Politics

Reflections on Greenham, 11 December 1983

By Sarah Graham

Thirty years ago today, on 11 December 1983, 50,000 women gathered at Greenham Common to encircle the military base, where cruise missiles had arrived three weeks earlier.

The women held mirrors, symbolically reflecting the military’s image back at itself. The women later cut and pulled down sections of the surrounding fence. Hundreds of arrests were made.

This mass demonstration was known as ‘Reflect The Base’. Today, five Greenham women reflect on their experiences.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, Greenham Women’s Peace Camp 1982-1987 and Executive Director of Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy:
I had been living at the Women’s Peace Camp for 16 months and helped organise ‘Reflect the base’ on 11 December 1983. This was bigger, louder and angrier than our first big demo ‘Embrace the base’ on 12 December 1982, when 35,000 women had encircled the 9 mile nuclear base for the first time.

After two years of determined nonviolent actions, in which thousands of women had been arrested and imprisoned for “breach of the peace”, the Women’s Peace Camp faced our toughest time as the USAF flew their new generation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles over our heads in November 1983, and the Tory government gave the USAF legal powers to shoot us if we got in the way.

A month later 50,000 women came to Greenham to demonstrate our refusal to give up. Surrounding the base, we faced thousands of armed soldiers and police as we held up our mirrors so that they could see their own faces, guarding these nuclear weapons of mass suffering. Though some decorated the perimeter fence as we’d done in 1982, thousands of women pulled miles of fence down with our bare hands and woolly gloves, singing and chanting as only women can!

A month earlier I had been one of 13 Greenham plaintiffs in the US Centre for Constitutional Rights’s injunction to halt the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe. I had spoken in the New York Court with Rudi Giuliani, then attorney for President Reagan. We lost that case (to no-one’s surprise), so I went back to build a new bender (vigilantes destroyed my tent while I was away). So there I was, singing and reflecting the base with thousands of wonderful sisters. Like many others, I had a couple of fingers broken by soldiers lashing at our hands with metal bars.  But it was worth it.

I carried on living and campaigning at Greenham until 1987. Four years after we Reflected the Base on that bitter cold December day, Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan signed the historic INF Treaty in Moscow (8 December 1987), which banned and eliminated that whole generation of cruise, Pershing and SS20 missiles from Europe.

David Cameron’s mother was a Newbury magistrate, imprisoning Greenham women for our nonviolent actions to create peace and disarmament. And now Exmoor ponies graze by the empty silos on the Green and Common land. Newbury residents now stroll with pushchairs and dogs where we used to be beaten up and arrested. Do they look at the silos and pause a moment to think of the thousands of peace women who got rid of cruise missiles and restored Greenham for local people to enjoy?

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Reverend Zamantha Walker, Feminist Times member:
I was present at the Reflect the Base on 11th Dec 1983 when 50,000 women surrounded the base with mirrors. I went with other women from the University of Kent, where I was in my last year. We also took instruments to bring the walls down (somewhat biblical with echoes of the walls of Jericho being walked around brought down by noise and light!).

There was a large police presence with quite a few mounted police, some of whom I saw dragging some women away from the fence and being quite brutal about it. It was both a challenging and a hopeful occasion when solidarity of purpose and the number present strengthened our resolve.

The media were polarised in either (the majority) depicting only those women who appeared radically ‘different’ and presenting us as ‘the loony left’, or (a small minority) as sympathetic to the aims although cautious about how we were demonstrating. It was an incredible occasion and I recognised it as momentous at the time.

When I returned to camp it was interesting that in conversation with some of the British and Canadian soldiers in the base – the Americans weren’t allowed to have even eye contact with us! – they were often surprisingly sympathetic to our cause. As they said “cruise missiles are not a weapon of defence”

GreenhamEmbraceNetta Cartwright, Feminist Times Founder Member:
I went a few times to Greenham Common. The first time we had a couple of coaches full of women from Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent – we were mostly women from Women’s Liberation and Women’s Aid groups. We went to Embrace the Base.

When we arrived we were overwhelmed by the crowds of women jostling, singing and linking arms around the whole of the perimeter fence. We couldn’t see all of the women of course but when we held hands I started a hands squeeze with the woman next to me on the left and said pass it on and waited. After a while I got the squeeze back from the woman the other side. I like to think it had gone around the whole base.

We decorated and wove the wire with poems, ribbons, photos, flowers, and embroidery. It was a wonderful day full of songs and laughter and we carried on all the way home on the buses.

I went on another day later with a small group of women armed with wire cutters. When we arrived there were other groups too with the same intention. We cut the wire and many of the women went into the base and got arrested. I ended up holding on to a woman’s baby and hiding in the trees when dogs were set on us. I’m still the proud possessor of a piece of green wire from the fence, much to the interest of my granddaughter who saw a big display of  women at Greenham Common in the RAF museum at Cosford, Staffordshire.

