The Uncommon Women of Greenham

The Uncommon Women of Greenham

As told by Leslie Webster and written by Ginna D. Rose

I first heard about the women’s Peace Camp at Britain’s Greenham Common years ago, when National Public Radio interviewed a “Common woman” named Simone. She spoke of a group of women from the Camp who walked across Salisbury Plain, which is used as an artillery range, in defiance of military exercises. The story inspired me. As a longtime peace activist and mother, I was deeply impressed that a few ordinary but determined women were able to stop the military machine in its tracks. Their success gave me hope and helped me see that each of us can contrib ute to the struggle for peace. The Greenham women’s point of view was something I wanted to know more about, but, as years went by, I heard less and less about them. What was going on there now, I wondered, with all the changes affecting Europe?

Scouring my local (Phoenix, AZ) public library for leads, I failed to find any of the books that have been written about Greenham; the most recent magazine article was from 1987. When I asked friends and acquaintances what they knew about the Peace Camp, many had never heard of it. Those who had, believed it had broken up years before.

I finally got a bit of current news when I participated in a rally for Big Mountain, trying to stop uranium mining on Navajo Hopi sacred land. There, in downtown Phoenix’ triple-digit heat, I met a woman whose son lives in Britain. Through her, I learned that there are indeed women still camping at Greenham. Suddenly, I felt a powerful connection between their protest and mine, for Big Mountain is the beginning of a chain that starts with forced uranium mining on Native land in the Southwest U.S., and ends with missiles deployed for nuclear attack at bases around the world. At both ends, local police protect the military; the Phoenix protesters, who were consulting with attorneys and keeping a vigil, were eventually arrested and thrown in jail, as commonly happens to the women at Greenham.

I wanted nothing more than to visit the women at Greenham, but being poor and having three young daughters to care for, I doubted my wish could come true. Then, unexpectedly, a friend offered me a courier ticket to England: Free transportation in exchange for escorting 20 sacks of mail! My mother offered to watch my children and I was off for a two-week trip.

On arrival, I found the same vacuum of information about the Peace Camp I’d encountered in the States – British people, too, thought the camp had disbanded. Wondering if I’d come too late, I contacted the Quakers in Newbury, a town near the base, because the Quakers are known to keep in contact with peace groups around the world. My heart soared when they told me that women remain camped at Yellow Gate and Blue Gate, and are committed to staying until the land is re turned as common land. Common land is the British term for public land. The Greenham women themselves put it more dramatically: “We’ll stay until the base is no longer a threat to life on earth.”

The U.S.A.F./R.A.F. Greenham Com mon Base houses 101 American ground launched Cruise Missiles, each with the destructive capability of 16 Hiroshima bombs. The magnitude of their potential devastation is unimaginable. Nine miles of barbed wire fence, police dogs and British Ministry of Defense police surround and guard these weapons. Once a month soldiers bring the nuclear missile convoy out to Salisbury Plain as part of their drill for war, or, as the women say, genocide. Each and every time this hap pens, the women take nonviolent direct action against the convoy, continuing a protest which is now 10 years old.

In varying numbers the women have camped at the base’s main entrance, Yellow Gate, every day since 1981 through summer heat, endless winter rain, and hurricanes. As I approached the site, I felt as if I were coming to a reunion of sisters: Eager, expectant, confident.

I arrived at Yellow Gate just after dark on a cold winter night. A small group of women were huddled around a communal fire, where they spent most of their time. They immediately made me feel welcome with hot tea; then they identified the guards who were watching us, 30 yards away. When I mentioned the rumors I had heard about the base closing, the group quickly informed me that, on the contrary, there was new construction going on inside.

Aniko Jones, a petite Englishwoman, became my one-woman orientation committee. Her hands, like everyone’s, were grimy from tending the fire, but her attitude was warm and receptive. She explained that the women could recognize military preparations for their nuclear convoy rehearsal. They expected it some night that week. This meant I would be able to see, and perhaps join, their pro test. With Aniko’s help and lifted spirits, I pitched a tent.

The week I stayed was long, cold, wet and exhausting: A severe storm hit us. On the most miserable night, whipped by frigid winds and drenched in rain, I held onto my resolve to stay at the Camp only by reminding myself that these women had been through worse and would continue to be there long after I had gone.

