Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

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Another high point of the People Power exhibition was their array of memorabilia from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which was formed in 1981 and officially disbanded in 2000. It was founded at RAF Greenham Common to protest nuclear weapons on site there, but remained for the next 19 years as both a peace camp and as a women’s-only space (which they decided it would be in 1982). Although it was not the first peace camp to be established, it was certainly the most famous of its kind. There were many similar peace camps formed in the 1980s following the popularity of Greenham Common, most of which were also set up outside military bases to protest war.

The Camp began in September 1981 when a Welsh group called ‘Women for Life on Earth’ marched from Cardiff to the RAF base in Berkshire. 36 women then chained themselves to the fence of the base in protest against nuclear weapons, one of whom was Thalia Campbell, the wearer of the jumpsuit below.

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What’s wonderful to note about this jumpsuit and the ribbons attached to it, is that the outfit was intentionally made to link ‘Women for Life on Earth’ with the Suffragette movement. The white/purple/green mix was first used by the Women’s Social and Political union in 1908, the claim being that purple symbolises dignity, white = purity, and green = hope. The WSPU was the largest group involved in the militant movement for women’s suffrage, making them the Suffragettes rather than the Suffragists (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). It’s curious that the Greenham women chose to use colours associated with a militant and at times violent movement, when they were a peace group who engaged in non-violent protest (much like the Committee of 100).

Here you see a connection made between first wave feminism and second wave feminism. Rather than taking their movement culture from the dominant culture, the Greenham women chose to align themselves with a famous movement from over 60 years beforehand. The colours would have been recognisable to people outside the movement, and it is possible that they may even have made people wary of the Greenham women, as the Suffragettes were known to create public disturbances and inflict material damage. Going by the ideas in Raymond Williams’s ‘Marsixm and Literature’, the Greenham women accessed the ‘cultural reservoir’ by incorporating these colours for their own movement culture.

The use of the Suffragette colours can also be seen in the poster and on the mug below. The poster, which dates back to July 1983, promotes a blockade of the Greenham Common air base. Like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament posters in my previous post, this one uses an image from the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945. Like CND, the Greenham women are using a famous and evocative example of the horror that nuclear weaponry can inflict.

 

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The mug was designed by Lou Kenton, who created commemorative pottery for both the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the CND. The women holding hands depicted on the mug reference the peace chain and ‘Embrace the Base’ events organised by the Greenham women.

Although it can be difficult to assess the entirety of the camp’s ‘movement culture’ as it was in operation for 19 years, you get a good impression of the culture during the anti-nuclear period of the early 1980s. Alongside the use of Suffragette colours, you see the use of the ‘peace’ symbol, originally designed for CND. At times this sign was adapted to include the women’s symbol as well, since Greenham continued to be a women’s camp. Although their events and demonstrations in the 1980s were primarily focused on peace and nuclear disarmament, they remained a womens-only camp until 2000. Peace protests and pacifism had been a major focus for women’s rights groups and movements in the early 20th century as well, to the point where pacifism was seen as a ‘women’s cause’. Although this was no longer the case in the 1980s, the use of Suffragette colours and the female symbol shows that the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was happy to continue in their predecessor’s legacy.

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(Photograph from the Imperial War Museum, taken by Ed Barber in February 1982)

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