With nuclear treaties expiring and a new arms race under way, the threat of nuclear annihilation seems more possible today than it has since the Cold War. It was because of a dread of nuclear war that I joined the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in 1984 to protest the siting of American cruise missiles at a U.S. Air Force base in Newbury, England — not far from where I had once lived.
The origins of the peace camp date to 1981, when a group called Women for Life on Earth marched from Wales to the military base, where they chained themselves to the fence and set up camp permanently. Over the next several years, tens of thousands of women joined them to take part in this mass women’s peace movement that swept the United Kingdom. We set up camps at several of the entrances to the base, all around the nine-mile perimeter fence, naming these gates after the colors of the rainbow.
We broke into the base regularly to spray paint warplanes and lie down in front of military vehicles, stopping them from entering or exiting the base. Right from the start, the women attracted a great deal of media attention. I will never forget the iconic image of women dancing on the silos housing the cruise missiles the New Year’s Eve before I moved there. It happened just days after an infamous speech by Margaret Thatcher’s Minister of Defense, declaring them the most secure silos in Europe.
The cruise missiles were eventually removed from Greenham Common in 1991, and the camp dismantled not long thereafter. I seldom hear mention of the Greenham Common women any more, yet we were a vital part of the peace, women’s and queer movements.
In addition to protesting nuclear war, this women-only space was a place of refuge and discovery. That’s why I decided to write my memoir, “Other Girls Like Me,” which centers on my time at the peace camp, where I found community, sexual identity and a sense of purpose through activism.
The following excerpt describes my arrival at the base for my first prolonged visit and an initial foray into nonviolent direct action — which didn’t end well, but nevertheless initiated me into years of resistance work.
I was washing dishes in our kitchen when I heard them on the radio. Women singing, chanting and yelling, as the police dragged their deliberately-limp bodies from the gates of the military base. I put down my sponge, wiped my hands, sat at the kitchen table and turned up the volume. Greenham women were in the headlines pretty much every day those days. They lived in makeshift camps outside the U.S. military base at Greenham Common in Newbury, close to my childhood village, and regularly broke into the base or lay down together in the road in huge, singing, laughing piles to stop military vehicles from entering or exiting the base.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States had 102 bases in the United Kingdom — a country the size of the state of New York. Imagine if the British government set up 102 bases in New York to reciprocate. The Royal Air Force Base at Greenham Common was loaned to the Americans during the Second World War but was not returned to the local community at the war’s end. It sat on hundreds of acres of what was once — and still should have been — common land, dating back to Roman times, a place for the local townspeople to walk their dogs and water and graze their animals, disturbing only the occasional wild deer, rabbit or pheasant. Now, it was closed off by wire fences, scarred with concrete bunkers and tarmac roads, and protected by fresh-faced young British soldiers, while further inside the camp steely-jawed American soldiers were poised to launch cruise missiles, first strike nuclear weapons, at the Soviet Union at any moment.
I had been to Greenham twice already on demonstrations, once with my mother in December of the year before. I’d arrived on a bus from Bath filled with women in multi-colored clothes carrying hand-made banners, and my mother and I had met at one of the gates to the camp. I carried a constant feeling of dread deep inside me about nuclear war, and often woke in the night covered in sweat from nuclear nightmares. I felt a surge of belonging and hope holding hands in a chain of 30,000 women as we formed a circle around the nine-mile perimeter fence, while others attached homemade patchwork banners to the fence — “Women Say No to the Bomb,” “Take the Toys from the Boys.”
Since then, I had followed the antics of the Greenham women avidly in the news. They weren’t able to stop the missiles arriving, but they certainly knew how to bring attention to them. I thought back to the famous photograph that had graced the front pages of our newspapers — and many around the world — the previous New Year’s Day, when dozens of women broke through the fence and made it to the silos being prepared to house the cruise missiles.
The haunting and inspiring image showed dozens of women holding hands and dancing in a joyous circle on top of a silo at midnight to ring in the New Year, jubilant and triumphant. Silhouetted against the bright lights of the base were huge rolls of barbed wire that had been no match for their bolt cutters. It was an image that made my heart race just that little bit faster whenever I thought of it, as if the peace activist seeds it had planted all across the country were also taking root inside me, waiting for their moment to rise into the sun.
