Standing up to the boys and their toys

By Joan Smith
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I will never forget that New Year's morning, stealing silently through the woods next to the United States airbase at Greenham Common. It was an eerie moment, just before dawn, and I was amazed to see how quietly the women approached the perimeter fence, weighed down with metal ladders and rolls of carpet.

I will never forget that New Year's morning, stealing silently through the woods next to the United States airbase at Greenham Common. It was an eerie moment, just before dawn, and I was amazed to see how quietly the women approached the perimeter fence, weighed down with metal ladders and rolls of carpet.

With hardly a word spoken, the ladders were up against the fence and pieces of carpet flung across the barbed wire. Suddenly, as the women struggled over, the headlights of a military police car swept towards us and illuminated the astonishing scene. All the horrified patrol could do was radio for help as nearly 50 women sprinted towards a half-built concrete structure.

Dawn rose, on that first day of 1983, to the sight of the peace women dancing on the roof of a cruise missile bunker. The small group of invited journalistscaptured the event for that day's television news and the next morning's front pages. It was a perfect piece of theatre, one of many imaginative demonstrations which energised the old peace movement and brought a new vocabulary to the sterile rhetoric of the Cold War.

Suddenly everyone was talking about building benders and repeating catchy slogans like "take the toys from the boys". Gender politics, which had relegated women to a supporting role in the 1960s anti-Vietnam protests, came to the fore as the Greenham women discovered they could make headlines with their non-hierarchical, unconventional brand of protest.

Reporters were baffled and frustrated when they found that the Greenham women did not have self-appointed leaders, and were not always keen to talk to journalists they did not know and trust.

My first trip to Greenham was towards the end of 1982, for the ambitious and hugely successful attempt to create a human chain around the perimeter fence. After that I visited regularly, both to write stories and to keep in touch. I ate many meals in the Newbury Little Chef, where the women gathered to eat hot food (when they could afford it) and wash with running-water in the ladies' lavatories. It was a thrilling, exhilarating time, yet also one when the world seemed - under Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States - to be lurching closer towards nuclear destruction.

What none of us knew was whether Greenham was likely to change anything. While the peace camp was derided by the right-wing press there is no doubt that it had spectacular nuisance value, repeatedly embarrassing the Americans at the base.

This is not to say that the protest was unproblematic. Some of its rhetoric was sentimental, idealising women as earth mothers and peace-makers. What it did achieve, I think, is something very like last year's Battle of Seattle: a wake-up call to the cynical, complacent people who governed us that they were out of tune with the zeitgeist. For me, thatJanuary morning remains crystal-clear in my memory, an affirmation that ordinary people can make themselves heard, no matter how powerful the forces ranged against them.

Comments