Greenham Common at 40: We came to fight war, and stayed for the feminism

In 1982, Julie Bindel joined 30,000 women ‘embracing the base’ in protest over nuclear arms. Here she recounts the pivotal role the protest played in their lives

In September 1981, 32 women, four men and several children marched from Cardiff to Berkshire to protest over nuclear weapons being sited at RAF Greenham Common. The following year, the founders declared the camp “women only”, and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp became one of the longest and most famous examples of feminist protest in recent history.

The camp was set up outside the RAF base to protest against US nuclear weapons on British common land. Facing police and soldiers, the women sang: “Are you on the side of suicide, are you on the side of homicide, are you on the side of genocide, which side are you on?”

As a child, Rebecca Mordan was taken to Greenham by her mother. “Her mind was completely blown and radicalised,” says Mordan. “She was on the telephone tree and watched the tents at night so the women could sleep. She was at the ‘University of Feminism’.”

Along with dozens of women, over nine days, Mordan is retracing the original route taken from Cardiff in 1981, arriving at Greenham Common this Friday. A weekend of festivities on the common will build up to the anniversary two days later.

“We don’t want women to die and take their Greenham stories with them,” says Mordan, who built the website Greenham Women Everywhere, and co-authored a book, Out of the Darkness, based on stories from the camp. In the years between 1981 and 2000, when the camp was handed back to locals, more than 70,000 women demonstrated, danced, sang and took direct action such as taking bolt cutters to fences and storming the watchtowers. It was the largest female-led protest since the women’s suffrage movement in the 1900s.

“The cruise missiles did go, international law did change, the common was handed back to the people, the camp cost millions of pounds for the Americans, and these women spoke at the UN. Thousands and thousands of women were radicalised, even those who only came for a weekend. It opened their minds to their oppression, introduced middle-class women to working-class women. It was proper intersectional feminism,” says Mordan.

The Greenham camp and its slogans, “Arms are for linking” and “Fight war, not wars”, soon became an embarrassment to the British and US governments.

In 1982, when I joined 30,000 women travelling to Greenham to “embrace the base”, the only means of publicity had been a chain letter sent via women’s groups. “People … hear about Greenham and think ‘middle-aged women’ and immediately shutdown,” says Mordan.

However, women of all ages, classes and circumstances came to Greenham. “We need to preserve the heritage of Greenham women. Kids and young people always say, ‘Why don’t we know about this?’ It’s cultural robbery,” says Stephanie Davies, former Greenham woman and author of Other Girls Like Me.

“When people talk about Extinction Rebellion, they talk about the suffragettes, but they don’t mention the Greenham women,” says Davies. “The camp provided me with a safe space from male violence, and I saw that with many other women there, especially those that escaped abusive relationships.”

For many women, the camp offered a place to form solid female friendships
For many women, the camp offered a place to form solid female friendships. Photograph: Steve Bent/ANL/REX/Shutterstock/Steve Bent/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

I remember going to the women-only club Rackets in Islington on Friday nights. A van-load of Greenham women would turn up and have a wash in the toilets before wildly dancing and drinking pints. They were instantly recognisable with their colourful mohawks and grubby clothes smelling of woodsmoke. By living at the camp, many heterosexual, married women realised they didn’t have to bother with men at all and took up relationships with women. Much of the tabloid media was prejudicial and referred to Greenham inhabitants as “dirty, filthy lesbians” – it was handy to condemn leftwing feminists and anti-war activists with one toxic slur.

Greenham was never my cup of tea. I was campaigning to end rape and domestic violence during those years, and the nurturing, caring objectives of women fighting for peace fitted the sexist stereotypes of women. Camping in freezing weather and eating endless lentil stew added a further deterrent.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to the idea of Greenham because, for one thing, lesbianism and close relationships between women became normalised, with the possibility of alternative relationships opening up to women who might never have considered it. This was a time when homophobia was rampant, ahead of section 28, and lesbians were losing custody of their children to violent spouses.

Another appeal was how activists made connections between policing, militarism, war and everyday male violence towards women.

Despite the camp, the first cruise missiles came to Greenham in 1983, but protests continued through the 80s, with many women taken to court, fined and even jailed. The signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty between the US and Russia in 1987 paved the way for the removal of cruise missiles from Greenham between 1989 and 1991. The US air force left the base in 1992, followed by the UK. The peace camp remained as a continuing protest against nuclear weapons until 2000.

Now part of Greenham is a business park and the rest is common land.

Rebecca Johnson arrived at the camp in 1982 and lived there for five years. She is the director and founder of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and vice-president of CND.

“Many of us came for the nuclear weapons and stayed for the feminism. But 40 years on, it seems all the same battles are still being fought. We made connections with women across the world who were also experiencing war and conflict,” says Johnson.

Perhaps nostalgia plays a part in terms of the joy that the camp gave women who had never been able to live outside the heterosexual family unit or the control of men. Women living communally on a massive scale must have been the best consciousness-raising group in the history of feminism.

Contributor

Julie Bindel

The GuardianTramp

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