The Danish Peace Academy

Documentation: Spare Rib : Greenham Inside and out

'Greenham women' - household words these days - or are they? The initial scepticism of some feminists seems to have subsided when faced with the amazing speetacle of over 30,000 women disregarding difficult conditions to converge on Greenham, when it's all some campaigns can do to raise 50 to a demonstration these days. With Greenham Support Groups springing up everywhere, it would seem at first glance that feminism is once again spreading like wildfire. But can we assume that it has anything to do with Women's Liberation? Who is being reached, who is being active, why, and what impact is it having? Rather than speculate, and bearing in mind the near impossibility of pinning down any movement with complete accuracy, we decided to, on the one hand, look at how the 'woman in the street' has been affected by Greenham, and, on the other hand, see what sort of polities Greenham women hold.

Does the Greenham protest affect what women think about nuclear disarmament? What do women think of the protest? Do they like it being all women? Does it make them think more about feminism, or about whether there are links between male supremacy and the nuclear threat? Spare Rib looks at same national polls and conducts a small survey of her own to try and find out how many women Greenham has reached.

National Polls

The results of the national polls published in the Guardian give little evidence that the protest at Greenham has changed women's opinion about Cruise. The balance of opinion (about half against, a third approving of Cruise while one in six have no opinion) has been essentially the same since April 1981 - three years ago. Compared to men, women have been slightly more likely to not approve of Cruise, and more likely to have no opinion. Over the past three years, men may have shifted their opinion slightly towards disapproval of Cruise, or indecision that is, slightly more towards agreement with women.

It is possible that the December 11, 1982 encirclement of the base had some temporary impact on people's opinion.

In January 1983, both men and women were more likely to say they disapproved of Cruise. Unfortunately, answers to other questions don't back up any optimism that the most widely known action substantially changed women's opinion about Britain's arms policy. In fact the poll in January 1983 showed slightly fewer women (23% as compared to 32% four months earlier) in favour of Britain abandoning nuclear weapons.

Are women more in favour of peace than men? The Guardian polls show only slightly more women than men strongly for disarmament, 17% of women - and 15% of men - favour Britain abandoning nuclear weapons. The only indication of women being more anti-nuke is that 54% of women and 48% of men disapprove of Cruise.

If women were consistently more for disarmament than are men, I would expect women to be more in favour of abandoning nuclear weapons (but they are as likely to, disapprove of Cruise (yes, they do, by 6&), and to be most likely to disagree with Reagan and Thatcher, and less likely to blame the Soviet Union - but 7% more women than men blame Russia for the threat to peace.

Unfortunately, disapproving of Cruise does not necessarily mean a woman is against Reagan-Thatcher defense policies. In the 1981 poll, about one in three women approved of Cruise - but one in two agreed with Thatcher and Reagan in calling for vigilance against the Soviet Union. It may be that more women than men have no strong opinion about nuclear weapons and defense policy. Women are more likely to say they don't know. Other than that they are not consistently different from, men in response to 'peace-hawk' questions in these particular polls.

Has Greenham raised women's awareness of the nuclear threat? It does not seem to have made women more pessimistic about the threat of nuclear war. In April 1981, as well as in January and 11, October 1983, the polls asked if prospects for peace were better or worse than they had been a year ago. Most thought the chances for peace were worse now than a year ago, but the proportion thinking more pessimistically had gone down from 1981 to 1983, while the percent thinking the prospects for peace are the same now as before seems to have increased.

'Worse' has more meaning if you think the enhances of nuclear war are great. In 1983, the polls asked about the likelihood of nuclear war before the year 2000. Most (50-60%) thought nuclear war was not likely, but close to a third thought war was quite likely, and another one in six would not venture a guess. There was no sign that fear of nuclear war was growing, or that women were becoming more pessimistic about prospects for peace.

This does not necessarily mean that Greenham has not made women think more about what to do - but it probably does mean that Greenham does not scare women about war - it may just give them a way to protest about how they already feel about nuclear weapons!

