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Liberation from Nukes: Lessons from Greenham and Grandma – by Sophie Sharp

As a pacifist who is deeply concerned about environmental devastation, I have been captivated by the stories of the women who dedicated their time and energy to protest the positioning of ninety-six nuclear cruise missiles at the Royal Air Force station through the Greenham Common protest. This camp brought together environmental activism and women’s liberation. After the women collectively decided not to include men at Greenham Common, the nature of the women’s-only camp allowed women to explore their ‘consciousness’[1] and exchange ideas about women’s empowerment. Many women had been isolated at home prior to this experience, which made their exposure to consciousness-raising groups and feminist ideologies even more impactful. At the camp, women created space for one another to express their hope, anger, and frustration – emotions they were expected to suppress in the outside world. Despite the often cold and dreary conditions, moments of joy and camaraderie kept the activists going.

After reading about Greenham for my lectures, I brought it up on a phone call with my mum. I’ve lived in the United States all my life, but I decided to spend this past semester of college in London because of my close relationship with my British grandmother. Raised in Northern England during the second world war, my grandmother was an avid peace activist. She was deeply committed to abolishing nuclear weapons, and I remember painting colorful signs for her to hold at local peace rallies when I was a child. For these reasons, I was not surprised when my mum told me that my grandmother participated in the 14-mile-long human link at Greenham Common in 1982. Nonetheless, I was moved that my grandmother had been a part of something I felt so energized by 41 years later.

My grandmother’s written account of Embrace the Base is short and concise, but she does an excellent job of portraying the sea of people, mostly women, who had little control over their trajectory within the large crowd. At one point, my grandmother’s section of the demonstration was pushed into an outdoor church service, and she recalls suddenly being chest to chest with a startled nun.

She spends more time depicting the swarm of people than the individuals themselves. This commitment to solidarity and the collective reminds me of the importance of bodily autonomy to the women’s liberation movement. Most of the women at Greenham had grown up hearing myths about their anatomy and they were lacking essential knowledge about their bodies until consciousness-raising groups, women’s liberation magazines, and reproductive health books such as Our Bodies Ourselves became more readily accessible.[2] As women began to share and discover their own bodily wants and needs, their shame dissipated and they were no longer constricted by self-doubt.

Women used their bodies to physically disrupt the male-dominated spaces at Greenham Common.They used their weight to blockade the base and made their limbs limp so it was harder for the police to carry them off.[3] Their mere presence at camp was an act of nonviolent resistance. The police were allowed to evict women from their tents, but because of the bylaws they could not seize the inhabitants living inside.[4] Women used direct action to protest the UK’s possession of nuclear cruise missiles while simultaneously challenging systemic male violence and authority.

An old family friend of mine has been invested in peace and environmental advocacy since college. She is fearful that the world will end in one of two ways: a quick and obliterating nuclear war or a devastatingly slow human response to climate change. Like Greta Thunberg, she believes that if we are to overcome our current situation, large-scale collective action is imperative. As Thunberg insists, we cannot rely on the government to act in our best interest, just as the women at Greenham could not rely on the UK to act in the world’s.

Reading about the commitment of women at Greenham gave me hope for a better planet. If so many women dedicated their lives to a green and peaceful future in the 1980s, why couldn’t they now? In the UK, it is no longer radical for women to use their bodies as weapons of political resistance. However, sustained nonviolent mass demonstrations have proved effective time and time again. With this in mind, let us learn from the women at Greenham and use the tools they have given us to fight for a safe and sustainable future.

Image: Women protesting at Greenham Common in December 1982, from wikicommons.

Sophie Sharp is in her final year as a Sociology student at Barnard College in New York City. She enjoys studying how social movements and environmental activism affect change.

Bibliography

Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, The heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain (Virago Press, London, 1993).

Elaine Titcombe, Women Activists: rewriting Greenham’s history, Women’s History, 2013.

Moore, S. et al. (2017) How the ​Greenham Common Protest Changed Lives: ‘We danced on top of the nuclear silos,’ The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/20/greenham-common-nuclear-silos-women-protest-peace-camp

[1] Elaine Titcombe, Women Activists: rewriting Greenham’s history, (Women’s History Review, 2013) p. 312

[2] Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Virago Press, London, 1993), p. 47

[3]Suzanne Moore, Homa Khaleeli, Moya Sarner, Leah Harper, Justin McCurry, How the Greenham Common Protest Changed Lives (The Guardian, 2017)

[4]Suzanne Moore, Homa Khaleeli, Moya Sarner, Leah Harper, Justin McCurry, How the Greenham Common Protest Changed Lives (The Guardian, 2017)

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