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Greenham Common: an Exchange

Greenham Common:

An Exchange
Kate Sopev and Alison Assitev
On 12 December 1982, some 35,000 women congregated
at the Greenham Common air force base near Newbury to
create an ‘event’ unique in the history of antinuclear protest. On the following day, more than a
thousand who stayed behind with members of the resident Peace Camp staged one of the most successful
pieces of non-violent direct action seen in Britain
of recent years.

Throughout its duration, the demonstration was
headline news. Within hours of its ending, Parliament
had been forced into holding an emergency debate on
nuclear policy, in which the Womens Peace Camps and
the Greenham Common activities were continual reference points. All the signs suggest, in fact, that
the demonstration has inaugurated a period of new and
more intensive questioning not only about the wisdom
of the deployment of Cruise missiles in this country,
but about our nuclear defence policy as a whole and
the appallingly undemocratic manner in which crucial
decisions affecting it have been made.

‘Twelve hours after a 30,000
strong army of concerned
housewives and grandmothers
had gone home police had to
battle with the mainly hard-core
leftovers. ‘

That the Greenham Common protest should have
captured the eye of the media and the imagination of
the British public is not surprising. Visually
spectacular, and sustained throughout by an extraordinary spirit of shared conviction, it was bound to
prove moving even to those who merely observed it.

For those who participated in it, it was a shaking and
at times almost harrowing experience. Many seemed
close to tears much of the day, and few of us, I
think, had come fully prepared for the emotional
power that was generated by the concerted display in
public of our more personal and private sentiments.

For while it had been tacitly understood by everyone
that this was an occasion on which one proclaimed
unashamedly and with total directness on behalf of
life and against its destruction, no one could have
judged beforehand quite what would be the effects of
this collective throwing off of inhibition. Thousands of intimate possessions, photographs of lovers
and children, items of clothing, toys, poems and
pictures were sacrificed in the course of the day to

the nine-mile perimeter of wire fencing that surrounds the base. Its whole circumference was bodily
’embraced’ by a human chain of demonstrators; large
sections of it were knitted up with miles of wool;
it was bedecked with streamers; it was hung with
improvised wreaths and peace symbols made of bracken
and grass and anything that came to hand.

As dusk fell, demonstrators moved towards the main
gates leaving a ring of candles eerily lighting the
day’s contrivances – a fragile fringe of tributes to
life in stark contrast to the substantiality of the
mounds of earth and concrete construction that loomed
behind it. At the gates themselves a ceremony was
created ex nihito, a relentless denunciation of war,
that had all the solemnity of an ancient ritual
backed by long years of tradition. Flanked by banks
of candles embedded in the grass, and holding more
brands and candles aloft, we chanted repeatedly and
monotonously the most basic themes of peace and disarmament. Over several hours this litany continued,
diversified only by the menacing collective whooping,
rising and falling like a siren, that greeted every
sign of movement by the personnel inside the bas~.

Here were women in their thousands warning the world
off from the war-mongers at the door, and darkly
hinting to the war-mongers themselves that there are
wiles and stratagems that can undo the best laid
plans of men.

But that the press and public should have responded
to this remarkable dialectic of strength and gentleness, enigmatic imagery and blatant emotionality, is
one thing. That it had so immediate and strong an
impact in the political realm is another – and an
effect all the more paradoxical given its very deliberate refusal to address itself to politics or to
make use of standard political forms. It was a demonstration without leaders, without orders and almost
without organisation. Above all, it was a demonstration free of the politicking normal on such occasions
~the one attempt at a shout of ‘Thatcher out!’ was
snuffed out in a tirade of abuse against ‘macho21

sloganising’). That it should nonetheless have made
itself so insistent politically must therefore surely
go to confound those critics who are so kind as to
approve the good intentions of the peace movement but
profess themselves in despair over its ‘a-political’

character. For just as out of our supposed weakness
has come forth strength, so out of the a-political
has come the political (and with it yet one more nail
in the coffin of the old metaphysical principle that
from like causes like effects!).