Out and About

The Guardian polls don't ask questions about Greenham, so we decided to do a small survey of our own. We picked Exmouth Market (a small market street around the corner from the Spare Rib office) as the place to interview, mainly because it is convenient. We thought it would be as good a place as any to find a cross-section of women with a bit of time and inclination to answer a few questions.

We interviewed 41 women. Thirty-six were white and said they were from Wales, Ireland, or Englannd; five were Black and said they were from the West Indies. The sample was fairly evenly divided on socio-economic class - half working class, half middle class. Most (60%) were under thirty, and the rest were as likely to be over fifty as under. About half (mostly the younger Women) were single; one woman said she was a lesbian. Of course, it is not possible to guess what women in Britain think by interviewing a few women in Exmouth Market. But we thought these interviews would at least suggest what women not involved with Greenham think about a women's peace camp.

This small survey is just a step beyond believing, instead of asking if, women have heard of Greenham and thought about the issues it raises.

Almost everyone had heard of Greenham, although a few had not and several more did not recognise it by name or said they had no idea what the women looked like, as they had not seen pictures of them. When asked what they thought of the women at Greenham, about two out of three said favourable things, ranging from a 66 year old working class woman who said "They are brave women; I would like to be like them", to a 21 year old Irish women who said "They are a great bunch of ladies!" The other third had some questions about Greenham. One 28, middle class, in favour of disarmament, and from Alconbury (a village in Cambridgeshire with another US Air Force base) said: "They are sincere in their beliefs, but their heads are in an ideal world - and they won't accomplish anything." A 51 year old middle class woman, a member of CND, said: "I admire the women's guts, but I'm dubious about their methods. I'm afraid middle-of-the-road concerned feminists have been pushed aside in favour of an extreme feminist element. That image puts people off, and could do more harm than good to the Greenham women's cause." A young woman who works for a press agency said "I can see their point about not siting Cruise here, but I think Britain has to be armed some way or other." She was critical because "... the women at Greenham have gone off and left their kids and this is a bad thing ... many of the women there must be social rejects."

As far as Greenham being all women, almost one out of three thought that was a good idea. One woman (32, white, degree in art history) said she thought it being all women was the most import ant part of Greenham. The most frequent comment in favour was that it is less aggressive than if there were men there. One (66,left school at 14 because there wasn't enough money) said 'Men are mad on war and the women get left to pick up the bits after the war.'

But most did not think it was good that Greenham is only women. Most made mild comments: 'It would be better if both men and women were protesting together.' (18 years old, white, doing her Alevels); 'Don't see why it should be all women' (teenager, left school at 16, white); 'Think it' would be better if it was mixed' (studying O and A levels - Black); 'Should be everybody, not just women' (middle aged, Jamaican-born Black woman). But some thought it was 'disgraceful' (21, Black woman studying speech therapy).

When asked if they would rather join a woman-only peace protest like Greenham, or a mixed sex one like CND, only one in ten opted for women-only. Almost one in three said neither (some quite vehemently), but half said they'd choose something like CND.

Perhaps reflecting that they did not know that much about Greenham women rather than being a judgement on the politics of Greenham, one in five women said they did not think women at Greenham were feminists - only a third thought most or all at Greenham are feminists.

Has Greenham made women more in favour of nuclear disarmament? Most of the women we spoke to (about 60%) thought that Britain should not have nuclear weapons and were in favour of disarmament. About one in three thought the Greenham protest had made them more in favour or made them pay more attention to the issue. Most had made up their mind for or against disarmament before Greenham. For instance, one white working class woman in her sixties said "I have always been in favour of peace - Greenham has not made any difference."

