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FORTY years ago this month, a group of women walked from Cardiff to RAF Greenham Common to protest at the stationing of US nuclear cruise missiles there. They were pointed at the Soviet Union.
The women, who didn’t intend to stay, did so and established a peace camp, with their invigorating presence drawing attention to the potential death soon to be lurking in the silos. Thus began one of the most famous symbolic actions of the 20th century.
Why would women not be for peace? We need it for development, nurture, friendship and love — a condition for a fulfilled life on the planet. But there were some like Margaret Thatcher who were not, who allowed the weapons in as a very hot element in the Cold War.
In fact the Greenham women, in a bravura display of organising power, set up many camps, one at each gate named after a colour — Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet — nature’s stunning prism that not even a nuclear weapon could destroy.
Neither could the military, police or Newbury District Council destroy the camps. The women were dragged off, tents and caravans smashed and towed away but their creative resilience produced benders made of plastic and wood to sleep in.
Curated and written by Charlotte Drew, how better to tell this story than her account of the making of the Greenham banners? This has its own skill and traditions, particularly in the labour movement and they have a direct lineage from the suffragette protests early last century. The banners, many of them beautiful, were as low-tech as the nuclear warheads were high.
I remember well the “embrace the base” day of action in December 1982, where 30,000 women from all over the country joined hands around the perimeter, leaving objects of significance on the fence — many of them children’s toys and a women’s collage for life, with soft toys and objects juxtaposed against the harsh barbed wire.
It brought to mind being on a Teachers for Peace delegation to Moscow in 1983 and speaking to a journalist there about how weird it felt walking around a city which was the target for American missiles based in my own country.
The dynamics of organisation described in the book are fascinating. Of course there were no men and some saw this as protest against the “masculinity” of militarism itself. Yet there were plenty of men on the initial march and many thousands in support who “got it.”
Yet this was a women’s thing. There was the famous action where women broke into the camp, climbed onto a silo, held hands and danced around it. How stunning is that – beautiful – life over death and destruction.
Camper Juliet Nelson took part, describing her feeling abut the missiles thus: “In my mind I saw them as revolting man-made boils on the Earth’s surface, full of evil.” Were they like St George, setting out to slay the dragon?
True, the withdrawal of the missiles happened between 1989-91, after the INF agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev. But who knows what pressures outside the negotiating room made that happen?
There can be no doubt that that the public consciousness raised by these courageous woman played its part. Courage — blood to the heart.
The last of the women left the camp on September 2000 and Greenham Common is now public land.
Published by Four Corners, £14.
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