‘Nor can it be dismissed as a
protest of a radical minority. There
were just too many respectable
women there, and they far outnumbered the strident, loudmouthed feminists.’

In explaining the achievement of Greenham Common
some may want to put the emphasis on the fact that it
was so exclusively female, meaning by this that women,
by virtue of their good behaviour (less violent, more
patient, etc.) and their womanly interests (i.e. in
children, not politics), are able to elicit these
solid, respectable bourgeois sympathies that the more
aggressive and disreputable style of male protest
only serves to alienate. There may be an element of
truth in this, but it does not do justice to the
complexity of feelings that animated the demonstration (and which, of course, included resistance to
any straightforward identification of ourselves with
standard female roles and values even as we tactically exploited them). Nor, to my mind, can it explain the seriousness with which it has been taken.

A better explanation of its success may lie in its
absolute refusal to compromise with the language of
the opposition. To disdain to talk of anything but
life, love and peace is to create a language fortress
against which the other ‘realist’ language of
‘deterrence’, ‘balance of forces’, ‘parity’ and

‘multilaterialism’ can only rail in vain, and from
which in the end it is bound to retire baffled and
morally defeated. And today in Britain we have a
very high level of moral repugnance to nuclear weapons combined with a very high degree of awareness of
how much in fact is dangerous fantasy that is argued
for in the name of sober ‘realism’. In pointing the
finger so directly at the combined obscenity and
absurdity of the arms race and its latest spirals,
the women of Greenham Common expressed the feelings
and frustrations of a much wider public increasingly
disaffected with what is going on in the name of its
protection, and ever more doubtful of the sanity of
those responsible for it.

It is, of course, too soon to pronounce definitivelyon the significance of Greenham Common (how, in
any case, does one assess historical significance?).

But this at least, I think, one can say of it already,
that it has ensured that the Womens Peace Camps will
become the main focus of anti-Cruise activity over
the coming year, and the site of increasingly massive
exercises in non-violent direct action. Thanks
primarily to those who are still huddled in their
squalid settlements around the gates of the bases up
and down the country, and secondarily to those who
went to Greenham Common in December to support and
celebrate their initiative, a new style of protest,
powerful, resilient and unpredictable in its consequences, has been put on the map of British politics.

Firmly established now for further use in the future,
it is something which all of us, women and men, who
are committed to the struggle against militarism,
may find ourselves increasingly involved in as we
move into the Eighties.

Kate Soper

Reply to Kate

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Kate Soper offers a vivid description of the moving
and powerful demonstration by thousands of women at
Greenham Common on 12 December. She portrays the
significance of the demonstration for those who
observed it and – more so – for those of us who
participated. And she points to the impact of the
women’s action on Parliament in this country.

The focus of her piece lies in the effect the
women’s action has had upon the course of negotiations over the deployment of Cruise Missiles in this
country. It is surely vital, however, for women to
comment on the images of themselves that were
exploited at Greenham. Women presented themselves as
wives and mothers. We drew, in the protest, on
qualities which have traditionally been ascribed to
us, often by men: nurturance, pacificism, on concern
with morality, peace and life as against war and
death. Kate says that there was resistance to the
identification of women with standard female roles.

Nonetheless without in any way denigrating the
demonstration as an immensely powerful portrayal of
the peace movement; indeed, at the moment, a leading



source of inspiration ·for it, we must recognise that
the images of women we presented lent encouragement
to some of the press reports that appeared during the
following week. Some of them – for example those in
the Daily Express of 13 December – exhibited the fear
of people in the centres of political power in this
country of the influence of the resistance movement.

The Daily Express needed to portray the women as ‘the
unwitting dupes of Russian propaganda’. However,
many newspapers quoted women demonstrators themselves.

