The battle of Greenham Common is over. But their spirit still burns

It began with 36 women walking from Cardiff to an obscure RAF station in Berkshire in August 1981: at its height, the protests saw 50,000 women joining hands to surround the cruise nuclear missile base. Lorna Martin talks to four protagonists

It was 25 years ago next Sunday that a small group of women first marched, with a handful of children, to a Berkshire airbase to protest against cruise missiles in a campaign that would define an era.

In what became one of the most successful protest movements ever, pictures of the women of Greenham Common were flashed around the world as they campaigned against the presence of the US missiles at the RAF base there.

It began humbly, with a group of 36 women determined to safeguard their children's futures. On 27 August, 1981, they set off from Cardiff on a 120-mile, 10-day walk to the base, protesting against the announcement that cruise missiles were to be stored there. They set up camp on 5 September. It became women-only the following year. They would stage 'actions', or acts of protest, which ranged from lying down in front of lorries to threading paper doves and baby clothes into the perimeter fence.

On 12 December, 1982, 30,000 women gathered on the Common. On 29 October the following year, 2,000 used bolt cutters to cut down five miles of the nine-mile perimeter fence. Confrontations between sometimes hundreds of women, the local authorities, police and the military were often heated and heavy-handed, with hundreds of arrests over the years.

On 1 November, just two weeks before cruise missiles began arriving, the defence secretary Michael Heseltine told Parliament that intruders found near the missile silos ran the risk of being shot.

On 14 November, 1983, the first of 96 cruise missiles arrived, each carrying a warhead with the explosive power of 16 Hiroshima bombs. At the annual 'embrace the base' event the following month, 50,000 women encircled the fence. Although the missiles were removed from the base in the early nineties, a small number of women remained as part of a wider resistance to nuclear weapons. The last three left in 2000 to make way for a commemorative and historic site.

At its height, the camp was home to about 100 women. The debate still rages about whether they represented the protests of ordinary people or, as the press at the time often chose to portray it, were merely a band of peacenik feminists with a grudge against men.

Sarah Hipperson

Sarah Hipperson, 78, was the last woman to leave, having spent nearly 20 years there. Born in Glasgow's East End, she had trained as a midwife. Last year, she published a book Greenham Non-violent women v The Crown Prerogative and is the co-ordinator for the Greenham commemorative and historic site.

'I was involved in the peace movement even before I went to Greenham, but after a couple of visits I had made up my mind that I wanted to be committed to the cause. In March 1983, I started preparing my children for my departure. Three were at university; I was leaving two teenagers at home.

'It was exhilarating to see all these women, but it was no playground. There was no telephone, no toilets. We had to use a hole in the ground. It was shocking how primitive it was, but it was a case of giving up comfort for commitment.

'I was 55 and had never camped in my life, but I knew it was something I had to take on. We were treated in some places as heroines and in others as harridans. Shops in Newbury had signs on the door saying "No Peace Campers" and all the pubs, except one, refused to let us in.

'They tried so many ways to get rid of us. They sent us to prison - I've been 20 times. They tried to ban us from the common. They tried to take the vote away from us and destroy our right to reside there.

'There were two turning points. One was the mass eviction in 1984. At 6am, 600 police officers arrived. They took away everything, including our tents, and left us with only our sleeping bags for 10 weeks. It was during this time that someone firebombed the camp. They kept evicting us, sometimes five times a day.

'The other turning point was the decision to use bolt cutters to damage the fence. Some women realised that they could end up in prison and weren't prepared to go for that. They decided instead to continue their work away from Greenham, so the number of women at the camp diminished.

'In 1985, Michael Heseltine [then defence secretary] introduced new set bylaws, which made it a criminal offence to be inside the base without authorised permission. At the stroke of midnight, when the new law came into force, more than 100 women entered the base. All were charged with this new offence. But we were resolute in our determination to make the new bylaws unworkable. The case lasted four years, and ended with the House of Lords declaring the bylaws invalid in July 1990.