Does Greenham change women's ideas about feminism? Only two of the 35 women we talked with had ever belonged to a feminist group, but about one in four felt sympathetic towards feminism and supported feminism in some way or other. About half had heard of Spare Rib - but they did not necessarily mean they were sympathetic. One Welsh woman - working class - said "I am not in favour of women's liberation" and refused to accept a copy of Spare Rib. An unmarried white English woman, who had taken A levels and was earning a reasonable salary, said she had not read Spare Rib for years; she liked some of Spare Rib, but thought some was "too militant and too extreme".

Class and Opinion of Greenham Working class and middle class women in our sample were equally likely to be in favour of Greenham, but working class women were slightly less likely to like it being all women; 59% of working class, and only 47% of middle class women said they weren't keen on that aspect of Greenham But when it came to joing a group, or going to Greenham, class made much more of a difference - middle class women were more likely to say they would join CND or Greenham (some already belonged), and more middle -- class women' said--they would consider going to Greenham. Almost half of the 'working class women as compared to a quarter of middle class women said they'd join neither CND nor Greenham; no working class woman said she would join Greenham while three middle class women said they would choose Greenham over CND.

The biggest difference that class made was support of feminism 'and knowing about Spare Rib. About two out of three middle class women said they supported feminism, but only one out of nine working class women mentioned any support for feminism. Several said they didn't know any feminists; others said feminists were, "far too militant". Almost all (four out of five) middle class women, but only a minority (one out of three) working class women had heard of SR.

Black women

We spoke to five Black women - three were still going to school, two were middle aged. Four were in favour of Greenham, and two would consider going to Greenham. None thought it was a good idea that Greenham is all women; none thought they would prefer to join Greenham rather than CND (three said neither group; two chose CND). Four out of five had heard of SR.

at the camp

We wanted to interview a range of women at Greenham to find out about their politics, what they thought they had accomplished, and what they thought about the connections between the Greenham protest and feminism. Are Greenham women and their supporters long-time peace activists? Are they feminist activists? Has working at Greenham strengthened their feminism, and vice versa?

We spoke to 13 women on Sunday afternoon April 1, the day before evictions were expected at the main gate. It was Mother's Day. Perhaps 500 women had come down for the day I some would stay on to help persuade the local authorities to not bother trying to evict.

We did not ask the Greenham women and their supporters about their class background and race and national origin. It did look as if most were middle class and while; I only saw two Black women. Class and race issues are discussed. One of the women who lives at the camp talked about her concern about the lack of Black women. Some of the supporters were optimistic about the range of women who show up, hoping that this breaks down prejudice and cuts across class. But I was afraid one of the supporters was right, as most did fall within the range she described - "from punks to middle class ladies”.

The Camp Residents

Five of the women we spoke to were more or less part of the Greenham camp, having lived there for half a year or more, or having been regular visitors for years. Two were in their forties, the others in their twenties. All had been interested in peace issues for years one of the older women said she first thought about nuclear arms 26 years ago, that being her first CND march. One of the younger women said she had become interested five years ago when she was 16.

Their politics were 'integrative', combining ideas from the peace movement and feminism. Four of them thought Greenham was feminist, and had perhaps strengthened their feminism. One of the older women said 'Green ham is a space for women to share their experiences with each other, where you are not told what to do, so you can discover what you can do for yourself. The important thing is support of other women in the same position, women getting together and saying we won't be oppressed. Being here has made me more aware of feminism and more determined to not be oppressed.'

Another said the protest 'has broadened my understanding of where sexism and violence fit into the structure'. One of the younger women said Greenham had not made her into a feminist, as she had been a separatist woman before she came there. One said that tags - 'isms' were not the point, that neither, sexiam, nor feminism, nor any other'ism' politics were at the centre of it - the point was that 'we are common women'. She said 'I feel we are living on the edge of our sanity. There is evil all around the world, and this is drawing it out ... and we have to deal with our own violence too.'

All of the camp activists stressed growing awareness. Some believed in spirituality. One said 'You can make changes by thinking about the positive instead of the negative'. She also suggested that Greenham was 'changing the heads of the police, but hate blocks it out. One woman understand this, they can change things'. Another woman stressed persistence: 'We haven't finished yet, and will stay until we're done - total world liberation is our eventual goal'.