One newspaper reported a woman saying: ‘1 am not a
fanatical women’s libber or a horny professional
demonstrator’. Though there was some divergence in
the press’ emphasis on the extent to which the women
were the ‘dupes’ of Russian propaganda, the papers
unanimously attached importance to the fact that most
of the women were ‘ordinary’ women and not feminists,
lesbians and ‘professional demonstrators’. And we
must admit that these reports were not contradicted
by the demonstration itself.

‘If wo.o. do.’t wo.t to
be treatod lib doormats.

W’IIy do tlioy 110 o. door.


Reply to Alison

My piece, product as it was of immediate postGreenham euphoria and written primarily as a news
item, was in many respects too uncritical. Alison’s
comment is a needed corrective to it. Yet 1 think
there is more involved here than a balancing of
accounts and that our viewpoints are not entirely

This relates in part to a difference in impression~
we received of the events at Greenham. Alison claims
that nothing of what she says ‘detracts from the
power of the demonstration’. Yet its power in my
view would have been lessened had we gone simply as
‘wives and mothers’ .or connived as straightforwardly
with anti-feminist sentiment as Alison suggests we
did. 1 felt that the majority of women at Greenham
were alert to the contradictory aspects of what they
were doing, and experienced quite complex feelings
regarding it. Many, who like myself are mothers,
felt, 1 think, that this was an occasion on which to
draw attention to that side of their lives, and
resented the idea that they should be branded traitors to feminism for expressing themselves in that
capacity. At the same time, we were wary about the
conclusions that might be drawn from it.

Of course this is one type of political propaganda.

The peace moveme~t ~”,ould gain nothing from a demonstration that projected itself as run by ‘burly
lesbians’ (the Sun’s characterisation of a minority
of the women there) or indeed by feminists and
lesbians. But we must remember this. Though concerned with the issue of Cruise Missiles, the demonstration was a women’s action. Sunday’s activity
presented an image of women as ‘normally’ wives and
mothers, and only extraordinarily feminists, lesbians,
political activists. We must not allow ourselves, in
our concern for the moral aspects of peace and not
war, to be taken in by these images of ourselves.

Feminists, lesbians, etc. are not just eccentric outcasts working outside ‘real’ politics in Britain.

Rather, feminists, recently, have done much to
challenge the assumption that women’s role is
‘naturally’ that of wife and mother. And it is
consistent with feminist thinking that women should
not stop at righteous moral indignation over the
horrors of nuclear weaponry, but rather that they
should arrive at a cogent reasoned perspective on
militarism and ‘defence’ policy. There is a danger
that women, in their proper concern with the horrors
of nuclear weaponry, will concur with the opposition’s
desire to ‘keep them in their proper place’ as wives
and mothers. We must not allow ourselves to be
misled into believing that our only power at the
present time lies in projecting ourselves as nurturant and passive. We have other skills and aptitudes.

1 don’t believe that any of this detracts from the
power of the demonstrations at Greenham Common. On
the contrary, only by critically learning from our
past can we progress in the future.

A1ison Assiter

Of course, such nuanced feelings do not make good
headlines, and in the eyes of the press we had to be
either ‘ordinary’ women or feminists. The problem
that this raises, as Alison herself more or less acknowledges, is to know how women should conduct themselves if they are not to ‘lend’ themselves to the
manipulations of Fleet Street – unless it be by
staying home ‘in their proper place’ quietly fretting
about the bomb. It is the classic move of our media
to attempt to undermine the solidarity of any massive
display of resistance to State policy by emphasising
what divisions it can find within its ranks.

Such difference in subjective impressions apart,
however, there are one or two points where I disagree with the principle of Alison’s remarks. I
would want to challenge the predominant viewpoint of
our culture that sees nurturing and childcare as an
essentially ‘passive’ dimension of human existence and this bears on what it was we thought we were
doing at Greenham. I did not think I was representing myself in some ‘natural’ role as mother nor even
simply the larger, and at the present time largely
female, constituency of those who look after children.