“We need more women to join us.” A passionate Greenham woman’s voice filled my lifeless kitchen.
The next morning, I rushed to my new job at Wigan Women’s Aid, an organization that ran a battered women’s shelter and hotline, and asked my co-workers Meg and Briana, if they fancied visiting Greenham Common with me. They both said yes and days later, we hitchhiked to the small market town of Newbury. It was late afternoon, and a cool drizzle brushed across our faces as we completed the last mile or so of our journey on foot, through housing estates dotted with red phone boxes, across smaller and smaller roundabouts, until we reached Greenham Common, on Newbury’s outskirts. I was just 15 miles from my family home in St. Mary Bourne with its thatched cottages, watercress beds, three pubs and three churches, but I could have been on another planet. The vast grey military base with its wire fencing topped with rolls of razor wire stretched before me, with muddy pathways along its perimeter where thousands of women’s feet had walked in protest.
A handful of uniformed policemen were standing in front of the gate chatting with some British soldiers who were behind the gate. Outside the gate, dozens of confident looking Greenham women with playful faces and wearing big boots and heavy jackets were milling about. Some were sitting around the fire and singing, while a Goth, looking like a witch from a fairy tale with her jet-black hair and clothes, was stirring a massive pot of bubbling stew that was balanced precariously on a metal grill sitting over the fire. I could easily tell who the visitors were — there were men, for one thing, but also women whose hands were clean, like mine, who were wearing conventional clothes, and whose shoes were not encrusted with mud. They were wearing sensible anoraks as they unpacked gifts of clothing, firewood, food and bedding from the backs of cars and vans, watching over children in yellow and red wellingtons splashing in the recently formed puddles. Like me, they had come in answer to the women’s call for support in the face of imminent eviction. I heard them thanking the women for what they were doing, saying they wished they could do more.
Standing alone in front of this bustling scene, I was at a complete loss. I had borrowed a tent, but I didn’t know how to put it up. I hadn’t been allowed to join the boy scouts, only play football for them, so I didn’t know one end of my tent from the other. These women seemed to be capable of anything, and I wondered how I would ever dare speak to any of them. I resisted the temptation to ask a passing man to help me out.
“Welcome to Blue Gate.” A woman with long, wild, dirty-blond hair with shaved sides and multiple ear and nose piercings, was striding toward me. Before I knew it, my tent was being erected, a word I soon learned was very funny here, because this was a women’s peace camp, with a lot of lesbians, and a local law had just been passed banning “erections on the common” — hence the recent attempts at eviction.
“My name’s Elena,” she said in a broad Yorkshire accent as she pushed the last tent peg into the ground and stepped back to admire the now upright orange tent that would be my home for the next week. “Come and have some tea at the fire.”
I followed her shyly to the fire pit, where we squeezed between two visitors who moved apart to make room for us. A posh-sounding woman with a deep voice and short hair dyed to look like camouflage was speaking to a rapt group of visitors. She was talking about her hair.
“It’s a spider’s web gone wrong,” she said. “I’m waiting for it to grow out. I feel the worst about Biscuit.” She pointed to the kitchen where a large, white, wiry-haired dog was looking for scraps. The dog had bright blue ears.
The next morning, I was in a deep, dreamless sleep when I was jolted awake by someone whooping loudly. I opened my eyes, wriggled onto my belly in my sleeping bag, and poked my head blearily out of the tent flap. Silhouetted against the base in the pink morning light, three large bin lorries were discharging several bulky men. It was an eviction.
The men raced around the camp, grabbing anything they could get their hands on, throwing tents, sleeping bags, food and clothes into the back of the lorries, while the policemen looked on. Women raced behind them, pulling on their belongings, while two women, one of them Trish, the witchy Goth who had cooked the night before, were dragging the kitchen supplies cabinet out onto the road on wheels — how ingenious, I thought, as I pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt, jumped out of my tent, and started to take it down, following the lead of the women around me, who were hurriedly dismantling tents and rolling up sleeping bags. My heart was racing, not with fear or anger, but with a kind of joyful excitement. I was being evicted along with the Greenham women. This was why I was here. I was one of them!
