Here is a written up version of my 2013 talk at The Rest is Noise Festival on politics and spirituality in the late 20thcentury. I’ve added a couple of thoughts as I went along based on contributions from the audience. One thing that really struck me throughout the other discussions during the day was the importance of the individual or ‘the self’, in both political and religious engagement through the period. The creative tension for me, was the ways in which Thatcherite individual resilience (Tebbit ‘getting on his bike’) and post-punk ‘any one can do it’ seemed to weave together.
Observing the 80s uncooked resources that relate to Greenham includes digitised interviews with four different women who were at Greenham, included responses from the Mass Observation Project that offer contextual thoughts on transatlantic relations and nuclear weaponry. As well as ephemera from other political activists at the time.
I want to suggest that the role of women in the peace movement at Greenham Common allows us to see how traditional roles are both contested and reinforced in gender politics. These were activists working through and beyond the faultlines of gender. I’m not going to try and represent everyone’s experience at Greenham, as you’ll see later on the very act of doing so would be at odds with the specificity of the camp. Instead I want to outline some lessons l’ve learnt from Greenham.
Greenham Common peace camp at an American airbase in Greenham, Newbury, established in late summer 1981. spontaneously after a 9 day peace march from Wales. The camp was finally disbanded in 2000. During that time it became synonymous with a particular type of feminist peace politics. Collective living, turning the domestic – how the basics of everyday – eating, sleeping, cooking etc, are organised into a political act. particularly by performing them collectively and very publicly. Like reclaim the night, Greenham saw women taking up space as a political act.
At an international level, taking up space was clearly a political act. The base had seen its ownership and status change with the shifting of the international stage. In some ways illuminating the changes in military power and need during and after WW2.
The base originally became an airbase in 1941 as a satellite to RAF Aldermarston. It was taken over by the American airbase in 1942 and acted as headquarters for the invasion of North Africa in 1942 and was important in the planning and back up for the D-day landings. It reverted back to the British Airforce in 1945, shortly afterwards it was closed down and returned to the local council. When the cold war heated up it was returned to the Americans and was used to hold nuclear weapons on standby for immediate take off until 1964. Then in 1979 NATO responded to USSR nuclear missile build up by deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
In 1980 these were deployed at Greenham and at Molesworth in Cambridge. So even without the camp, the base as a space represented the shifts of Cold War power play on the ground.
In December 1982 30,000 women formed a human ring around the camp. at the ‘Embrace the base’ demo. Day chosen as the third anniversary of NATO’s decision to deploy cruise missiles in Europe.
A few weeks later, on New Years day, a group of protesters broke into the base and danced on the silos. The event became a point of entry for women from across the country to engage with a political campaign that was also a lifestyle or identity. These two examples of tactics used demonstrate the ways in which women’s gendered roles could be seen to bring something particular to the political form of the campaign; women’s nurturing role, and the politics of pleasure.
The model spread. There was a sister camps set up elsewhere, in my home town of Brighton for example. The camp gained International coverage and Celebrity support – Yoko Ono bought a small strip of land near the base that had a caravan on it women could use as a kind of respite, or safe-haven from the police.
Initially there had been men involved in the campaign, 4 men had been among the 40 original marchers, but women rapidly felt that there should be a synthesis between their political analysis and the way in which their campaign was structured. In the end men were asked to leave and only return as supporters during the day and to help facilitate the support networks from the outside.
Sasha Roseneil, explained that the significance of this was not that Greenham was feminist because it was women-only, but that it became women-only because it was feminist.
Greenham, and to an extent Upper Heyford, peace camps, took gender to a macro level – not just in terms of the significance it afforded gender, but in the way in which it acted as case study for the emerging political tensions in the 1980s. Different political structures, language and style were all seen through ideas of gender difference.