I learned Greenham’s early history from Marion (Mary) Spring of Cornwall. She first came to Greenham in 1982 when the Camp was small and has seen its numbers grow and subside. Being a resident of Greenham longer than the missiles, she, like all the Camp women, has been arrested, made court appearances and served jail sentences too numerous to remember. Mary was a funny, witty storyteller who enjoyed regaling the group on Saturday night. She impressed me as a living storybook of political action.

“In September 1981, a group of women and a few men from Wales walked from Cardiff to Greenham, a distance of 120 miles, to gain publicity for the fact that the Cruise [missiles] were coming to Greenham. When they arrived nine days later, not having received publicity and feeling frustrated…the Camp was born. After a few months the men were asked to leave. The whole thing had been a women’s initiative, and the men who were there weren’t behaving very well.

From that time on it became a women’s camp, where men were welcome to visit, but not stay the night or take part in nonviolent direct actions with the women,” she said.

Strangely, this “Women Only” policy has had more impact on people than its peace actions: Public reactions to Greenham women have ranged from hatred toward “those radical lesbian separatists” to semi-idolization. The women themselves are aware that the soldiers, police and press all react differently to them, and they react differently to each other, because they are a same-sex, female group.

At another Peace Camp in Britain, Molesworth, three women were raped by three men from the same Peace Camp. This outrageous act reinforced the Greenham commitment to a same-sex policy.

Mary brought the heritage of Greenham to life for me with a recounting of the first years of the Peace Camp, when the women worked hard to prevent the Cruise Missiles from arriving and being put into position. They cut fences, blocked roads, lay down in front of machinery, and occupied sentry boxes. In 1982, they sent out 1,000 letters, requesting recipients to ask 10 additional women to gather at the base on the anniversary of the decision to bring the Cruise Missiles to England, a decision which was undemocratically made in a closed session of the Cabinet. On December 12, 1982, more than 30,000 women converged on Greenham, joining hands, singing and covering every yard of the nine mile fence with baby booties, children’s clothing and webs of wool. A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day, police arrested 44 women for dancing on the missile silos.

Sarah Hipperson, a Scottish woman who first came to Greenham eight years ago, when she was 55, described the silo-dancing and other direct actions as an open invitation to the public for new ways of thinking. “Nonviolence is an energy that gives you the power to overcome powerlessness. Whatever the [military] occurrence, you know that there is some action you can take to interrupt, disrupt, or stop it, so that the ‘occurrence’ does not work out as it was intended…Evil depends on being thorough and efficient; nonviolent direct action makes it unworkable at the time. It also gives a chance to change the thinking behind the ideas that promote these crimes against humanity.”

Sarah, an outspoken dynamo, has witnessed a number of large, creative protests. In April 1983, for example, the women, dressed in furry animal costumes, held a “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” on the “wrong side” of the fence. They smeared police with honey when they were arrested. That same year 2,000 women from all over the world sewed a six kilometer dragon to ring the fence – 80 were ar rested while painting a dragon on the three-mile base runway. On Halloween more than 2,000 “witches,” carrying brooms and bolt cutters, made off with five miles of fence.

Since 1983 – the year remembered for large, theatrical events – the women’s actions have become smaller and more spontaneous, reflecting a change in purpose. Large demonstrations galvanized public sentiment against missile deployment; once the missiles arrived and were installed in November, 1983, Greenham became, in a media sense, “unfashionable.” Many anti-nuclear supporters went on to other types of peace work, leaving behind a small but dedicated contingent of women whose commitment has demonstrated, by their tenacious and continued presence, firm opposition to nuclear arms. I realized I stood at the far end of the chain that started at Big Mountain, where the Navajo and Hopi are trying to hold their sacred land against the nuclear tide.

Today at Greenham, entering the base to hang banners and splashing convoy vehicles with paint are the women’s favorite practices. Once, when the military was using a flock of geese as guards, the women “liberated” the honkers by calming them with raisins soaked in whiskey and then smuggling the birds out, wrapped in blankets. The A.W.O.L. geese swam happily away on a nearby river.

At times the women’s actions have a direct physical impact on the nuclear war machine. During a display of military exercises offered as entertainment, when the base invited the public to view a parade of their “skills,” the Camp women took action for a week: Occupying run ways, preventing exercises and re painting the “Blackbird” spyplane. This plane was the base’s pride and joy; because of the paint it had to be sent back to the U.S. for repairs. Ironically, the responsible parties escaped three years imprisonment only because the military decided against a court proceeding in which it would have had to reveal classified information.

