The 12th December 1982 was cold. Not really the kind of day to be hanging about outside unless there is something you really have to do. But there was something that I and thousands of other women really, really had to do.
In 1981, the world was in the grip of the Cold War. To counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Thatcher’s Tory Government allowed the US to station 96 nuclear missiles at the RAF’s Greenham Common Airbase in Berkshire. Each missile carried four times as much force as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Some were horrified at the thought of such destructive power on British soil. And for 36 women from Cardiff it was too much. They marched from South Wales to the airbase to protest.
They established a Peace Camp at the gates, and were soon joined by many others. They cut perimeter fences, lay down in front of vehicles, blockaded entrances and let the world know that US missiles were not welcome.
On that chilly December day the Greenham Women had invited all-comers to join them to ‘Embrace the base’: to face the potential threat of nuclear destruction with a peaceful, loving embrace. It was a call-to-arms I, then aged 19, could not resist. And so I joined a twelve-mile-long chain of mostly women 30,000 strong. I stood hand in hand with them around the perimeter fence, singing, chanting, protesting. It was in this spirit that the Peace Camp was womanned for 19 years.
This is the way we women have always done it: sit-ins, chaining ourselves to railings, not giving up our seats on buses, standing calmly and quietly in the way of things we know to be wrong, even at the risk of arrest, beatings or being killed by passing racehorses.
Despite the women’s best efforts, in 1983 the first missiles arrived. During the 1980s the political climate thawed and by 1991 all the missiles had gone. All this time, the determined sorority dug in to continue their protest against nuclear weapons.
The bombs came and went anyway. Some might say the women made no difference. But the legacy of the Greenham women is more subtle than a slogan on a placard. The government had argued that the weapons were deployed as a deterrent. What the women exposed was that if that deterrent failed, secretly the Americans planned to fight their nuclear war in Europe and not their own territory. And most of all, they forced people to ask themselves what kind of a world do we want to live in?
So what kind of a world DO we want to live in?
In the face of climate change, dwindling natural resources and global over-population this is a question we are still asking. Today’s young women, many of who are fighting against the spiralling cost of a decent tertiary education, would do well to remember the long and proud history of women’s protest. Patience, determination and resilience, Sisters! It’s what got us the vote.
[Written by Jane Tomlinson]