There were different camps around the base all named after colours of the rainbow. Each different identity, eg. Turquoise more new age and vegan, Violet more connected to organised religion. Green gate was exclusively female at all times and seen as more ideological or intellectual. . whereas one of the other gates allowed male visitors . Leading to a sense of collectivity despite difference as well as towards tensions as I will explore in a moment
Signs and symbols of protest were the product of a womanhood against war. Spiders webs were woven out of wool in the fences representing the network of individuals, whose strength only comes from working together
Using mirrors to symbolically reflect the camps evil back on the camp. and screw around with the security cameras. Collective singing brought together a chorus of individual voices and raised the spirits. Songs sung, like ‘You Can’t Kill the Spirit’, fed into long historical lines of folk song, or more contemporary anti-war songs adapted for the moment, as a form of political dissemination. So weekend visitors or visitors to the large organised events could take their songs back to their own communities, or in reverse bring their own heritage to the camp. Women chained themselves to the perimeter fence, reanimating the iconic protests of suffrage. Baby clothes, ‘symbols of life’, and pictures pinned to the perimeter fence demonstrated the women’s stewardship for future generations, their constituency, and was meant to shame the men inside the base and policing the camp. The importance of Quaker involvement in the peace campaign fed into the tactic of non-violent resistance in the face of arrest or eviction, but also maintained the act of ‘bearing witness’ as religious and political practice.
Taking a position of non-violent passive resistance, the acting out of women-centred peaceful politic, did not protect the women from attack. These women were also pilloried, attacked and ridiculed, often as middle-class, men hating lesbians.
Women lived in tents, having learnt that semi-permanent dwellings, or benders, used by some travellers, were too difficult to dismantle when evictions came. It was much easier just to pick up a tent whole and take it with you until time came to repitch.
Scores of women were charged with criminal damage. Long term effects of living on the camps could be exhaustion and burn out.
There were concerted efforts to evict the women, most notably in 1984 as well as attacks by both locals and apparently by soldiers on the base itself. The practicalities of the camp count.
There were Divisions and differences with in the camp. Sometimes these have been emphasised. The chorus of different women in the rainbow collective could descend into bitter disharmony in these harsh conditions.
I just want to share with you three minutes from our cooked resource Cheryl Slack, talking about the camp. Interviewed in 1985 for the Hall Carpenter Archive
So we can hear the different political approaches which spoke of more than adherence to policies or parties, instead they were statements of self. Who is like me? And how will these experiences change me? As well as the practicalities that reinforced those difference.
We could take this to create a version of feminist praxis filled with splits and fissures. But for me the possibilities of embracing difference, a universality of difference, is one of the most trangsressive possibilities of Greenham’s legacies. Or what we might call intersectionality.
Notable is the specificity of the conditions of different camps. Different camps had different problems. Yellow camp was most like an urban waste land, beset with traffic fumes and noise but had its own water supply. Women in Orange camp were right up against the perimeter fence. This was not a rural idyll. It represents elements of building a utopian community in harsh muddy conditions.
There were discussions over the specificity of experiences over race, for example, Yellow gate (in effect the main gate) was dominated by the Campaign for Wages for Housework. These women challenged what they saw as the white middle class assumptions of some of the of the activists. Despite the tabloid clichés about lesbians in dungarees there were also considerable differences and discussions over sexuality.
These discussions took place in a context in which Women’s nurturing role was not seen as artificially constructed, it was the essential element of a distinct identity. Often summed up in the use of the term Wimmin. Or in strands of feminist separatism that saw feminism as a Spiritual force,linked to the earth. But Greenham women also had ideological and practical links with women campaigning over the Miners’ Strike, Northern Ireland and with other groups. Showing how motherhood and sisterhood were both global political bonds. (One audience member at the Rest is Noise festival, who had herself spent considerable time at the camp pointed out the high number of women who came to the camp from around the world (e.g South Africa, New Zealand, Australia) particularly the implications that these women brought with them political experiences from their home context, such as indigenous rights, or environmentalism. It struck me that once again the brought together the ideology of womanhood as the maternal guardian of the earth, and the practical skills and tactics from campaigning in a global context. It also attests to the women at the camps abilities to utilise their networks and webs to get the message out there, despite the mainstream press and media response).
So for me, Greenham was a point at which feminist theory and women’s activism met. There is a direct relation between the practice and analysis of women at Greenham and with the development of woman centred analysis of patriarchy as a macro structure. I’ll close now, but I’d just like to point out the two big lessons that I’ve taken from Greenham. Firstly, that everyday experiences and practical conditions can emphasise difference. But secondly, that a web of difference can be truly life changing and transgressive.
 Sam, Carroll, Brighton Women’s Peace Camp, 1983: Second Wave Feminism and the Women’s Peace Movement University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, 8, 2005