Weaving webs: From Greenham to feminist climate activists

Rebecca Johnson reflects on the fortieth anniversary of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp started unexpectedly forty years ago. Though unplanned, Greenham became the most inspirational focus of protests against nuclear weapons and war.  Over a decade, Greenham Women wove webs of resistance that carried feminist solidarity into actively confronting not just the weapons but all aspects of nuclear colonialism and violence against women and girls.   

Our lives were lived under the perpetual shadow of nuclear weapons, war and military-industrial ideologies of supremacy. The cruise missiles that NATO deployed at Greenham were supposed to avoid detection by ‘melting into the countryside’ and flying below Soviet radar.  These missiles delivered warheads with 16 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. They were designed to fight a nuclear war in Europe that American strategists believed they could win, with four minutes’ warning for us and Russian families ‘on the other side’. Radiation sickness, nuclear winter, and a slower death by starvation for people around the world who weren’t immediately incinerated would follow.

Women flocked to Greenham because we knew that ignoring these existential threats wasn’t an option. Just like the climate activists who block roads today, we understood there is no Planet B.  Heading for Greenham was the rational and passionate choice made by tens of thousands of women in the 1980s, including me.  After encircling the nuclear base, occupying and closing it with three or thirty-five thousand women at a time, millions carried Greenham home to towns and countries across the world, weaving webs of activism across military divides.     

The Camp was started by Welsh women walking from Cardiff. They were only asking for a public debate about nuclear policies when they arrived at the nuclear base on September 5th 1981.  Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine ignored us and set up a dirty tricks unit in the Ministry of Defence to undermine us with vilification and lies.  After a decade of concerted feminist activism, thousands of arrests and protests that we took to the Soviet Union as well as the American courts, Greenham women oversaw the ending of the 40 year US occupation of Greenham Common. We waved as the missiles and their launchers were loaded onto planes and sent home for elimination in accordance with the 1987 US-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  

Greenham Women had succeeded.  However, as this was done collectively by women who used strategies and tactics that baffled men in power, we were largely omitted from Cold War histories, though President Gorbachev paid public tribute to Greenham Women and the European peace movement for making the INF Treaty possible.

Where once Greenham women braved military guns and imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act as we cut security fences, sang and danced with defiance and determination, now children and dogs are taken for walks and families now hold picnics.  The Greenham Control Tower, which I occupied with two other women and a double bedsheet banner for five hours in December 1983, has recently been turned into a museum to the Cold War, while empty silos feature in Star Wars movies.  Wild ponies graze where planes laden with nuclear and chemical weapons used to land. 

Greenham commemorations

This year, during the weekend of September 3 – 5th, a diverse crowd of peace and climate activists headed to Greenham to exchange ideas and bring our struggles and songs up to date.  We mourned the loss of mothers, sisters and friends who have died. We picked blackberries and welcomed the oak, ash and rowan trees that grow on the Common again.     

Younger women wanted to know more about what Greenham women did to get rid of the nuclear missiles.  Their questions prompted reflections on the significance of Greenham’s feminist rebellion against militarism and nuclear weapons for people today. 

To illustrate and explain, we took groups to visit the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp, established by Greenham women in 1985 at the gates of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, just a few miles west of Greenham.  They needed to see for themselves where Britain is still making nuclear warheads to arm Trident on nuclear submarines.  Staring through lines of security fences, one young climate activist exclaimed, ‘This is all so terrible and wasteful. Why are they still making nuclear weapons?” 

Greenham Women took on NATO at the height of US-Soviet dominance, when over 50,000 nuclear weapons threatened all life on earth.  Today’s activists are beset by Covid and the climate emergency – and they also need to get rid of the remaining 13,000 nuclear weapons.  As in the 1980s, today’s existential threats are caused and embedded by the structures and attitudes of patriarchal power that use and maintain destructive ideologies and industries that perpetrate violence and suppress the needs and rights of women, children and our Mother Earth.  

We discussed how Greenham women challenged the deterrence narratives and made common cause across borders to undermine the nuclear armed blocs and bureaucracies.  Bringing nuclear disarmament imperatives up to date, we shared copies of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), colloquially known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Multilaterally negotiated under UN auspices by over 130 UN nations in 2017, this Treaty finally entered into international legal force on January 22nd 2021.  

Britain shamefully followed the Trump Administration in boycotting the UN negotiations and trying to exert political and financial pressure on other governments not to sign and ratify.  The response from the climate activists was immediate: ‘What can we do to get the UK to sign and get rid of Trident?’  

Driving round AWE Burghfield, we showed where warheads are packed with explosives and loaded onto trucks that drive on public roads to and from Scotland, where they are deployed on American Trident missiles and taken to sea on Britain’s nuclear powered submarines. 

These young activists are inheriting a planet that is still dominated by patriarchal military-industrial economies, politics, expectations and decision making.  These are the main drivers of climate destruction, wars and increased insecurity at all levels.  As feminists and Greenham women, we experienced considerable violence from police, soldiers and vigilantes, and were vilified for our activism, independence and sexual choices that rejected pressures to conform to society’s heteronormative stereotypes.   

Today’s women and girls have to contend with added burdens of silencing and violence that are promulgated through social media and unscrupulous sex, porn, drug and cosmetic industries that abuse, control and make big money out of the bodies and minds of vulnerable women and children.

The use and abuse of women and children are core features of patriarchal power constructs.  Wars, militarism, mining and industrial agri-pharma businesses are also major contributors to climate destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.  Many Greenham women identified as ecofeminists, and helped to change the nonviolent approaches and ways of working that many peace and environmental activists practise today.   

Nonviolence, like violence and militarism, is profoundly gendered. Yet this was seldom discussed before Greenham challenged the patriarchal leaders and preachers of ‘passive resistance’, who dominated discussions about ‘nonviolent direct action’.  Unlike most men, very many women who came to Greenham had survived domestic and sexual violence. It didn’t take long for us to discuss how male leaders’ instructions to sublimate fear and anger and resist ‘passively’ were not useful for women to follow. 

To liberate the creativity and power necessary for women to be more effective activists, Greenham developed feminist strategies and tactics of nonviolence that did not suppress anger and fear but channelled them into transformative power to oppose state and individual uses of violence.  We drew energy by combining our passion for life and justice with strategies to change the patriarchal status quo.  Greenham’s contribution was to demonstrate that nonviolence is not merely the refusal to use violence, but an active, empowering and transformative praxis to challenge, delegitimise and, where possible, neutralise all forms of personal and political violence. 

It is impossible to summarise the significance of Greenham in a thousand words. But in the exciting discussions with young climate activists who came to the inspiring fortieth anniversary this month, we shared insights that will reverberate in all our lives as we tackle military-industrial destruction and build feminist peace and climate justice for the future.  

Dr Rebecca Johnson is an ecofeminist security, peace and justice campaigner. She is Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and a co-founding strategist and organiser of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She lived at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp for five years.

Main image: Greenham Women on Nuclear Silos 1 January 1983. Photo credit Raissa Page. Image in text:  Greenham silos with ponies 2000    Photo credit Reb Johnson.

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