiroshima.
I went around the tents and talked to other women about my experiences as an A-bomb survivor. I also learned a lot from them. They opened my eyes to other causes – not just peace, but issues like the wages for housework campaign started by Selma James. It made me think seriously about the need to empower women economically.
I believe there’s a connection between what the women at Greenham did and the recent women’s marches around the world. It warmed my heart to be among so many women from all around the world with such an unshakeable dedication to their cause. I didn’t speak English, but it didn’t matter.
What impressed me most of all was the fact that the Greenham Common women were doing things for themselves, thinking about what they as individuals could contribute. For example, I’d never seen anyone in Japan walking around with a bucket collecting donations. I was also surprised to see so many women who had brought along their children. Greenham was a genuinely grassroots movement.
The determination to fight on that I saw in those tiny tents gave me the courage to carry on my peace activities after I returned to Japan. I think my short time at Greenham is one of the reasons why today, even though I’m 78 and have a few health problems, I’m still campaigning against nuclear weapons. JM
John Skare: ‘A woman said to me through the fence, “Why do you want to kill my children?”’
I was stationed at Greenham Common while working as a security policeman for the American military. My job involved patrolling the perimeter of the base and checking for any violations – although we weren’t expecting the protests.
I arrived on 20 August 1981 and the first protest took place just a couple of weeks later. The women had walked from Cardiff – although the most interesting part was when they chained themselves to the fence. I thought that was something different.
The Ministry of Defence police and local Thames Valley police were responsible for security outside the base so they were the ones dealing directly with the protesters. But there was one instance when I was walking the perimeter and a woman said to me through the fence, “Why do you want to kill my children?” I told her I was just doing my job, but I always remember that.
I was at Greenham until 30 June 1984. During that time, women also locked themselves inside the sentry box at the main gate and caused quite a problem. They were also evicted from their camp and rocks were dropped on the site so that they couldn’t put their tents back up.
But the consensus on the base was that the peace women had a right to express their views and there was never any animosity towards them. We got along fine – the only thing was that they kept blocking all the gates. They were always lying down in front of vehicles, which made it difficult for us to get in and out.
I often think of Greenham Common. I was surprised by how long the protests continued. But I think it achieved quite a bit in terms of women saying: “We are a force; we want to be heard”. LH
Rebecca Johnson: ‘The police arrested me and dragged me into the base. I still got to the theatre’
There is not just one story of Greenham Common, but thousands. I had lived in Japan and studied the decision-making around using nuclear weapons in 1945. When I heard about an anti-nuclear women’s peace camp facing eviction, I loaded up my motorbike and arrived on 9 August 1982 – the anniversary of the second atomic bomb, in Nagasaki.
I planned to stay a week, but left five years later when the US and Soviet Union finalised the INF treaty that got rid of cruise, Pershing and SS20 missiles.
Three weeks after arriving, I was arrested for occupying a sentry box. The police had grabbed Helen John, one of the founders of the camp and assumed we would all stop. Instead, I ran forwards into the sentry box, which they had left wide open. Twelve of us were inside and six more sat down outside.
In October the base started extending towards the road, digging trenches and laying pipes. We wove woollen webs to block the diggers and lay down in front of them. My friend had got me theatre tickets in London for my birthday, so when they dragged me away for the fourth time, I said I’d sing a couple of songs and then head off. Suddenly the police arrested me and dragged me inside the base. I still got to the theatre, but only just in time, and smelling of woodsmoke.
Our 14-day prison sentences for occupying the sentry box was a rallying cry for women to come to Greenham. In 1982 we organised Embrace the Base to mark the anniversary of the Nato decision to deploy cruise missiles: 30,000 women braved the cold to hang their personal messages on the nine miles of fence – children’s toys or photographs of loved ones. More than 6,000 stayed to close the gates on Monday. The media and the policing become harsher, as we blocked work at the base with our bodies. The police targeted women living at the camp – grabbing us by the ears and throwing us around more heavily than women they didn’t recognise.
Being non-violent doesn’t mean everything will be sweetness and light, but if you give violence back it feeds the aggression, and allows [the authorities] to portray you as starting the violence – like at Orgreave in the miners’ strike. Feminist non-violence is active. Many women who came to Greenham had experienced male violence, so the passivity emphasised in traditional Gandhian non-violence was disempowering. Instead we developed creative ways to oppose nuclear weapons, which are the apex of patriarchal violence. For blockades we would dance or weave webs rather than just sitting down. If you were grabbed, you might sit or lie down, but others kept dancing. We danced on top of the nuclear silos on New Year’s Day in 1983.
Singing also built confidence, or changed the mood. If police brought in horses or slapped their thighs to create a rhythm before charging, we would sing something slow and lyrical like “You can’t kill the spirit” to change the tempo. We taught ourselves to use authoritative “teacher” voices too. If women were being manhandled, we wouldn’t shout but say, “Stop that now! You are not a violent man and you must not behave violently.”
Greenham was phenomenally successful. In 1983, after the weapons were flown into the base and thousands of women pulled miles of fence down, Michael Heseltine told parliament we wouldn’t get into any sensitive areas. A few weeks later, three of us occupied Greenham’s air traffic control tower for hours.
Gorbachev explicitly mentioned Greenham women when he said that the European peace movement enabled his decision in 1986 to meet Ronald Reagan, leading to the INF treaty. Greenham politicised a whole generation of women. I worked with Greenpeace and others to achieve the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. We didn’t just take boats to protest at the French and Russian test sites – three ex-Greenham women halted a British nuclear test in 1991, after hiking to ground zero at the Nevada test site. Today I am working on a nuclear ban treaty that will prohibit all nuclear weapons. The UN is about to start negotiations on 27 March in New York. HK
Suzanne Barkham: ‘I felt the police were very hostile and fierce, like warriors’
I went to Greenham Common in the spring of 1982 with the women’s group I belonged to in Norwich. I was involved with CND marches when I was an undergraduate, and the Cuban missile crisis, so I was already very interested in nuclear disarmament.
I hired a minibus and about 15 of us went to the camp. We were tying photographs and other personal things to the railings, and it felt a bit like a festival, quite exciting.
We camped by the main gate, which was very heavily policed. The police horses were absolutely terrifying – they were very big animals with very heavy, swinging chains hanging from their harnesses. I felt the police were very hostile and fierce, like warriors. It felt like we were going to get trampled on.
The night that we camped I was quaking with fear because of the threat of imminent violence from the police. It was something I have never encountered. Some women were saying, I’ll sit there, I don’t mind getting arrested and going to prison. I thought, I’ve got these two little children, I can’t.
My other problem was the difficulty I had trying to find somewhere to park our minibus – the locals were awful to us. They were swearing at us, shouting, throwing things – I thought they were really nasty.
Some of our group wanted to go and cut the wires, but most of us went more to show solidarity, and be part of the numbers. I kept thinking, if I get taken into custody, no one else is insured to drive our vehicle home. I was conflicted about my responsibilities.
I didn’t get home until 4am, and was very glad to have been involved. My visit had a lasting impact on me. I still feel very angry when I drive past Mildenhall. But since then most of my activism has been subsumed by children, grandchildren, and ageing parents – but mentally, I still feel very political. LH