The Supporters

The eight supporters and visitors we spoke to ranged from women on their first day visit to women who had been down a half dozen times, and had stayed overnight for a couple of days.

Most had been concerned about nuclear disarmament for many years; quite a few were members of CND. Several were involved in other political groups. Six of the eight were active feminists, two had worked at or volunteered at women’s refuges, several mentioned going on Reclaim the Night-marches, most had been in women's support groups and knew about and supported feminist actions. One women said feminism had led her to become active in the peace movement. Several felt that Greenham had given them support for their feminism. One said that initially she had been wary of Greenham being 'women-only', but-now she is convinced that it is very valuable to have a women's peace camp. However- one woman did not think feminism was irrelevant. She was an ex-Land Girl (Land Girls were women conscripted during World War II to do agricultural work), and said 'you have to be more subtle than feminists are to be effective. I'm not into burning my bra - I need it!' She thought that Greenham wasn't feminist, it was just that women have got more sense. Men have an aggressive instinct, so women here wanted an all women camp and want to keep it that way.' She thought the accomplishment of the camp was making the world aware ... 'but the media buggers it and makes people forget the message and concentrate on the odd ones.'

One woman wasn't sure what would make Greenham a feminist action. She felt it obviously was feminist, even though different women there had different ideas on what feminism meant. She was camping overnight for the first time, and thought the debates at Greenham, about how to change society, what changes they wanted, and questions about violence and non-violence, and what was violence anyway, were a good thing. She worried that a protest might in some ways legitimize the current political process. She said, 'Maybe we are used by the system, but Greenham is a cultural struggle. Society is broken in to little boxes - women are put in their place, men in another place. Design has its place' (she is an artist), 'everything has its place ... But Greenham brings things together. 'She thought Greenham's way of organizing was good - for one thing, so many Women were involved, she did not feel any one was essential. She said, 'I don't wish to martyr myself, and I might not get so much support in other women's action groups. '

The goals of the Greenham supporters include process as well as issues. One woman said 'I don't know if all the women here would call themselves feminist, but we do look at the links between peace, and women in prison.' Another woman joined in: "Yes, when I first came, maybe I wasn't in to feminism. Maybe it is about a broader thing - not just feminism, and not just nuclear war u it is more about the whole structure.

Black Woman’s reaction

My immiidiate response to Greenham:-
'I was ecstatic'... meeting so many women of all ages" actively working for the struggle against the arms race, working against the negative acts of men. The ecstatic image which I retain is the image of the power created by women working together; I remembef in particular in December '83 a group of separatist lesbians at the main gate creating such an aura of energy that they eclipsed the men outside our circle (policemen and male CND supporters) and the destructive world.

Few Black Women there. Why?
Yes; it struck me. There are problems I know for other Black friends of mine to go to Greenham - fears of deportation as they do not hold British passports, the racism and sexism of the police there, and of course the fact that it costs money to get to Greenham! The major reason, I feel, is that Black people have so many causes to fight for, the immediate causes of fighting to survive in this world in which we still exist, fighting against racism and sexism, fascism, imperialism, unemployment, poor housing, capitalism.

To these causes Greenham does seem elitist, isolationist. Black women I feel support Greenham, but cannot easily support Greenham outside the base now.

- Annie Hole, Irene Shepstone, Bernie Davinon, Susan Ardill, Susan Peterson. and Alice Henry did interviews; Alice Henry compiled and wrote up the information.

Press Coverage

The way the papers have treated Greenham is surprisingly predictable. You could use it as a pocket guide to the British Press - liberal, decent Guardian and Daily Mirror, pseudoobjective Times; snobby Telegraph and absurdly reactionary Sun, Daily Mail and Daily' Express.

