Women for Peace: the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp

by Kate Whitaker

“Mummy, why are the policemen guarding the bombs which are going to kill people, but not the people who are trying to stop the bombs?”

5 year old Alice looks up in bemusement at her mother, who is staring through the harsh, wire fence surrounding Greenham Common. Following her gaze, readers of The Greenham Factor must have appreciated the poignancy of Alice’s question. The fence takes on an ambiguous role, plastered with peace signs and woven with the string of the protesters: does it serve to protect the nuclear missiles from the participants of Greenham Women’s Peace Camp? Because, as their presence at the military base aimed to remind the public, a mere fence was definitely not going to protect the women from the 96 American Cruise Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles being kept there.

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The Greenham Women’s Peace Camp began in 1982 when a group of women (and some men, who conveniently looked after the children while the women went to meetings!), walked 120 miles from Cardiff to the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common in Berkshire in the UK to oppose the installation of the bombs. (Cockburn, 2012) Refusing to move until they were given a platform for public debate, 4 of the women chained themselves to the fence. This move was the start of an all-female encampment that was not formally closed for 18 years. (Reading, 2015)

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The Greenham Factor is a leaflet that was published in 1983 to raise funds and awareness for the cause. The leaflet can be found in the Glasgow Women’s Library alongside badges from women who were involved and song sheets of the protest songs that were sung at the camp. Embedded in an archive dedicated to preserving and celebrating women’s history that contains everything from suffragette jewellery to umbrella stands, the voices of the Greenham women called out to me from this regular looking leaflet. I was struck by the dramatic photos of women singing, camping, climbing the fence, being arrested, but most of all just living their lives in the setting of the ominous and barren military base.

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The Greenham Factor presents the women’s protest as an alternative to patriarchal power and masculine, military violence. The decision to have an all women’s camp came out of frustrations over women’s alienation from mainstream peace movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Peace Camp community was built on horizontal and non-hierarchical principles that the activists believed were missing from mixed sex organisations.

Anna Reading, a historian who was a member of the Greenham Peace Camp herself, stresses how important it was that the women ‘lived the subject’; that they demonstrated the peaceful, non-violent principles that they wanted to promote in wider society. (Reading, 2015: 151/2) They had communal campfires, sang songs and shared the domestic duties. Many of the women believed that men could not be trusted to live by these principles.

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Photographs show uniformed, male police observing, arresting and dragging away the Greenham women. They deliberately put their bodies at risk to enforce their point; making policemen rip apart the sleeves of non-violent women forced them to think about their actions more than cutting through a metal chain. The leaflet emphasises the difference between non-violence and non-action, reminding the reader that they would consistently go back, climb up the fence and get arrested just to have a few minutes to make themselves heard in court.

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The leaflet showcases the perspective of many women who call for nuclear disarmament based on their authority as mothers. This maternalist argument harks back to Victorian campaigners for women’s rights, who demanded women’s involvement in the public arena so they could use their feminine virtues to soften the harsh world of male dominated politics.

Olive Schreiner, writing in 1911, claimed that, as mothers, women have an instinctive value for all human life and therefore a natural loathing for war. She wrote: “so many hours of anguish and struggle that breath might be; so many baby mouths drawing life at woman’s breasts; all this, that men might lie with glazed eyeballs, and swollen bodies, and fixed, blue, unclosed mouths, and great limbs tossed.” (Schreiner 1911)

Initially this maternal justification felt like a contradiction to me. The resurgence of feminist movements in the 1970s were centred on a fight for change to free women from the family structure and obligations of motherhood. Seventies feminists called for abortion, accessible child care and equal pay. They were angry with men and angry about stereotypes of women as caring, gentle and peaceful. (Liddington, 1989: 203) Indeed, some feminists were critical of the women’s only protest; they saw it as women “yet again doing the world’s housework, cleaning up the mess men make.” (Cockburn, 2012: 42)

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So why did the Greenham women keep talking about their obligation as mothers to protest against nuclear armament?

It ties into a long history of maternal opposition to warfare; of women arguing against war because it destroys the lives they have created. After the ‘gendercide’ of the world wars, women joined peace movements to protest against the conscription of their sons and husbands. (Adam Jones, 2004) However, the threat of nuclear power threatened not just military men, but everyone. Nuclear war is indiscriminate of age, gender or profession. The march from Cardiff to Greenham was called ‘Women for Life on Earth’ because they believed it was an issue of life… or extinction.

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The Greenham Common Peace Camp inspired similar movements across the nation and united women all over the world in the struggle for global peace. A quote from 10 year old Michio Ogimo from Hiroshima, Japan, reads, “Mamma was bombed at noon, when getting eggplants in the field.” Ogimo’s mother was trying to feed her family, fulfilling her stereotypically motherly, female role, when she was destroyed by the violence of hyper-masculinised warfare. The image of the vulnerable child left with no protection, justifies the position of the Greenham women who were taking action to protect their children, their country and their world.

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These seemingly old-fashioned maternal arguments are juxtaposed against images of women being blatantly political, active and brave. They are peaceful and non violent but persistent and defiant. It shows the maternalist argument of earlier feminists being reimagined and applied to activist, anti-militarist campaigning. These women had abandoned their roles as mothers to camp out for weeks, months, even years at Greenham Common. They were showing their vulnerability, their strength and their passion by physically putting their bodies and lives into the protest every day.

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Sources:

Cockburn, Cynthia, Antimilitarism; Politicals and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements, (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012)

Liddington, Jill, The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and Anti-Militarism in Britain since 1820, (London: Virago Press Ltd, 1989)

Jones, Adam, Gendercide and Genocide, (USA: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004)

Reading, Anna, ‘Singing for My Life: Memory, Non-Violence and the Songs of Greenham Common’s Peace Camp’, in Cultural Memories of Non-Violent Struggles, ed. Anna Reading and Tamar Katriel, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015)

Schreiner, Olive, Woman and Labour, (London: T. F. Unwin, 1911)

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