The Legend of Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp
A poster showing women, including Rebecca Johnson, arrested after the silo dance at Greenham Peace Camp.
by Sophie Mayer
I never went to Greenham Common peace camp.
I was a child during the main years – between 1981 and 1987. I don’t remember seeing any news coverage of the camp, especially compared to my vivid memories of reports on the miners’ strike.
But the legend of Greenham – an alternative world created by and for women activists – was something I absorbed during my feminist becoming. Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson’s documentary Carry Greenham Home (1983) was my first encounter with the rich, diffuse archive of Greenham stories. Here were women singing ‘Which Side Are You On?’ into police officers’ faces at the gates of the base; women organising life in benders and tents, from staking tarpaulins to giving birth; hauling ladders, debating money, learning skills and ideas from each other, living life openly, unrepentantly.
From the first arrivals, Welsh anti-nuclear feminist group Women for Life on Earth, in 1981, to the 30,000 women who formed a human chain in 1983 from the American nuclear base at Greenham to Aldermaston, the Greenham Common Peace Camp is a shining example of non-violent feminist action, changing both lives and laws.
Over half a decade, hundreds of thousands of campaigners travelled to the site to protest the storage of cruise missiles on UK soil, and to campaign for multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation. Having decided collectively to create an all-female camp after incidents of rape early on, Greenham Common became a high-profile, long-lasting experiment in feminist co-operative living. “The women of Greenham Common taught a generation how to protest,” noted Beeban Kidron.
30 years later, as both Trident and the bombing of Syria are causing divisions among the left, we felt a strong need to revisit the powerful example of Greenham Common, which is under-represented in mainstream histories, and join hands between different generations of feminist activists practising non-violence as a strategy.
I felt a clear yearning for a utopian moment (in the sense of hopeful, rather than perfect) that took place before I could be involved in it. So I agreed with alacrity when Selina Robertson and Sarah Wood, co-founders of queer feminist film curators Club des Femmes (of which I am a team member), suggested that we programme a weekend of Greenham-related films and talks on 23-24 January as part of The Time is Now, a nationwide schedule of feminist screenings. We called it: Bringing Greenham Home.
Both Selina and Sarah had direct memories of Greenham. As Sarah narrates in her short film ‘Three Minute Warning,’ her secondary school teachers (who included the great-niece of Emily Wilding Davison) led a trip to the base, during which one of the teachers was arrested and Sarah discovered her inner resistance. Selina grew up near the base, and – while she never visited – she had a direct sense of another world being possible, almost on her doorstep.
We knew that the weekend would allow different histories and memories to come together and speak to each other – but we had no idea how literal this would be, or the possibilities it would open up.
As we put the programme together, we made more and more connections. Greenham played an important role for feminist experimental filmmakers such as Lis Rhodes and Tina Keane. Keane’s film ‘In Our Hands Greenham’ (1984) offers a perfect metaphor for what we were attempting, as it shows footage from the protest camps framed by the cut-out outlines of a woman’s moving, dancing hands. We tapped into the vast Greenham network that still exists. We approached two speakers, Anna Reading and Sasha Roseneil, having discovered their academic research about Greenham – only to discover that their research was personal, and that they had both been at Greenham as teenagers.
Sasha Roseneil writes powerfully about the feminist imperative of subjective, situated research. Both she and Anna Reading talked about their personal experiences from the stage at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, where we held the event, before and after the screening of Carry Greenham Home and Caroline Goldie’s documentary Greenham Granny (1986).
But more than that: they talked through their personal experience. They shared what they had learned from Greenham: that ‘the personal is political’ doesn’t mean white feminist confessionals and navel-gazing. It means that thinking deeply about personal experience leads us to connect with others, to see that our experiences are shaped by social and political construction, and so are a point from which to begin both conversation and collective activism. As Lis Rhodes says on the voice-over of her short film on Greenham with Jo Davis: “The more she respected her own experience, the more she heard, the more she learned.”
