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Revolting Women: Greenham Common

2011 September 8

This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”. Welcome back to Hannah Eiseman-Renyard

Greenham Common was, by all accounts, something epic: a peaceful campaign of sustained, cooperative occupation by women against the bomb – and it worked. From 1981 to 2000 the camp, based around RAF Greenham Common military base in Berkshire, protested the presence of the (American) nuclear weapons held there – and eventually the weapons were removed.

White button badge with I'm one of those COMMON WOMEN from Greenham! written in black on it. The first O in COMMON is a female symbol and the second O is a ban the bomb symbol. Photo from The Women's Library.Sidenote: on one occasion I went there in utero. How awesomecool is my momma?

Greenham Common had been an RAF base since 1941, and an American airbase since 1968. When the US moved 96 cruise missiles there in 1980, the protest began – forming properly in 1981. For years women, and their children too, lived in a makeshift camp in all weathers. Much like the Mothers of the Disappeared protest in South America, Greenham Common used the concept of maternal authority to lend weight to their campaign. The women of Greenham Common were not protesting just for themselves, but for everyone – for their children’s future, and for everyone else’s. They hammered this home with slogans like ‘when I grow up I want to be alive’ – and children’s clothes and children’s art were often part of the decorations tied along the fences.

Some children lived in the camp, too. I’m afraid this is where my statistics gets a bit fuzzy because over 19 years, and through different seasons, it probably changed more than a bit.

My mother reports the place was often a carnival:

…there were the usual collections of street performers and puppet shows to cheer us on… people on decorated bikes, that kind of thing … there was a lot of weaving things in the perimeter fence – rainbows, kid art, … the whole perimeter fence was very gorgeous. There were a lot of spiderwebs in the art. Spiderwebs were a big theme – I suppose the theme of weaving something, surrounding something.

Punks, too. Or Arachnes. Either way, I approve.

The women who lived there endured arrests, freezing and muddy conditions and the most rudimentary of provisions. Make no mistake – these were badass women. Muddy women, tired women, cold women, but strong, capable, mind-blowingly determined women, and women who were not afraid to use bolt cutters.

A large group of white women link arms in the mud and rain of the Greenham Common campNuclear weapons, they rightly argued, are not in anyone’s interest, and should not be anywhere. The protest was closely allied with CND, and it garnered respect and support from people of all walks of life. This Guardian video shows the mix and gives slightly more of an idea of what the protests were like than my second-generation verbal squeezing can do.

Over the ten main years of the protest many people came and went, but the backbone of it all were the base camps. There were nine of these, each based around a different set of gates to the base. Each base gained its own flavour and focus, with the Violet Gate formed of religious groups, the Blue Gate being much more new age, and the Green Gate being entirely women-only as a rule.

Personally I’m dubious about sticking a gender divide in an otherwise very uniting protest – but there were many places where men were welcome, too, and this simply was, from the start, a women’s movement. It was founded and organised by women’s groups (which in the 80s especially were fucking rad) – and women’s groups and unions around the country organised coaches to and from the big demos.

The campaign gained huge amounts of media attention in 1983 when around 70,000 protestors formed a human chain around the base, stopping movement in and out of it. (My mom was there!) With around 100 women being arrested for breaking in. (My mom didn’t do that bit.) The scale and success of the Greenham Common protest was widely credited with prompting similar actions elsewhere in Britain and Europe.

The base camp protestors were evicted on numerous occasions, but always returned before nightfall to set up camp again.

So – how did it all come to a close? In 1991 the weapons were removed – but many protestors stayed a further nine badass years until the final perimeter fences were removed and the Common was returned back to public land. Partly this was to make sure the land was returned, but partly, it seems, because a real community had formed and people were reluctant to leave it.

Above and beyond the call of duty – with rainbows and mud and sisterhood. I think I’m in love.

Further resources:


  • Hannah Eiseman-Renyard runs the Whippersnapper Press, a web-publishing site for short, innovative and funny creative writing. She is twenty-five and lives in North London with her three grandchildren and thirty cats. Her turn-ons include moss, handicrafts and Bohemian clichés.

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