Though you might expect 'opinion' pieces to be - well, the most opinionated, the crudest views usually appear in the right-wing tabloids' editorials, like the Daily Express's 'Greenham Common harpies', and 'peace "thugettes'; or the Sun’s 'hysterical bands of harridans' (both 13.12,83),

The year before, at the first huge embracing of the base, the theme was 'moving. But misguided' - something the right-wing papers felt they could say because 'There were just too' many respectable women there, and they far out numbered the strident, loudmouthed feminists,' (Daily Express, 13.12,82) The Daily Mail, however, worried about that: 'Whatever it did for the anti-nuclear cause, it did no good for feminism ... Nice of them to be so concerned, really. I counted an average of five 'Mrs' a story at that time; lots of children, too.

The Daily Mirror, which has, with a few exceptions, printed very sympathetic pieces, has always stressed the sacrifices for the sake of the children. But the same ideas - of leaving families behind, of weathering the mud - have been consistently used against women at Greenham by other papers. 'They ought now to recognise that they have a duty to the families they left behind' (SUII, 26.8.83); 'W e have all heard of the woman who has left home, husband and children to join the peace campers of Greenham Common, saying "world peace" was more important than any domestic, marital or maternal ties'. (Daily Telegraph, 19.1.83) All the right-wing papers loved the false 'dysentery' scare, the 'starving baby' and, of course, Helen John's divorce, quoting from her husband, 'She had changed from a housewife and mother we knew into a fervent feminist and nuclear protestor it was very frightening' and 'Why me'! Why not some bloke who hasn't got five children to look after'. (Daily Express, Daily Mail, both 8.1.83) Altogether now. -- aaaaargh.

The mud itself seems to have ended up the most disgusting aspect of the affair: 'squalid disorganised and above all muddy' (Mail on Sunday, 12.3.83); 'this grubby, commune', 'slatternly, disease-prone tip'. (Daily Express, 20.8.83). Obviously no real woman would live there: Or, as the Express so amusingly put it, 'Instead' of a fence round Greenham Common they should dig a moat and fill it with champagne, asses' milk, Chanel No.5 and men with massive dorsals. They'd clear out all those awful women within half an hour'... '(14.12.83)

Lots of references to lesbians; to women kissing if they realy wanted to shock. The curious thing is that no-one knew how to draw a Greenham lesbian - cartoonists stuck with their all-purpose 'ugly' woman, made-up and enormous-breasted. Boring old Peter Simple in the Daily Telegraph could write about 'a huge moustached peace woman', but the actual sight of one would be too much. Or perhaps it just says something about the skill of the average tabloid cartoonist.

Almost the most shocking thing about the coverage - for anti-lesbianl anti-punk/anti-independent woman stuff is only to be expected - is some paper's weird view of 'democracy'.

'If Mgr. Kent, Mr. Kinnock and the rest of the Labour bosses really respect the democratic process, they will tell the Greenham Common women to go home now' (Sun, 13.12,83), or 'Surely it is not beyond the Government's ingenuity to devise legislation which ensures that no pack of mindless and mischievous militants, of whatever sex, is allowed within miles of a nuclear base' (D. Express. 20.8.83). Famously reactionary journalists have been famously reactionary about it. Peregrine Worsthorne had 'contempt for the weakness of their logic. If justice were to be left to women. it would be very rough indeed... Judgment is what women lack... In the old days this did not matter all that much, since by and large the emotional impatience of women did not greatly affect the conduct of public affairs ...'

Nastiest bit of coverage - papers being so cheerful about how 'trigger-happy' the soldiers at Greenham are. The silliest? This bit, surely from the poor old liberal Daily Mirror, about women bringing up children at the camp: 'I fear they do little for the case of ordinary women. Particularly those women who battle for years trying to persuade local councils to house them and their children in decent, fit-to-live-in accommodation' (18.5.83) ...

Ruth Wallsgrove

Scanned and proofread by Holger Terp, October 25, 2005.


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