I saw myself as putting the point to society at large
and on behalf of all of us, that there is something
deeply wrong about a culture that sees itself as
passive when most energetically bent on the production and preservation of life. For me, part of the
function and originality of the demonstration was
that it made the link so clearly between the demand
for nuclear disarmament and the demand that we rethink that devaluation of the activities of childra1s1ng. The point was to bring out the immensity of
the contradiction between having nuclear weapons and
all the day-to-day care that men and women, adults
and children, bestow on each other.

Let me say, however, that I quite agree with
Alison that moral repugnance is not in itself enough.

It has to be made to work for us as part and parcel
of a coherent and rational policy for achieving disarmament. What worries me, however (and more now
than it did in December when the demarcation line
between separatist and non-separatist initiatives
was less firmly drawn and causing less abrasion in
the peace movement) is that many women may come to
see the politics of nuclear disarmament as exhausted
in the politics of radical feminism. For that could
prove to be not so much the construction of a cogent
programme for peace as an evasion of it. I am
worried, too, by the fact that some of the dafter
(not to say more offensive) ideas currently circulating – for example, that it was some omphalic ‘womanly’

force that drew us to Greenham and not our own
politics – are being voiced not so much by the ordinary wives and mothers, but by the self-professed
‘feminists’ .

Kate Soper

Back numbers of Radical Philosophy which may be of
interest to readers of this special issue are:


containing a review of A. Kollontai’s Sexual
Relations and Class Struggle
by Chris Arthur
with Ross Poole’s ‘Freedom and Alienation’,
covering autonomy and sexual politics. Richard
Archer replies at length in RPl5.

includes a review of two books by Ann Oakley,
Housewife and The Sociology of Housework
has Colin Gordon’s study of Foucault’s work,
including The History of Sexuality; and MichMe
le Doeuff’s ‘Women in Philosophy’

includes a review of Theweleit’s Mdnnerphantasien, tracinp, links between Capitalism, Fascism
and Sexism (by Penny Franks)
reviews Turkle’s study of political Lacanism,
Psychoanalytic Politics (by Michael Erben)
has John Bird’s article on ‘Lacan: The French
Freud?’ and Jean Grimshaw’s powerful critique
of Janet Radcliffe Richards’ The Sceptical
Feminist (the author replies in RP32).


Rates are available from the inside back cover.

annotated index to the first thirty issues of RP
can be obtained from Mike Shortland, Department of
Philosophy, Leeds University, Leeds LS2 9JT


thesis eleven
a journal of socialist scholarship
What is 8eyond Art’! On the theories of Post-Modernity
Deinstitu tionalization in Psychiatry, Everyday life
and Democracy
8recht: Epic Form and Realism: A Reconsideration
The Emotiunal Division of Labour 8etween the Sexes:

Perspectives on Feminism and Socialism
On the Dialectics uf Si!!nifying Practice

Ferenc Feher
Dovid Raberes
Agnes Helier
Paul Jones

The Genesis of English Cultural Studies
The Nuclear War Film

Peter Wotkins
(ieorge Morkus

Alienation and Reificatiun in Ma” and Lukacs
Work and Instrumental Action: On the Nurmative
8asis of Critical Theory
Introducing Wolf Biermann
History and Consciousness: Cultural Studies 8etween
Reification and Hegemony
Critical Marxism in East Europe Part 11

Axel Hont/et”
Wo/ Suchting
Peter Madsel/


An Interview
Peter Fuller and the 8iological Sources uf Art
The Politics of Feminist Theory in the 1980’s
Perspectives on the World Crisis
Consciousness and Action: Touraine
The Hermeneutics nfCritique

Peter Sdlneider
Grall/ Hal/I/an
Hester I:’ise/lsteil/
Raya D,l1Iaye”skaya
Sey/a Be”hahih


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