August 26, 2021

If the 1970s was a period of political conflict and upheaval in the UK, the 1980s was a decade of endings and beginnings. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 marked the final defeat of the trades unions as a political force in Britain, by a conservative government led since 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. But alongside the humbling of the National Union of Mineworkers came a broader political emphasis on the self-sufficient individual.

“Who is society?” asked Thatcher in 1987, in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The unravelling of both state provision and large-scale political organisations was fertile ground for new forms of politics. Thatcher cannot have been pleased when one of these sprouted at Greenham Common RAF Base in Berkshire. The Greenham Women’s Peace Camp was an embodiment of women taking their lives into their own hands, taking responsibility for themselves and their actions, and not being held back by the fact of being women. Like a muddy, plural, mirror image of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, it reflected the new individualism in an emerging form of political dissent.

There has always a danger in reading history backwards from where we are now, of finding in it the seeds of how we understand the world today precisely because we’re looking for them. Out of the Darkness — a new book of stories about Greenham — is told by women who were there 40 years ago. It explicitly eschews any claim to be an official history, but the claim that the Women’s Peace Camp had a lasting influence on politics still deserves to be taken seriously.

Begun by a handful of peace campaigners who walked from Cardiff to the gates of an air base chosen to house American nuclear Cruise Missiles, the camp grew organically after a few people decided to stay on. It wasn’t initially women-only, but after several discussions, a vote was taken and the few men were asked to leave the camp.

The initial decision seems to have been pragmatic. “They didn’t do the washing up, help with the food, look after the kids,” said Jill ‘Ray’ Raymond, “they get drunk, they are violent and they won’t do the washing up.”

Bear in mind that 1981 was only six years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, seven years after contraception became available on the NHS, and eleven years after the first Women’s Liberation Movement conference in Oxford. Social expectations that women would do the housework and childcare, and defer to men, were still strong.

Some of the women also felt that non-violent direct action would be easier without men around, as situations were less likely to escalate. “Some of the squaddies wouldn’t want to hit a woman so they were more careful about violence,” said Fenja Hill. “It was probably less violent because there were no men.”

As the camp grew, though, its existence as a women’s peace camp became more important. Josetta Malcolm, who has since identified as non-binary, described their experience of a women-only camp as being “like therapy, it was like a political awakening…. to just see how things linked up about patriarchy, and nuclear arms, and war. Actually to be in a women-only space and then have your voice heard as a woman is so empowering.”

We can see in this a shift of emphasis from a shared external aim — getting nuclear weapons off the site — to more nebulous goals based on what we would today call identity. Certainly, it was an early example of who you are being as important as what you want to change. But in fact, the focus of the camp was never solely on a shared political aim. There was no plan, no organisation, no strategy and no leaders. These were seen as virtues, not failings.

The method of Non-Violent Direct Action, NVDA, rests heavily on each person taking personal responsibility for what they decide to do. There is no top-down discipline, just “affinity groups” that decide together what action to take. That makes it hard to predict, control or counter. Actions like blockading gates when the mobile cruise missile launchers were trying to leave the base, or cutting through the fence to dance on top of missile silos, disrupted military operations and in some cases embarrassed the government.

Without elected leaders, nobody is accountable to anybody else, except directly and informally. This was seen as in itself revolutionary, modelling an alternative form of society, one without hierarchies. Even the different camps at different gates were not identified by military names or numbers, but by non-hierarchical colours. Each camp developed its own character. Green Gate was spiritual, healing, close to nature. Turquoise Gate was vegan and Violet a refuge for carnivores. Orange Gate was home to families and had the best cake. “Main Gate” became Yellow Gate.

This diversity of the different camps was also seen as symbolic of a wider cause. Feminism was supposed to have room for all sorts of women, who might disagree politically or tactically, but nevertheless be united by the fact of being women. Shared life experiences bound them together, but it was assumed that simply being a woman was enough to outweigh differences.

Even deciding who was, or was not, a Greenham Woman was seen as needlessly divisive. “A Greenham woman is any damn woman who wishes to call herself a Greenham woman,” said Lorna Richardson. “I think it’s antithetical to both the spirit and the practicality of Greenham to divide women into camp women who lived there, and visitors who did not.”