Court appearances are an integral part of nonviolent direct action, as are prison sentences. Camp women welcome appearing in public arenas, where they can argue on moral as well as legal grounds against the nuclear arsenal, expose activities which both the military and the government try to hide from the public, and make the nuclear nightmare and their fight against it a matter of record. Many of the women at Greenham have court files as thick as dictionaries and prison records to match.

Just to live at the Camp requires a tremendous amount of energy, especially when rain, cold and wind strike. While I was there, our daily tasks included gathering firewood, hauling water from a Fire Department pipe across the road, cooking meals and washing dishes. In warmer months the women garden and gather berries; but in the winter a lot of time passes simply tending the fire, waiting for the kettle to boil and trying to keep warm. Chairs and a couch around the campsite make a kind of living room; off to one side, in the brush, tents stand in a clearing made by an off-course military petrol bomb.

People driving by often honked at us, some waving in a friendly manner, others shouting obscenities. Although some lo cal people gave the women a hard time, others were supportive, donating food, money, firewood and warm clothes. I especially appreciated “Isabelle the Bath Lady” who has opened her home to the women for years. After a week of caked on mud, smoke and sweat, my turn at the bath felt like a treasured gift.

Despite the community forged by Greenham women, harassment is virtually constant. Since October, 1982, when bailiffs (processors) stole six vehicles from the protestors, a pattern of constant antagonism, initially funded by the British government, has come down in the form of evictions. For weeks the women could hardly eat, sleep, or even sit down with out being evicted. During that period the police became increasingly violent and arbitrarily confiscated whatever personal items they could find. Only after 10 weeks did it become clear to local authorities that their high pressure tactics were not yielding results. The women tenaciously remained encamped. Soon the funding dried up and evictions became less frequent.

At the time of my visit, evictions were taking place several times a week. I witnessed the procedure: Newbury Town Council vehicles pulled up to Yellow Gate and out stepped bailiffs, joined by Ministry of Defense Police from within the base. This seemed to be the women’s signal to move everything (via shopping carts and “Gladys the panel truck”) to a strip of public sidewalk about 20 feet from their campsite. One woman stayed by the fire to keep it going while the security forces milled around. Shortly thereafter, the Defense Police withdrew and the bailiffs returned to their vehicles.

As they pulled away, they watched the women move everything back. This scene has been replayed regularly for years, and recently the bailiffs began providing an interesting service, Trash collection. The women burn all their combustible garbage and they compost biodegradables, but they set aside plastics and metals into special plastic bags which the bailiffs “confiscate”.

During my stay, on a night the convoy was predicted to come out, 80-mile-an hour storm winds were raging. I was terrified, cold and miserable, but amazingly, the women were matter-of-fact: “Remember,” grinned Aniko, packing food items into “Gladys,” “If it’s blowing out here, then it’s blowing in there [the base] and there is a lot more that can go wrong in there!” The next morning, even though Newbury had suffered a great deal of damage from the gale-force winds, the bailiffs had nothing more urgent to do than stage another pointless eviction. They arrived as we were hanging out our sodden sleeping bags.

The weather had done the women’s work and stopped the convoy. My disappointment at not being able to witness the women taking direct action was tempered by knowing that every missed military exercise is a blessing.

For several years the Peace Camp women could neither vote nor receive mail; Newbury declared them “homeless” and quickly taught them that the home less were greeted with suppression of their civil rights. Only after a long legal battle did a British high court in 1985 declare “Yellow Gate, Greenham Com mon Women’s Peace Camp” a legitimate postal address and reinstate resident’s voting rights.

Immediately following this victory, the military enacted a set of “bye-laws” (British spelling) declaring it a criminal offense for “unauthorized civilians” to enter the base. At midnight, the first night on which the bye-laws were to take effect, hundreds of women flooded onto the base to demonstrate how unimpressed they were with this harassing legislation. Litigation on the validity of the bye-laws is still in process, with the women contending that because Greenham is on “common” or public land, it is the United States Air Force, not they, who is the trespasser.

Two campsites were active at the time of my visit, and the day after the storm I hiked over to Blue Gate, following a path along the perimeter fence. It was a four mile walk of extraordinary contrast: On one side were beautiful woods – greenery, trees, streams flowing from the storm, all decorated with colorful peace signs and stone circles made by women of many nations. On the other side, the land had been cleared for concrete runways, hangars filled with convoy vehicles, and barracks for soldiers. A Ministry of Defense Police officer with a German shepherd tailed me on the opposite side of the fence, stiffly watching me watch him. I found it deeply disquieting to pass the missile silos, which look like pyramids with flattened tops. Each was surrounded by at least five barbed-wire fences, emphasizing what they were there for – destruction.

