They gave peace a chance: How the women of Greenham Common struck a blow for feminism and inspired today's protest movements

Lucy Kirkwood's latest play celebrates their achievements
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The Independent Culture

Last year, I went to see a remarkable cycle of plays at the Tricycle Theatre. Entitled The Great Game, it was a wonderfully ambitious project exploring the history and contemporary state of Afghanistan. In the autumn, I met Indhu Rubasingham to discuss the Tricycle's next venture in this vein: a cycle of 12 plays by 12 different writers, on the subject of Women, Power and Politics in Britain. I was invited to write one. I said yes please. The only question was: what to write about? The obvious leading lady sprang to mind but – "Moira Buffini's already got Thatcher". Damn.

So I began researching, reading widely. Soon, various areas of inquiry began throwing themselves at me; the Garden Room Girls of 10 Downing Street, the unseen, elite team of female secretaries who work round the clock in the bowels of No 10 maybe? Or what about Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in Britain, and the butt of one of Churchill's crueller jokes? Or the female trade union leaders of the 19th century? But as fascinating as each of these were, nothing was sticking.

It was a chance remark by Indhu, the director of the season, that finally led me to write about the Greenham Common nuclear campaign of the Eighties. As a young woman in 2010, in many ways I feel disconnected from the women of Greenham Common and their brand of feminism; the exclusion of men, the earth mother imagery. The belief that curried porridge is an acceptable menu suggestion. Yet I also feel a deep admiration for them, and instinctively consider them "important". So when Indhu told me that one of her twentysomething colleagues had never even heard of Greenham, I was surprised. And later shocked, when a straw poll among my friends revealed similar findings: that in Greenham we have a landmark of the Eighties that is only a faint rumour in the minds of Thatcher's children. Her daughters especially. And so this was the point from which I started writing my play, Bloody Wimmin. Given that the Greenham women consciously rejected hierarchical structures, the male models of power wherein the "leading actors" of history are made, perhaps their low profile today isn't surprising. They didn't want a De Valera or a Pankhurst and, for many of us, history is personality: a seminal speech, an emotive trademark (be it cigars or handbags, I have a dream or I see no ships), an impressive form rendered in marble. Even a militant feminist in a cagoule might attain historical importance if she found herself on plinth. Or maybe not. Trident is no longer the national anxiety it once was, but it remains an issue elections are fought on, after all.

Disarmament was but one of the things being fought for at Greenham. In the early Eighties, 70 per cent of women were not in the workplace. Until the end of the Seventies, it was difficult for a single woman to obtain a mortgage. Margaret Thatcher could lead an attack on the Falklands, but Denis still had to sign her tax return.

Within this climate, people's lives, both women's and men's, were transformed by Greenham. Marriages broke under it, lovers were taken, strengths discovered, consciousness developed. It was a company of women that asserted that another world was possible: both politically and personally, it might not have to be like this.

So Greenham was as much about feminism as it was about nukes but, wonderfully, it was feminism looking outwards, in the tradition of those great turn-of-the-century Americans like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It challenged women to ask not simply, what do we want for ourselves, but what world do we want to live in? How does that world operate and what are its limits of tolerance?

So what they were attempting to do, what the fence-cutting and courtroom singing and making faces at armed soldiers and weaving webs into the perimeter fence, all those things that might appear frivolous and silly and laughable and maybe a bloody nuisance but certainly not getting the silly cows anywhere, what all this amounted to was an attempt to coin a new language. They sought to operate outside the Westminster boys' dens of leather and oak, and the established power residing therein. It is this radical straining against the Tweed Teflon of Politics-with-a-capital-P that I think, had they succeeded, would have been their most extraordinary achievement.

I think they failed. Of course they did. At present there are more Lib Dems in parliament than women, and the timetables of Westminster remain incompatible with putting the kids to bed.

Why is this? A failure to communicate, perhaps? The press took a binary view, labelling them either brave mothers protecting the safety of their children, or loony lesbians polluting the countryside. The women in turn often viewed the journalists who turned up to cover the story as one of the enemy. Any single Greenham woman I have read or seen interviewed appears invariably articulate, intelligent, and (hallelujah) humorous. And yet as a group, their relationship with the media never evolved into the crucial tool by which to disseminate their arguments that it might have been. Contrast them with the media-savvy of contemporary movements such as Climate Rush, and their efforts appear naive.

And yet it is in groups such as Climate Rush that we see Greenham's greatest achievements being built upon, improved, refined. While Greenham won't fit easily into our conventional matrices of success, it leaves behind a legacy of enormous import; debatable, difficult to gauge perhaps, but considerable.

For the question of Trident is still alive. The question of how to protest against a dominant capitalist culture and its ecological effects is still alive. And, like it or not, men are still getting paid more than women and Moira Stewart got fired for being old and having ovaries. The gauntlets thrown down at Greenham remain on the battlefield, marking the territory, sticking out of 25 years of mud and asking not to be forgotten. In the face of the Greenham women's commitment and bravery, this is the least we can do.

'Bloody Wimmin' by Lucy Kirkwood runs as part of the Women, Power and Politics season at Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000; tomorrow to 17 July