When they were done, the fire stamped out, and the camp erased, we gathered at the top of the hill, on the pavement at the side of the road, and stood in an indignant group clutching our remaining belongings, yelling a favorite singing taunt:
“Which side are you on, boys/Which side are you on?/Are you on the side that don’t like life?/Are you on the side of racial strife?/Are you on the side that beats your wife?/Which side are you on?”
Between each verse, we turned and laughed to each other, breathless, then took a collective deep breath to deliver the final verse in even louder roars: “Are you on the side of suicide?/Are you on the side of homicide?/Are you on the side of genocide?/Which side are you on?”
Eventually the police and bailiffs moved on. And then we went back and set up camp again. Elena was already at my side, smiling. While Trish the Goth and Lucy of the camouflage hair re-started the fire, and women all around us started to rebuild the camp, Elena and I put up my tent to the sound of women singing softly in the background.
As we worked together, giggling and tripping over the ropes, Elena told me that, until recently, most of the women had lived in handcrafted shelters made of plastic sheeting draped over bent tree branches. They covered the soft green moss on the ground with plastic sheeting to keep out the damp, then lay their sleeping bags on top, while candles balanced on homemade shelves of stone or wood made for cosy, glowing, hobbit- like homes at night. They called these structures benders, because the tree branches only needed to bend a little to give shelter. I imagined how lovely it would be to sleep on the moss in a bender deep in the woods, my new friend, Elena, at my side.
Elena told me the women were always making up names for themselves — like Anna Key, Eva Brick and Freda People — when they were arrested. It seemed English law allowed you to use any name you liked when you were arrested, and when I was arrested the next day for breaking into the base, nobody asked me for any ID. When dozens of women called themselves Karen Silkwood after the American anti-nuclear activist and broke into the base on the anniversary of her death, that wasn’t questioned by the authorities either.
On my second night at Blue Gate, I sat shyly at the campfire next to a woman called Diana who was visiting from Oswestry on the Welsh border, and her quiet friend, Linda. At the fire, we all jostled for warmth as we listened to the Greenham women sharing stories of actions and arrests. Trish the Goth was there, with her strong Northern Irish accent and twinkly smile; and Lucy, too, her large dog, Biscuit, sitting adoringly at her side; while Elena sat across from me. I could have told who the seasoned Greenham women were even without their grubby fingers, smoke-smelling rainbow clothes, and big boots, by their raucous, unselfconscious laughter.
Diana turned to me, her strong face shining in the orange glow of the dancing flames. “I have some bolt cutters. Want to break in?”
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t think of any good reason why not, so I said in a voice that I hoped was not as small as how I was feeling, “OK.”
I knew that breaking into the base was a regular nighttime activity for the women. Sometimes they went for a pint to one of the two pubs in Newbury that still served Greenham women, where some played pool with local men in tense games filled with a rare mutual respect. And sometimes they found a patch of fence and cut it down and saw how far they could get into the military base without being arrested. They were like American groundhogs, but instead of looking for food, they were deliberately being a nuisance, and making a political point at the same time. I would rather have been going to the pub to play pool, even though I was not very good at it. But instead, I was about to do my first action, and my heart felt as if it had broken loose and was battering on my chest to find its way out.
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We stepped away from the comfort of the fire and made our way to Diana’s tent, where she crawled inside to extract three pairs of bolt cutters. She smiled as she handed a pair to me and to Linda, and said, “They are gifts for the camp, but we can try them out first, right?”
She was fearless and I smiled wanly. It felt like the rite of passage to being a true Greenham woman. And of course the famous image of the women dancing on the silos was at the back of my mind. But there were only three of us right now, and there’d been almost 50 of them, and it was only my second day and already I was about to break the law, and I didn’t feel the least bit prepared. Diana and Linda were only visitors too, and I wondered at their bravado.