The absence of structure and organisation came with limitations, however. Penny Gulliver recalled occasions when Blue Gate was asked to create a diversion for a big action planned by Yellow Gate. After she and her Blue Gate companions broke into the base and got arrested, “then you’d find out they’d had a row at Yellow Gate about who was going to take the pictures and then they called it off, but nobody came and told Blue Gate!”

Visual and symbolic protests were important. The Greenham veterans talk about reclaiming myths and symbols, witches and spiders’ webs, Moon Goddesses and the hand symbol, forefingers and thumb tips touching, that portrays the vulva. This idea of protest as performance or work of art today typifies a new kind of politics, less concerned with taking power and more with provoking an emotional response, both in those witnessing and in those taking part.

“I think Greenham gave me the confidence to be a woman — to be who I was.” said Sue Say, “and recognise that’s not always going to be the same as someone else.”

It’s not new for individuals to gain a sense of their own capabilities, their independence and agency, through taking part in political action. What is relatively new, though, is seeing such internal change as an end in itself. Asked about the lasting impact of Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, many of those involved talk about changes in themselves. Some of them became therapists, including Sue Bolton, for whom “it was about going right back into yourself and realising the whole thing starts from you… And then you change the whole world, just by being yourself and finding out who you are.”

Slogans like “Greenham Women Everywhere” and “Carry Greenham Home” evoke a sense of the camp, not as a tactical campaign to change UK defence policy, but as a state of mind. The mantra “The Personal Is Political” comes up again and again.

That phrase was first used by 1970s feminists, drawing attention to the fact that their home lives, who raised their children and even their intimate relationships were connected with the public world of politics. Laws governing access to abortion and contraception, or the legality of sexual relationships, had a direct effect on private lives. Many women went on from Greenham to work in women’s refuges, in social work or feminist campaigns.

But while women at Greenham were discussing what they should eat, how to share out the domestic work and what it meant to sleep with women instead of men, the meaning of the phrase evolved. Instead of somebody’s personal life reflecting political changes that needed to be made in the public realm, that personal life could itself embody change. Egalitarian cooking arrangements, lesbian sex or cutting off your long hair could be political acts in themselves.

Some aspects of life as a Greenham Woman are familiar from more recent political campaigns. A loose, non-hierarchical structure with no clear goals or strategies was adopted by the Occupy movements. Self-organisation on the basis of an identity, or shared lived experience, rather than around an external political goal, is now a permanent state of affairs. The Extinction Rebellion protests use aspects of Non-Violent Direct Action, though the movement does have leaders and centralised planning.

What has become a central feature of extra-Parliamentary politics, though, is the focus on self-expression. “I want my name on the list of people that says, ‘I do not think nuclear weapons is the right way to go,’” said Margaret McNeill. “It’s putting my name to this invisible charter that says ‘I was there, I witnessed this’.’” Today, the motto “Not In My Name’ has become a familiar sight on demonstrations; it is usually less of a threat to remove from power an elected government, more a disavowal of some policy or action that will go ahead anyway.

The struggle between the National Union of Mineworkers and Thatcher’s Conservative government was not about coal. It was about who had power in the country. The Greenham Women wanted to erode, if not the physical power of guns and missiles, the legitimacy of holding that power. They wanted to change the policies of those in government, but not to take that power for themselves. They explicitly rejected systems that centralised power, but they wanted to be visible, and to render visible aspects of themselves and their lives that they felt had been ignored or devalued.

Thousands of women spent time at Greenham, from a few hours to several years, and later said it changed their sense of themselves and what they could achieve. But did the camp succeed?

The last cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common in 1991 — but most would say that the end of the Cold War did more to bring that about than the constant presence of women at the camp. Some of the women stayed on until the land was finally returned to being a Common in 2000, after almost 60 years of military use. It is now home to arts and business projects, nature reserves and open space.

You could interpret these two changes as victories for decentralised, women-led, non-violent campaigning. Or you could say that change happened when those inside the fence, those with the political, legal and military power, laid down their arms, took down the fence and crept away. But whichever you think is true, Greenham still became a prototype for the shape of political protest today.