By having speakers who had been at Greenham and thought through Greenham, the event created its own mini-iteration of the camp – felt most strongly when Anna Reading led us all in singing Greenham protest song ‘Building Bridges.’ There were many women in the audience who had been at the protest who were able to pass on direct testimony, for example, about what the lorries were bringing in and out of the gates, and about the continuation of anti-nuclear protests at Aldermarston and Faslane.
Sasha Roseneil spoke about the peace camps as queer, intersectional spaces, where both gender diversity and indigenous land rights were part of the discussion. Younger audience members asked about organisational strategies, about persistence, and about choosing how and what to protest, at a moment that seems overwhelmingly negative. An audience member who in 1985 was involved in organising school strikes against ‘Youth Training Scheme’ conscriptions – a precursor to today’s ‘Workfare’ – offered a valuable reminder that “victories were won under Thatcher, so victories can be won under this government.”
We called the weekend Bringing Greenham Home in an echo of the film’s title, but it also became a metaphor for what happened, as ideas circulated between generations and the event itself became an archive. Staff at the Rio cinema found a box of photographs in their basement showing the Hackney Women’s camp outside the town hall around the 1983 general election. In that same basement, another moment of exchange and continuity occurred: during our second screening day on Sunday, we were planning to show Lucy Reynolds’ ‘Silo Walk’, a short film and performance of ‘Silo Song’ – but she wasn’t able to attend and we thought we would have to shelve it. By the co-incidence that had already revealed itself as the power of the network, when anti-nuclear activist Rebecca Johnson introduced herself to us the originator of ‘Silo Song’ and a participant in the New Year’s Day silo dance. She lived locally and had popped in to hear her song sung by someone else, only to find herself singing it, and explaining its history.
In her article ‘Singing For My Life: Memory, Nonviolence and the Songs of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp,’ Anna Reading talks about the significance of song at Greenham, and of the presence of arts and culture as part of life in the peace camp. She argues that inventing a new way to live included, and was enabled by, developing new forms of cultural expression that eschewed heteropatriarchal, militarised dominant narratives. As Carry Greenham Home captures, the Greenham camps were a site of invention and creation as a strategy of protest against negation and destruction, and that the protests were often both beautiful and funny. Writing during Occupy, Rebecca Johnson describes the wit and inventiveness of the Greenham women’s chosen strategy of non-violence:
Entering the base to hold teddy-bear picnics covered in sticky honey and dancing on the nuclear silos were funny as well as compelling, and there is something very absurd about heavily armed soldiers unable to protect their masters’ nuclear weapons from sticky, unstoppable women.
The sight of protestors in homemade furry animal costumes jumping barbed wire and running away from armed soldiers provoked waves of surprised, delighted laughter at the screening, at the realisation of what was possible, as well as relief from the often tense confrontations.
A film screening is not a protest camp. But it is a meeting place: not just a meeting of minds silently absorbing the same sound and image, but a potential site of discussion, exchange and action. And not just for audiences: what the weekend brought home for me is that it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t be at Greenham, I still can be. Not only by learning from the tactics and practices, but by caring for the archives, oral histories and experimental art that emerged from the protests. Cinenova, in particular, demonstrates how Greenham activism can also take place through film, as they continue to make available several decades of rare and under-represented intersectional feminist film from around the world.
Films, songs, and writing can be ‘sticky [and] unstoppable’ too, but like protests, they need to be in our hands. Keeping them in the public eye, enabling new conversations to arise from them, learning with them, we can bring them home.
Piece originally published at Open Democracy |
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.
About the Author:
Sophie Mayer is a poet, critic and feminist film activist. She is the author of Political Animals: The new feminist cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009), and the co-editor of Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (English PEN, 2012). She works with Club des Femmes, Raising Films and the F-Rating towards a more inclusive cinema. @tr0ublemayer