Greenham Common Women (1981 - 2000)
“As a woman, I have no country… a woman, my country is the whole world.” – Virgina Woolf
The initial media response to the Greenham Common Women—“the harridans of Greenham Common”—was predictable. Others expressed their hatred of women activists in similar clichés. Remembering these and similar reports from the 1980s makes one wonder if historians may eventually regard the decade as the worst, politically, in our time. Was there ever a succession of presidential administrations in the U.S., for example, when mean-spiritedness, deception, and greed were so blatant? Has public opinion ever shown such contempt for the poor, the down-and-out, the vulnerable? Were the rich and powerful ever so crass, so unfeeling? As billions of dollars were appropriated and spent on weapons of war—in direct proportion to the increase in homeless, hungry people—policies leading to these conditions went practically unchallenged by otherwise decent citizens. Even powerful congressional leaders regarded opposing the Reagan administration as political suicide, when the global consequences of its policies were overt and covert wars in the Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.
At the same time, a small band of resisters advocated alternative policies and initiated programs of public moral education. In the U.S., it included the Clamshell Alliance, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Life Communities. Among these and similar faithful witnesses, no one was more persistent, faithful, and imaginative than the Greenham Common Women in England. In defying the deadly duo, Reagan/Thatcher, these women initiated and maintained a decade-long campaign to halt the proliferation of nuclear missiles at an American base, “USAF Greenham Common,” just south of London. “We are not on trial. You are,” Katrina Howse told the court on November 17, 1982, in Newbury, Berkshire. The power the court uses to support nuclear weapons, she continued “supports binding women’s voices, binding our minds and bodies in prison so our voices cannot be heard .... But we cannot be silenced. And I cannot be bound over.” In addressing the magistrates, Katrina Howse joined thousands of women who had been camping on Greenham Common for over a year, protesting the largest cache of nuclear missiles in Europe.
A December 1979 decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to station 464 land-based U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe had prompted the women’s persistent daily resistance to nuclear arms on English soil. The decision to put a fourth of the weapons at Greenham Common, the women said, had been taken “over our heads and without our knowledge” and over the heads of most elected Members of Parliament. In an initial action, August 27, 1981, women, children, and men marched from Cardiff, Wales, 125 miles to the “USAF/RAF Greenham Common,” near Newbury, southwest of London, to protest that decision. Arriving there, and after being denied a national debate on the issues, they set up a peace camp which eventually inspired similar projects against nuclear missiles throughout Europe. In December 1982, a month after Katrina Howse’s court appearance, 30,000 women circled the nine-mile perimeter fence and sealed off the air base. Like many other women before and since, they endured fines and jail sentences for civil disobedience after repeated attempts by local authorities to evict them by harassment and intimidation.
Having previously ignored Greenham Common Women and the dangers and issues surrounding the presence of deadly weapons in their midst, the whole country took notice in 1982, and a national debate ensued. Directly and indirectly, that led to later protests against the nuclear missiles involving hundreds of thousands of people in major cities throughout Europe and over a million people in New York City and, subsequently, to East/West negotiations.
At Greenham Common, as in previous episodes in the history of nonviolence, individual women reclaimed a pacifist tradition initiated by earlier feminists and brought to life values implicit in women’s resistance to war from the 18th century to the present. That tradition had its origins in the Female Auxiliary Peace Societies of the 1820s; Emily Hobhouse and her efforts to draw attention to the suffering of women and children in the Boer War; activists and writers contributing to it included the Austrian Nobel Peace Laureate Bertha von Suttner and the American essayist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The connections that Greenham Common Women made—in building “a movement of their own”—between feminism and pacifism, gender and war were ones that Virginia Woolf also had made in Three Guineas (1936). Responding to several men who had asked women about how to prevent war, “with the sound of the guns in our ears,” Woolf answered:
We can best help to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in co-operation with its aim. That aim is the same for us both. It is to assert “the rights of all—all men and women—to respect in their persons the great principles of justice and Equality and Liberty.
Greenham Common Women lived out these ideals in keeping a round-the-clock protest which included cultural events, meetings, and discussions at the site and a wider network of individuals and groups who supported them: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, initiated by Bertrand Russell and chaired at that time by E. P. Thompson; church and union associations, which provided donations supporting the movement; and others who wrote and brought encouragement from countries around the world.
Over the decade, those who carried out this remarkable witness took the values associated with their lives and concerns as “ordinary” women and applied them to the public issues that had been taken out of their hands. In meetings and organizing manuals, which quote from their journals, they brought new insights to essential questions about their own and the world’s fate. Among the records of their deliberations and reflections, two having to do with the implications of their own dreams and their experience with the press are particularly interesting.
Generalizing about what women at the camp learned about themselves and nuclear war, participants concluded that the most disturbing aspect is the way dreams “related to the very threat of destruction” hung over their lives and the future.
The effects of nuclear weapons lie in our heads, as well as in radioactive fallout. The damage that is being done now to people’s vision of the future and their faith in future generations is incalculable.
Elsewhere, in commenting on “the highly selective filter of information” through which journalists and editors present issues, they describe conditions that keep the general public ignorant on major political issues:
As outside observers, [reporters] usually have little information or understanding about how an action is organized or what those involved feel about it. They never admit this limitation even if they are aware of it.
In speaking to the media, women who took risks to get essential information across seldom speak “directly to the audience but through screens, which vary somewhat from editor to editor. Something of what is said gets through—more or less coherently,” but it is muddled up or mixed with other, often “louder” voices: press releases from offices of the prime minister or president or others with a stake in the political status quo. These and similar insights accompanied the women’s sustained effort “to construct peace” at Greenham Common, and their history is a useful model. As “About Political Action in Which Each Individual Acts from the Heart,” Denise Levertov’s poem, says, when people act in this manner, as these women’s actions dramatized, “great energy flows from solitude, / and great power from communion.”
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