Helen Scadding, Feminist Times member:
As we held hands around the perimeter of the fence there was this sense of amazement that there were enough of us to do this strange, and yet comforting thing. Holding hands gave a sense of purpose, of ritual, of not being alone, and of defiance.

The site is quite rural and the fence was quite inaccessible in parts, where there were dips and natural changes in the landscape around the fence and it was impossible to see that far, as it bent round and we had to watch our feet. So there were times when it felt like a dance and other times where we felt anxious that the chain would break, especially where the fence cornered in different places.

We all faced in towards the fence and tied or pinned photographs and letters and objects to the fence. Women tied on tampax, and beautifully framed photographs of their families and friends, children’s drawings, natural objects, and collages. We sang and whistled and chanted.

I remember thinking what a long time it would take to untie and remove all the lovely objects, but perhaps they just blow torched it all off with a machine.

Angie Donoghue, Feminist Times member:
I’ve just dug out my Greenham Common Songbook (35 songs – new words to old tunes). The most memorable is:

You Can’t Kill The Spirit
Old and strong
She goes on and on and on
You can’t kill the spirit
She is like a mountain.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Second image: Greenham women on nuclear silo, dawn 1 January 1983. Photo credit Raissa Page, 1983, courtesy of Rebecca Johnson

Third image: Poster for Embrace the Base 1982 Greenham Common women’s peace camp, courtesy of Rebecca Johnson

Thank you to all Feminist Times members who got in touch about this piece. For more on the legacy of Greenham Common, see Guardian Films’ Your Greenham series, produced with Beeban Kidron.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Greenham, 11 December 1983

  1. Lizzie Spring

    Reading those pieces made me remember the graffito we used to leave on walls worldwide – Greenham Women are Everywhere. We were also every personality type.
    Everyone has such a different internalised history of those years. I lived there for 2 years at the same time as Rebecca but over the other side of the base in the little camp next to the gate leading to Newbury. I had a very different Greenham. We were mostly in retrospect scarily young, smokily grubby, crop-haired, multi-earringed and playful. The Blue gate camp culture was less reverential of Wimmin and spent no time at all singing Peace songs. But we did enjoy making up terrible pastiches of them.
    Nobody beat us up. A few screeched abuse from cars but we laughed at them, the usual female super effective protection method. I liked many of the young squaddies – working class vulnerable boys, locked into their horror base, and often chatted with them through the razor wire. One of them used to yell jokes for us through an upturned traffic cone. My favourite:
    “What did Nelson say to his men before they got on the ships?
    GET ON THE SHIPS, MEN”
    Lots of people brought us whiskey for some reason, and I spent most evenings happily drunk which helped with the woodsmoke in the eyes. We all smoked endlessly too and when I went to Holloway I was struck by the commonality of women’s friendship exchanges – cigarettes, jokes, sweets, conversations about cookery and our mothers.
    Our sleeping shelters were taken away every couple of days because our gate was the one the convoys of missile carriers came out of at night, so we were particularly unwanted as witnesses. Sitting in the winter rain round a fire pit on a stretch of empty mud was an eerie feeling. The other gates always quickly brought round new stuff and so did the constant stream of visitor, to whom we were really ungracious – I am genuinely sorry for that, everyone.
    I left Greenham after two years of living on the verge there literally and metaphorically, because there seemed to be increasing confusion about why we were there – I felt no kinship with “actions” that assaulted the base, I thought our presence as witnesses and spokeswomen was our power.
    Linking into all the chat recently about shoe styles, I was amused to get back to London in the early 1980s and find how fashionable our cropped hair, dresses over leggings and bovver boots had become in arty and musical circles. We only looked like that because how else can you look living outside in the mud, having your clothes thrown into a dump truck every few days by bailliffs?
    Oh how strange it is to think – they were such happy days.

    Reply
    1. Katie Athanasis

      Dear Lizzie,
      Your experience sounds fascinating! Would you be interested in being interviewed for use in my masters thesis? I would love to hear more! Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you are interested: katieathanasis@hotmail.com
      Best wishes,
      Katie

      Reply
    2. Jane Clarke

      I remember the songs “Old and Strong, She goes on and on and on. She is like a Moun-tain. You can’t kill her spir-it” – The tribal art, the old fridge that was used as a postbox. Women hanging their babies cloths on the fence. Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) where we would lie floppy so that it would take 3-4 police to lift us. Then they started pulling women up by their ear-rings, which sometimes slit their ears (I have not worn pierced ears since). Once they charged at women sat on the gate on their horses. I remember a truck not stopping and one woman dying. I can remember the headlines in the newspapers. First we were brave mothers caring about our children, then later we were filthy lesbians who crapped in bushes and never washed.
      But it worked – it worked – it worked!

      Reply
  2. Maria

    I wanted to share this article with anyone interested in reading more about Greenham and the impact it had, not just on the peace movement, but on the individual protester’s lives. It’s particularly important to me as my Grandmother (Jean Kaye) who died in September, is particularly central to the article.

    http://www.lacuna.org.uk/thinking/memories-of-a-protest/

    It begins with the same song!

    Reply

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