I found the Blue Gate women busily cleaning up after the storm – they’d been “evicted,” too – but they graciously offered me tea and Greenham toast: Bread smoked by fire, steamed by rain, and especially good with preserves made at the camp from summer berrying on the Common. Luckily, the previous day the Blue Gate women had moved their tents to a new spot, for a large pine had fallen onto the area where they’d been tenting. Feeling blessed to have escaped injury, the women were planning to make a nice dwelling out of the fallen pine.

Aniko Jones told me that it was seeing the convoy for the first time that made her decide to become a full-time Peace Camper. Brought out at midnight about once a month, the convoy consists of 52 ton lorries carrying the missiles them selves, 40 or 50 support vehicles, and an escort of soldiers combined with Ministry of Defense Police. Their (supposedly secret) destination is Salisbury Plain, 30 miles away.

Nothing focuses the Peace Camp women’s abhorrence and rage more than these convoy exercises, which are simply rehearsals for nuclear war. The women block the road with their bodies and splash red paint over the vehicles’ windows and exteriors. Ever resourceful, Aniko learned she could stop a 52-ton lorry by throwing a potato down its exhaust pipe.

As a result of repeatedly following the nuclear convoy to Salisbury Plain, the women have made other discoveries about how the military works: On the edge of the Plain is Imber Village, abandoned and desolate.

In 1942, during World War II, the British military effectively confiscated the entire village, ordering its inhabitants out with a promise that they could return in six months or when the war ended, whichever came first. The displaced people were never allowed to return; many be came destitute and homeless.

During the ’60s, public sentiment grew to return Imber to its villagers. In response, the military passed bye-laws making it a crime to enter the place. In remembrance of the once-happy village now turned into a firing range, seven Peace Camp women spent a night in August, 1989 at Imber’s church, watching a lunar eclipse, sleeping and enjoying breakfast in bed the next morning. Their presence prevented firing exercises, and they were arrested.

Imber is presently used as a mock West Belfast village, where British troops are trained to fight in Northern Ireland. A second mock village, built at great expense, boasts landscaped yards, shuttered, but empty homes, and a church with a graveyard. Its name is “Fighting in Built-Up Areas Village,” a name only the military could love. Women have been arrested for actions in this village, too.

People are impressed with large numbers; when I returned to the U.S. and spoke to people about my visit, they often asked, “How many women?” In years past there were camps set up at all eight gate entrances, with women milling around them so thick a pedestrian had difficulty getting by.

But while large numbers are impressive, so are determined individuals who stand up against war. I thought of that one brave man positioned in front of the tanks of Tienanmen Square when I thought about Aniko with her potato, Mary with her bolt cutters, or a few women with little pots of paint in their hands. Each image proclaims: l am strong and willing to do something to stop the war machine.

U.S.A.F. Greenham Common Base is not going to be shut down – but the women are not going away, either. They were quick to proclaim the I.N.F. Treaty “not worth the paper it is written on.”

Furthermore, they are a constant re minder that governments are deliberately misleading the public to believe that the world is becoming safer; in reality the arms race continues to escalate. New construction is plainly visible at Greenham Common Base, and although the base status has been reduced to “stand-by”- its status before the Cruise Missiles were brought in – the women say the intelligent question to ask is “What are they standing-by to receive next?” Half the Cruise Missiles are still at the base and the monthly convoy exercise to Salisbury Plain has not ended.

Meanwhile, Greenham has evolved a culture all its own. On May 10,1983, Jay Greenham was born on the Common; on Sept. 5, 1989, Helen Thomas, a Welsh woman from Yellow Gate, was killed by a police vehicle as she waited to cross the road. The Camp women observe both anniversaries. But perhaps what symbolizes their perseverance most is a simple act of nurturance: A Native American woman gave them some 1000-year-old seed corn from a Native burial site, and, just outside the base, the women have managed to germinate the ancient corn. It grows and lives: Life will triumph.

Leslie Webster is a weaver, longtime peace activist, and mother of three daughters. She and her friend Ginna Rose both live in Phoenix, AZ.