On This Day: Women’s Activism at Greenham Common
Our placement student Emilia Bazydlo from University of Leeds has written the following post about just one of the groundbreaking moments in the history of peace activism to occur at the iconic Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.
On this day 37 years ago, on 1st of April 1983, 70,000 peace demonstrators formed a human chain of 14 miles to link Greenham, Aldermaston and Burghfield. At the same time 200 women from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp entered the RAF base dressed as teddy bears. Juxtaposing the softness of the childhood symbol against the highly militarised atmosphere of the base, these women were highlighting the need for safety of future generations.
The camp had started two years earlier as a protest against NATO’s decision to site American cruise missiles in Berkshire. In the beginning of 1982, it was decided that the protest should involve women only. It was a space to express women’s beliefs without the usual patriarchal dominance. The collective identity of women as mothers and carers was used to signify that the protest was about the future safety of children. And that is why at that moment a woman’s place was not in the home, but at the protest.
Di MacDonald, who donated multiple items to The Peace Museum, recalls her time at Greenham:
‘I went to the camp in 1982, and at the time of the first blockade I was still learning techniques for non-violent direct action – going limp and not cooperating with the police but not offering any resistance, that sort of thing. It was about making sure you didn’t hurt yourself or them, because we were concerned about everyone. […]
There weren’t a lot of women’s groups before Greenham, and those that did exist had formal structures, uniforms and captains, organised like the male model. But at Greenham, everyone was equal, and everyone had the opportunity to speak or not speak in a meeting, because there were no leaders. We had a saying: “The only stars are in the sky”. That made it very difficult for the police and politicians to manage; they needed a leader to talk to, but there wasn’t one. They were very frustrated and didn’t know how to react.
Being at Greenham taught me how ageist I was. I was about 40, and I thought that old people didn’t do protests, but I learned an enormous amount from women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lived on the camp and were brilliant. It’s interesting to reflect on that now, thinking of myself. It empowered women to think differently about their own abilities and be clear in their beliefs.’
The base was closed in 1992, however it is often said that it was rather a decision of dominant (i.e. male) politics, rather than the effect of women’s protest. Some people might debate whether those years of protest actually achieved anything. But ultimately it changed the nature of the protest, as Di MacDonald said. It was not only the space where a generation of women found their public voice, but also where values such as equality and interests of ordinary people played a crucial role. The legacy of Greenham is worth remembering, especially today.
Later this month we mark Equal Pay day which symbolises how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year. Catch another special blog then about the history of women’s pacifism.
The above banner made by Greenham activists features a map of the route taken, and is a noted part of our collection due to it’s spur of the moment nature compared to banners made by textile artists and banner makers.
The above banner is made by made by peace activist and noted Greenham banner artist Thalia Campbell.