'Greenham struck at the politicians, the military, bureaucrats, the law, court and prison system. Our aim was to challenge the military and the system that protected it; to make it unworkable. That was achieved.'

Zoe Millington

Zoe Millington, 35, lives in Oxford and London and does community work. Her mother, Mary, went to live full-time in the camp when Zoe was 11. Zoe moved from Oxford to Nottingham to live with her father during her teenage years.

'Some people might think I would feel as if I'd been abandoned by my mum. But it was never like that at all. I was involved in making the decision and I think that was important. In some ways, it was a perfect arrangement. My dad wanted to spend a bit more time with me, and my mum got a chance to act on her beliefs.

'I would spend all the school holidays at Greenham, including some Christmases, and I remember feeling lucky to have had the chance to experience that.

'I'd been on peace marches when I was a little younger, but Greenham was different. There was a massive range of different women there and very passionate discussions taking place. I had the opportunity to be part of that, but was able to go back to my home comforts.

'In some ways it made me value living outdoors. The experience made me realise that people can get by with just the basics - water, food, shelter, a fire and community.

'Greenham was a very welcoming place, a very involved place for children. It wasn't as if children were spoilt at Greenham, but they did get plenty of attention. It was recognised that you may not have been there on your own account, and there was no pressure on you to take part in anything. I saw women participating in lively debates and discussions about practical issues and I saw a transformation in my mother.'

Lady Olga Maitland

Lady Olga Maitland, author and journalist, formed the Women and Families for Defence group in 1983 with Ann Widdecombe and Virginia Bottomley. Her organisation aimed to explain the need for a strong nuclear deterrent. She was a Tory MP from 1992 to 1997.

'I had seen demonstrations involving around 30,000 women joining hands around the perimeter fence and I felt very keenly that there must be much more to this story than a group of passionate, empowered women who were fearful of nuclear weapons. So I decided to sit with them for a couple of days in January 1983.

'There were so many conflicting messages coming out of Greenham. I realised it was educated, middle-class women who were spearheading the campaign. They had masses of food and bank accounts.I felt they were misleading people by saying that simply having these nuclear missiles on the airbase was a threat to their lives.

'I felt the women at Greenham had run away with an argument that was built on inaccurate information and misinformation. I felt very keenly that they needed to be challenged. The spirit of what they were arguing was very beautiful ... but they gave the impression that they spoke for Britain. I felt we had to rally the silent majority. We were saying that nuclear weapons are a legitimate deterrent. The most important thing is that the entire world should cut down on their nuclear stockpile.'

Chris Austen

Chris Austen is chair of the Greenham Community Association and vice-chair of Greenham Parish Council.

'Most of us who worked and lived round about the Common found the women a confounded nuisance and were very pleased when they went. They were not very accommodating to the locals. They held very extreme feminist views and wouldn't talk to men. If men went near their camp, they would be extremely hostile.

'Their camps were very unsightly and ramshackle. Some acquaintances of mine lived across from one of the camps. They desperately wanted to move, but their house was unsellable.

'The women had their rubbish collected and, for reasons of public health, were supplied with water. But they didn't pay rates, so the people of Newbury were basically having to subsidise them. Not only that, many were receiving state benefits. So not only did we have this nuisance on our doorstep, but we were also having to pay for it.

'I work with horses and would ride on the common every day. During some of the larger demos, I would have mud and stones thrown at me.

'On one particularly hot day, I took one of the horses to the river for a drink. A lot of women were bathing there and I asked one to move her child a bit, in case the horse knocked her over. They were very hostile and told me the horse shouldn't be in the river. I said they had no more right than the horse to be there.

'I felt that what Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did was absolutely right. The Cold War ended because we outspent the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe has been liberated because of that, and a nuclear Armageddon is not round the corner.

'If the women had had their way, I think the world would be a worse place.'


Lorna Martin

The GuardianTramp

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