The Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common stood for almost two decades, from 1981 until the base was returned to common land in 2000. The military airstrip started life during WW2 when it was used by both British and American forces. Following the end of the war, it was handed over to the Americans forces who subsequently used it as a base for their European nuclear deterrent. The Peace Camp was at its most active in the years 1983 to 1991, while American nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were stationed at the base. The Women’s Peace Camp attracted significant media coverage for both the scale and creativity of their protest as well the women-only policy in place from 1982 onwards.
It was 1983 and Jane was a 21-year-old PhD student when she heard about the Women’s Peace Camp. She was having a miserable time at Glastonbury Festival: the hedonistic party atmosphere did not suit her, the Festival was hit by some of the worst rain in 45 years and Van Morrison’s performance – which she had been particularly looking forward to – had left her underwhelmed.
However, when two Greenham women took to the stage in between acts and challenged the audience “If you can come and camp in the mud for a good time, come and do it to save the planet!”, for Jane, ‘it was an invitation and it went straight to my heart’.
Four years previously the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, reigniting Cold War tensions. Ronald Reagan then succeeded Jimmy Carter as President in 1981, bringing with him a hawkish approach to Cold War diplomacy. The threat of nuclear war loomed large, and Jane recounts feeling this particularly strongly: ‘The whole policy of Mutually Assured Destruction along with everything else going on, I believed nuclear war could happen any day, we all did.’
A few months after that encounter at Glastonbury, Jane had made her way to Greenham Common. She took part in the ‘Embrace the Base’ action, where 30,000 women stood holding hands around the 14-mile perimeter fence. She subsequently joined a Greenham support group before going on to work at the movement’s London safe house. From here, she would make frequent trips down to the protest itself. The house had been gifted rent-free by the Greater London Council and it functioned as one of the social and administrative hubs for the Greenham movement.
I meet Jane for our interview at her home, in a sleepy Spanish village nestled in the mountains of the Sierra de Gata. She moved here with her family some 15 years ago, and the idyllic rural surroundings are a far cry from the intensity of her previous life of protest.
I ask her to reflect on what she felt the objectives of the Peace Camp were, and she explains to me how they had ‘essentially two prongs – practically to sabotage the missiles, and secondly to bring about a shift in the mentality that could defend the use of such weapons.’
These objectives were not distinct, however, and Jane explains the interconnectedness of their objectives: ‘We wanted to show the fallacies of using nuclear weapons for defence, how could they really defend anyone if they were so vulnerable to nonsensical actions by women in jumpers and wellies?’
She tells me about how the protest camps at each of the base’s entrances were named after colours of the rainbow and how on one occasion women broke into the base and danced on the nuclear missile silos. On one Easter, women climbed the barbed wire fence and broke into the base dressed as bunnies, another time as teddy bears, and on another occasion protesters broke in and defaced an SR-71 supersonic spy plane by painting “bye bye blackbird” onto its radar-absorbing bodywork, putting the cutting edge plane out of service for weeks.
The Peace Camp – being women-only for almost its entire existence – was intrinsically linked with feminism, as well as taking on a spiritual dimension. Women tied items of personal importance to the fence, hung mirrors to reflect the base back upon itself and frequently used the symbol of a spiders web to symbolise feminine connectedness.
Jane recounts to me how ‘a world in which nuclear weapons were supposedly keeping us all safe was one underpinned by patriarchy, murder, violence, terror and nightmares. Greenham was about dissolving that and countering it with positive feminine energy. It was empowering and softening, creativity over destruction.’
“Greenham was saying look at this in a different way, put these glasses on and be a bit crazy. It was about getting your power back. It was come and play – the thing about Greenham was, it was tremendous fun, it was such a gas! It was terrifying, it was hard, it was painful, it was getting darker and darker and I thought the world was on my shoulders and I had to save it and all that bullshit, but it was just so fun!”*
We move onto how she felt the Peace Camp was perceived in the mainstream at the time. She tells me about the letters of support and donations the group received from around the world, and how people would turn up to the base to offer help and supplies. However, she also felt that ‘mainstream society was pretty indignant that women dictated a situation as needing to be women-only. This really was quite shocking in those days, and these women were mouthy!’
She also laughingly recounts how she felt the media often presented the women as ‘lunatic dole scroungers having a holiday doing nothing outside a military establishment where hardworking people did their best to protect society’.
Nevertheless, on a more serious note, Jane speaks of the regret she feels about the tension between the locals and the protesters. ‘There were times when it was hard to go anywhere if you smelt of woodsmoke, it was predictable I suppose, but it became a situation of “us” and “them”, it made me feel uncomfortable because I felt it was difficult to be anything more than just a representative. Someone to be either afraid of or to despise.’
We move onto discussing the police evictions of the camp, how they would arrive late at night or early in the morning and destroy or confiscate the camp’s equipment, including tents and sleeping bags. I ask Jane how the women coped in the face of such adversity, and she explains to me the power of feeling part of a long history of anti-war protest, of female protest and how when ‘you were with your sisters and you linked arms with them and you could look a soldier in the eye and you could say “and?”; and he didn’t have an answer!’*
Greenham was about more than protesting missiles, it also challenged traditional conventions of what a woman could be. At Greenham, women were able to dictate their own terms. They could be non-heterosexual, cut their hair short, live in the mud, climb barbed wire fences, swear and not shave. Indeed, this feeling of female liberation went far beyond the camp’s perimeter: Jane tells me of the ‘Greenham Women are Everywhere’ slogan, and how it represented all women including a ‘5th column of invisible, decent, lipsticked Greenham women in bed beside you!’
After three years dedicated to the Peace Camp, Jane left the movement. The Greater London Council was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and with it the London safehouse where she was based was lost.
She tells me that by this time she was ‘burnt out, the internal struggles were beginning to reflect the ugliness of the world around us, and when we lost the safe house it was a watershed moment for me, I just let go, really, of my connections and got on with living in London full time.’
Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, American forces handed the base back to the Ministry of Defence who subsequently deemed it surplus to requirements. However, the Women’s Peace Camp remained at Greenham Common until 2000, when the decommissioned base was finally returned to common land.
Today, the expansive area once covered by the runway is a popular dog-walking spot, the air traffic control tower has been converted into a museum and a business park takes up the area where the barracks and offices were once situated. In that business park, nestled in the corner is a commemorative peace garden to the Women’s Peace Camp – standing as a historic reminder to their fight against the threat of nuclear war.
Greenham Common Today. Clockwise from top: Satellite view of the common and business park; the missile silos; the control tower now converted to a museum.
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* Jane M. “The politics of whimsy: an oral history of Greenham’s spiritualised politics”, transcript of an oral history conducted by Freya Marshall Payne on 3rd January 2018