Originally published at Feminist Times.
Thirty years ago today, on 11 December 1983, 50,000 women gathered at Greenham Common to encircle the military base, where cruise missiles had arrived three weeks earlier.
The women held mirrors, symbolically reflecting the military’s image back at itself. The women later cut and pulled down sections of the surrounding fence. Hundreds of arrests were made.
This mass demonstration was known as ‘Reflect The Base’. Today, five Greenham women reflect on their experiences.
Dr Rebecca Johnson, Greenham Women’s Peace Camp 1982-1987 and Executive Director of Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy:
I had been living at the Women’s Peace Camp for 16 months and helped organise ‘Reflect the base’ on 11 December 1983. This was bigger, louder and angrier than our first big demo ‘Embrace the base’ on 12 December 1982, when 35,000 women had encircled the 9 mile nuclear base for the first time.
After two years of determined nonviolent actions, in which thousands of women had been arrested and imprisoned for “breach of the peace”, the Women’s Peace Camp faced our toughest time as the USAF flew their new generation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles over our heads in November 1983, and the Tory government gave the USAF legal powers to shoot us if we got in the way.
A month later 50,000 women came to Greenham to demonstrate our refusal to give up. Surrounding the base, we faced thousands of armed soldiers and police as we held up our mirrors so that they could see their own faces, guarding these nuclear weapons of mass suffering. Though some decorated the perimeter fence as we’d done in 1982, thousands of women pulled miles of fence down with our bare hands and woolly gloves, singing and chanting as only women can!
A month earlier I had been one of 13 Greenham plaintiffs in the US Centre for Constitutional Rights’s injunction to halt the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe. I had spoken in the New York Court with Rudi Giuliani, then attorney for President Reagan. We lost that case (to no-one’s surprise), so I went back to build a new bender (vigilantes destroyed my tent while I was away). So there I was, singing and reflecting the base with thousands of wonderful sisters. Like many others, I had a couple of fingers broken by soldiers lashing at our hands with metal bars. But it was worth it.
I carried on living and campaigning at Greenham until 1987. Four years after we Reflected the Base on that bitter cold December day, Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan signed the historic INF Treaty in Moscow (8 December 1987), which banned and eliminated that whole generation of cruise, Pershing and SS20 missiles from Europe.
David Cameron’s mother was a Newbury magistrate, imprisoning Greenham women for our nonviolent actions to create peace and disarmament. And now Exmoor ponies graze by the empty silos on the Green and Common land. Newbury residents now stroll with pushchairs and dogs where we used to be beaten up and arrested. Do they look at the silos and pause a moment to think of the thousands of peace women who got rid of cruise missiles and restored Greenham for local people to enjoy?
Reverend Zamantha Walker, Feminist Times member:
I was present at the Reflect the Base on 11th Dec 1983 when 50,000 women surrounded the base with mirrors. I went with other women from the University of Kent, where I was in my last year. We also took instruments to bring the walls down (somewhat biblical with echoes of the walls of Jericho being walked around brought down by noise and light!).
There was a large police presence with quite a few mounted police, some of whom I saw dragging some women away from the fence and being quite brutal about it. It was both a challenging and a hopeful occasion when solidarity of purpose and the number present strengthened our resolve.
The media were polarised in either (the majority) depicting only those women who appeared radically ‘different’ and presenting us as ‘the loony left’, or (a small minority) as sympathetic to the aims although cautious about how we were demonstrating. It was an incredible occasion and I recognised it as momentous at the time.
When I returned to camp it was interesting that in conversation with some of the British and Canadian soldiers in the base – the Americans weren’t allowed to have even eye contact with us! – they were often surprisingly sympathetic to our cause. As they said “cruise missiles are not a weapon of defence”
Netta Cartwright, Feminist Times Founder Member:
I went a few times to Greenham Common. The first time we had a couple of coaches full of women from Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent – we were mostly women from Women’s Liberation and Women’s Aid groups. We went to Embrace the Base.
When we arrived we were overwhelmed by the crowds of women jostling, singing and linking arms around the whole of the perimeter fence. We couldn’t see all of the women of course but when we held hands I started a hands squeeze with the woman next to me on the left and said pass it on and waited. After a while I got the squeeze back from the woman the other side. I like to think it had gone around the whole base.
We decorated and wove the wire with poems, ribbons, photos, flowers, and embroidery. It was a wonderful day full of songs and laughter and we carried on all the way home on the buses.
I went on another day later with a small group of women armed with wire cutters. When we arrived there were other groups too with the same intention. We cut the wire and many of the women went into the base and got arrested. I ended up holding on to a woman’s baby and hiding in the trees when dogs were set on us. I’m still the proud possessor of a piece of green wire from the fence, much to the interest of my granddaughter who saw a big display of women at Greenham Common in the RAF museum at Cosford, Staffordshire.
Helen Scadding, Feminist Times member:
As we held hands around the perimeter of the fence there was this sense of amazement that there were enough of us to do this strange, and yet comforting thing. Holding hands gave a sense of purpose, of ritual, of not being alone, and of defiance.
The site is quite rural and the fence was quite inaccessible in parts, where there were dips and natural changes in the landscape around the fence and it was impossible to see that far, as it bent round and we had to watch our feet. So there were times when it felt like a dance and other times where we felt anxious that the chain would break, especially where the fence cornered in different places.
We all faced in towards the fence and tied or pinned photographs and letters and objects to the fence. Women tied on tampax, and beautifully framed photographs of their families and friends, children’s drawings, natural objects, and collages. We sang and whistled and chanted.
I remember thinking what a long time it would take to untie and remove all the lovely objects, but perhaps they just blow torched it all off with a machine.
Angie Donoghue, Feminist Times member:
I’ve just dug out my Greenham Common Songbook (35 songs – new words to old tunes). The most memorable is:
You Can’t Kill The Spirit
Old and strong
She goes on and on and on
You can’t kill the spirit
She is like a mountain.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Second image: Greenham women on nuclear silo, dawn 1 January 1983. Photo credit Raissa Page, 1983, courtesy of Rebecca Johnson
Third image: Poster for Embrace the Base 1982 Greenham Common women’s peace camp, courtesy of Rebecca Johnson
Thank you to all Feminist Times members who got in touch about this piece. For more on the legacy of Greenham Common, see Guardian Films’ Your Greenham series, produced with Beeban Kidron.