As we made our way along the fence, I glanced back at the women at the fire. Some of them would be up all night, on the lookout for local men who sometimes came to trash the camp, driving their bikes through the kitchen area knocking things over, calling the women names. Once, someone stuck a knife through a woman’s tent while she was sleeping, and ever since, all the gates around the base were aglow at night with night watch fires, small groups of women huddled around them drinking tea, smoking, and telling whispered stories into the early hours, while their sisters slept.
I wanted to tell the night watchers what we were doing, so that someone knew, but I was too shy, and I didn’t know what the protocol was and didn’t want to appear foolish, so I said nothing. It was midnight as we walked around the perimeter fence past Turquoise Gate and toward Green Gate, the darkness of the forest on our right, the floodlights of the base to our left.
“Here,” Diana said, pointing confidently, and the three of us set to work with the bolt cutters, snipping away at a section of the fence, which came away easily as we pulled it toward us. We crouched low and climbed through the fence, looked around us at the emptiness, crossed the brightly lit road that ran along the edge of the fence, and set off on the grass and into the base. There were buildings ahead of us on an incline, and we set off toward them, with no real plan in mind but to get in as far as we could.
There was no moon, and thin clouds created a veil across the sky, obscuring then revealing the stars. But our way was well lit from the floodlights of the base, as the dark of the forest, the safety of the women’s dwellings, and the glow of the fire pits slowly receded behind us.
We hadn’t gone very far when we heard a shout, then another, and suddenly several British soldiers in full uniform were running down the hill toward us, yelling. There was no time for us to turn and run as they surrounded us, a pack of young, angry men carrying guns.
“Keep walking,” one said, “to the top of that hill.”
We obeyed, glancing at each other nervously. When we arrived at the top, the ringleader, a Londoner with straw-colored hair and small blue eyes, ordered us to lie belly down on the grass.
“In a star shape!” he yelled. “Open your arms. Open your legs.”
The soldiers laughed out loud. We obeyed, arms and legs splayed flat on the ground, our faces pressed into the damp earth. Then they stood around us, their guns pointing down at us. All I could see was their big boots.
“We’re not calling the police, you know,” the ringleader said. “We’ve got our own way of dealing with sluts like you.”
“No one knows you’re here,” another said with a sneer. “We’re gonna rape you and kill you and throw your dead bodies into the lake.”
I turned my head in panic to look at my new friends, and the ringleader yelled, “Don’t move!”
I squashed my face back into the grass. Lifting my head ever so slightly, I could see the barrel of his gun and his boots.
“Don’t move an inch, just do what they say,” a whisper came to us from one of the soldiers, while his mates laughed raucously, discussing what other horrors they planned to inflict on us. He had a Northern Irish accent, like Trish’s. “Don’t move and you will be alright.”
We lay frozen to the ground in silence for a long while, the soldiers’ scenarios getting uglier, their laughter louder. The soft-spoken soldier whispered reassurances to us, becoming my anchor, my only hope.
I was shivering uncontrollably, from being so close to the ground, from the crisp night air, from terror, and then I heard the sirens, saw the blue flashing lights of a police car, and hoped with all my heart it was coming to arrest me. I heard tires crunching over the gravel, doors opening, low male voices talking. Then I heard and saw boots approaching, appearing and disappearing in the flashing strobe lights of the car.
“You can get up now,” a voice said, in the Berkshire accent I knew so well.
I got to my feet and glanced at the others, mouthing, “Are you OK? Yes, Yes.” We followed the officers to their police car, our heads down, not daring to look at the soldiers. I sneaked a quick glance, hoping that the one who had become our ally might make himself known, but none of them gave me eye contact. We climbed into the back seat of the police car, its lights creating flashes of blue trees and bushes in the surrounding countryside. I grabbed Diana’s hand and she grabbed Linda’s and we sat in shocked silence as we were driven to Newbury Police Station, where the police officers on duty put us in separate cells. No one said a word about finding us lying on the ground at the feet of the soldiers, and we were too traumatized and grateful to be rescued to mention it. None of the Greenham women had ever talked about this kind of treatment. They appeared that much braver to me now.
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