Forty years ago a small group of women, along with a few men and children in buggies in tow, left their homes in Wales to protest against the arrival of US nuclear warheads at RAF Greenham Common. The steps they took that day would lead to the establishment of the Greenham women’s peace camp, which at its height gathered more than 70,000 women for direct action and became the biggest female-led protest since women’s suffrage.
Now hundreds more will march 130 miles to mark the 40th anniversary of the camp and call for the original women who led it to be remembered and respected as much as the suffragettes.
The march coordinator, Rebecca Mordan, whose mother took her to Greenham Common as a child, said she wanted to raise awareness of the march and subsequent 19-year camp and cement the women’s place in history.
“These were the biggest female-led events since suffrage, and these women radicalised a generation and had as much impact as the suffragettes,” she said. “We owe a huge amount to them.”
The commemorative march will leave Cardiff on 26 August, arriving at Greenham Common in Berkshire on 3 September after retracing the original route taken in 1981 by 36 people. More than 200 people have signed up – mostly women, but also some men and children, much like the original march, said Mordan.
“I really love that we will be walking in each other’s footsteps – finding out what it’s like to be an activist today, finding out what it was like to be a Greenham woman. There’s going to be so many positive, powerful structures that come out of that – like the creation of a Greenham web.”
The march, created with many of the women who had marched to Greenham or who lived and visited the camp during its lifespan, will stop overnight in the same places as the original – Newport, Chepstow, Bristol, Bath, Melksham, Devizes, Marlborough and Hungerford – with a “thank you ceremony” held in each followed by a weekend of festivities on the common. A two-day bike ride will set off from Cardiff to Greenham Common on 2 September.
Ann Pettitt, who devised the original idea in 1981, said she remembered spending most of her time on the march in phone boxes trying, and mainly failing, to generate press interest.
“It’s wonderful and it’s important that we remember what happened. There haven’t been many actions just by women, and, of course, it was actually successful,” she said. “We wanted to sound the alarm to the public about the imminent and real catastrophic threat that the nuclear arms race was escalating out of control.”
Sue Lent, another of the original walkers, said she had set off with her husband and one-year-old baby only expecting to walk for one day, but had been so welcomed she had carried on all the way to Greenham. “It was a bit like going away for a school trip and feeling a bit apprehensive but also excited,” she said.
Once at Greenham some of the group decided that if they were to capture public attention they would have to chain themselves to the base. “And then they just stayed,” she said.
Despite national and local opposition, including vigilante groups that attacked the camp, ever greater numbers came to stay for the day or much longer. In 1982 the camp was declared women only and in December of that year 30,000 women joined hands around the base at the “embrace the base” event.
“That was the moment when you felt that it sent a message right around the world,” said Pettitt. “The night before, I walked around the camp and you could hear voices from all over Europe and further afield. It was just extraordinary, it gave me the shivers.”
On New Year’s Eve the same year women used ladders to climb over the barbed wire fence and danced on top of the missile silos. In April 1983 about 70,000 protesters formed a 14-mile (23km) human chain. The women were repeatedly evicted, arrested and imprisoned – and in 1989 the 22-year-old Welsh activist Helen Thomas was killed when she was hit – accidentally, ruled an inquest – by a West Midlands police vehicle.
Greenham became one of the longest protests in history – and while the last missiles left the base in 1991 as a result of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty (INF), women remained at the camp until 2000 to fight for a memorial on the site and ensure it was returned to the public.
“I’m proud that I went,” said Lent. “I think what Greenham teaches us is that you should never doubt that a small number of people can make a difference. Even if you don’t think you can do anything, you should do it anyway.”
Pettitt, the author of Walking to Greenham, said the need for protest was as great as ever. “Now I think the imminent and present threat is climate change and I hope that the women on this commemorative march will be able to make the case for the need for urgent action.”
Mordan, the artistic director of Scary Little Girls, the feminist production company coordinating the march, has also created Greenham Women Everywhere with Kate Kerrow at the Heroine Collective and with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Over 18 months they interviewed about 200 women who were at Greenham and, with them, created a website featuring more than 200 hours of audio and photos and written testimonies.
“I realised that no one younger than me seemed to have heard of Greenham, which was just the most outrageous cultural robbery,” said Mordan. “I just thought, we can’t have them all die eventually, and then there’s no one telling anyone about it. It’d be awful and we can’t let that happen.”
This article was amended on 22 August 2021 to correct the name of the Greenham Common protest marcher Sue Lent. An earlier version called her Sue Law.