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Voices from a feminist antinuclear encampment

Voices from a feminist antinuclear encampment

27 June 2024

Newsletters produced by a group of women protesting the deployment of nuclear missiles in the UK offer a window into an oft-forgotten piece of Cold War history.

Protesters hold hands in a circle. Two police cars are visible in the foreground.
Members of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp hold hands atop a nuclear missile silo on New Year’s Day 1983. Photograph by © Raissa Page. For permission to reproduce, please contact the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, UK

Four women chained themselves to a fence after arriving at the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, UK, on 5 September 1981 and demanded a televised debate with a representative of the UK Ministry of Defense. Along with a few dozen activists who accompanied them, the women were protesting the government’s decision to deploy nuclear-tipped US cruise missiles at the base.

The protesters established a camp that they soon determined would be inhabited only by women. They began carrying out nonviolent direct protest actions aimed at hampering the outpost’s operation. What became known as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp rocketed into the public consciousness on 12 December 1982, when more than 30 000 women formed a human chain surrounding the airfield in an action they dubbed “Embrace the Base.”

Cover of the February 1983 Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp newsletter.
The cover of the February 1983 newsletter. At top right, a price tag indicates that this copy once retailed for 40 pence. Photo courtesy of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives

The peace camp was established during one of the Cold War’s tensest moments: As the 1970s era of détente faded, both the US and Soviet Union began to deploy a new generation of nuclear missiles across Europe that promised to obliterate the continent within minutes if war broke out. With antinuclear sentiment at an all-time high, the peace camp quickly attracted attention from the mainstream press. Some coverage was patronizing, portraying the women as idealistic naïfs. Much of it was even less kind. As the historian Anna Feigenbaum wrote in 2012, the UK tabloids typically portrayed the protesters as “man-hating lesbians flaunting their sexuality” in a filthy, unsanitary camp.

To combat sensationalistic stories—and to help raise funds and attract participants—peace camp members created a partially typed, partially handwritten and hand-drawn newsletter that would be mailed to supporters and sold in local bookstores. The newsletters are some of the few primary sources cataloging the activities, motivations, and everyday life of the women at Greenham. “Camp-based newsletters, infosheets, and booklets,” wrote Feigenbaum, “created space for the amplification of women’s voices, covered a diversity of perspectives, and offered a range of criticisms, celebrations, and reflections on the Greenham encampment and protest.”

The Greenham newsletters are perhaps better described as zines—noncommercial publications with a homemade or self-published quality. Often associated with such movements as the punk subculture and third-wave feminism, zines are typically assembled by hand from various sources. The final product is created on a photocopier or mimeograph machine, which gives zines an analog, do-it-yourself quality that embodies their creators’ typically antiestablishment ideals.

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives holds a copy of the February 1983 edition of the newsletter, which documents life at the camp for roughly three months, starting from November 1982. (The library is part of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.) The issue contains typewritten and handwritten articles, drawings, poems, doodles, marginalia, pictures, comic strips, song lyrics, and more. Some pieces are credited to individuals, many of whom are identified solely by first names or nicknames; other works are authored anonymously.

A comic illustrating a February 1983 protest.
A portion of the comic “A Snaky Story,” apparently drawn by camp member Gillian Booth. Photo courtesy of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives

A consistent theme in the zine is snake imagery: The hand-drawn cover art features six intertwined snakes (some with two heads), and tiny snakes appear in the margins throughout. The adoption of the snake as a symbol appears to have been for two reasons. The first was metaphorical: By embracing the snake, the women were reclaiming the patriarchal Genesis story of the serpent deceiving Eve.

The second was literal. Some protests at Greenham Common involved women entering in single-file groups and “snaking” through the base in serpent costumes. One of the most striking contributions to the zine is a five-page comic, seemingly authored by a camp member named Gillian Booth, that depicts a 7 February 1983 protest. Titled “A Snaky Story,” the comic shows three groups of women entering the base in snake costumes through a gap in the fence cut by camp members. Two groups are apprehended on the base’s main runway; the third walks past “offices, officers, workmen, and a room full of children” before being arrested near the base’s main gate.

Most contributions to the zine are personal narratives. One, by Sue, recounts the December 1982 Embrace the Base protest. Echoes of present-day discourse on diversity and inclusion are present in Sue’s lament that the protest was marred by “many supposedly supportive men present who just did not respect women’s space.” (Although men were not allowed to stay overnight at the camp, they were occasionally invited to join for specific protest actions.) Accompanying photos depict the human chain, a candlelight vigil, and a protest banner denouncing UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher: “No cruise [missiles] PLEASE! There are better ways to prove your virility. That includes you, Maggie!”

A large group of people near the entrance to a military base.
Protesters block one of the entrances to the Royal Air Force Greenham Common base, probably on 13 December 1982. Credit: Mike Goldwater/Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps the most memorable picture in the zine shows a group of women holding hands in a circle atop a missile silo in the early morning light, with police cars and barbed wire visible in the foreground. Taken by Raissa Page, the hauntingly beautiful image accompanies a narrative account of the protest, which involved scaling the base fence the morning of New Year’s Day 1983. “We cheered,” wrote Bee, the author, “waved, jumped up and down, hugged each other in what seemed like an endless amount of energy!”

The peace camp lasted for nearly 20 years with varying numbers of participants. It finally disbanded in 2000, eight years after the air force base had closed. Coupled with the broad collective memory of massive protests like Embrace the Base, the longevity of the camp has made it a touchstone in UK antinuclear, feminist, and Cold War history. With nuclear tensions today at arguably their highest point since the peace camp was established in 1981, the Greenham newsletters deserve attention once again.

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