Women who chose to challenge

Women at Greenham Common. Above the picture is a demonstration song.
© Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

In the years after the Second World War, nations including the UK began developing and testing nuclear bombs. Whilst some people supported this action, others became worried about the threat of total destruction. Hear the stories of women who chose to challenge at Greenham Common Peace Camp.

This podcast was produced as part of the project Connecting, sharing, learning: sustaining relationships between collections and older communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project, which ran from July 2020 to July 2021, was kindly supported by The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, delivered by the Museums Association. Find out more here.

Podcast: We say no to the bomb

"We Are Women, We Are Women, We Are Strong, We Are Strong. We Say No, We Say No, To the Bomb, To the Bomb!"

That was the voice of Thalia Campbell, one of thousands of women who protested against nuclear weapons being placed at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, 40 years ago. In this podcast, we’ll hear from from more women like Thalia, who chose to challenge what was happening. But first, let’s talk about the events that led to the protest.

In the years after the Second World War, nations including the UK began developing and testing nuclear bombs, to try to deter other countries from launching a nuclear attack. Whilst some people supported this action, others became worried about the threat of total destruction.

Vida Henning and Sarah Coote spoke out in their hometown of Portsmouth. 

Vida Henning: “I got up on this little stage. And I told them what nuclear weapons were. I told them what the danger was about building them up and what could happen if some idiot let them go. Press the button or whatever. And I gave this little speech not long, about 10 minutes or so. And they listened in complete silence.”

Sarah Coote: "There was always a megaphone, and it was almost invariably in the hands of a man. Almost invariably it would be offered and no woman would ever stand, step forward and take the megaphone. And looking back I think my goodness I actually did that. I would walk up the steps and take the megaphone and
speak as a woman, just because there were no other women’s voices there were women standing in the Guildhall Square, lots of them, but the people talking were obviously always men with these loud voices and their own perspective and although they were talking anti war it was often quite aggressive sort of speak and yes I’m amazed at myself sometimes!"

In 1980 it was announced that 160 American Cruise Missiles would be based at Greenham Common air base. This sparked a women’s movement and protest at the site which would end up lasting for nineteen years from 1981 to 2000.

Nicky Skinner joined the movement for fear of her children's safety.

Nicky Skinner: "My motivation was my overriding safety and unease about the safety for my children. Greenham Common is within 100 miles of us, if anything were fired at Greenham, where the missiles were stored, then it wouldn’t just be Greenham that got hit it would spread out to Portsmouth …That was why I was really wanting to get active, because what’s the point of having children if you’re bringing them into a world where it’s not especially safe?”

A group of women organised a protest march from Cardiff in Wales to Greenham Common, walking over 100 miles. Thalia Campbell described the scene:

Thalia Campbell: "The banner was at the front of the march of various flags. We all had scarves, Greenham scarves which are faded now. They had a naked woman on them in purple and green, but she was very kind of abstract and spiky, not in my eyes, very aesthetically beautiful. But we had these scarves and we had suffrage ribbons in our hair, purple and green. And there was a beautiful garden when we arrived with a cherry tree, flower beds immaculately kept. And we spent the day there and what was so good all the way along on the march, we gained confidence to make public speeches. Because wherever people had put us up, wherever people had fed us, someone had to say thank you.

So we got used to standing on the chair and saying something about the day and what had happened to us and saying thank you for the lovely food and the baths.

So there was a lorry there was a lorry there, I don't know who organised it, and a microphone, and most of the women from the march got up took that microphone and made a small public speech, which I'm sure none of them would have been capable of before they set out on the march. And we did have a few formal speakers as well.

So we spent the day there sitting in the sun talking, getting to know each other, getting to know the locals who came out to meet us, making this public speech from the back of the lorry and gradually through the day. The lorry and gradually through the day. The decision was reached that we’d stay there. You know, we haven't achieved what we wanted. Because what we've been asking for the whole way was a debate on television with our government about cruise missiles.”

The women created a Peace Camp at the fence of the air base, and slept, ate and protested there in all weathers. Women from all walks of life came together to show their support, as Lynette Edwell and Jan
Castro Fraser remembered.

Lynette Edwell : "It was an opportunity to meet a lot of very interesting women in a short period of time. And because we were engaged on something that was of mutual interest to us, it bonded us together. So you got to know people very quickly, and in the best possible light because you were working together with them.

I'm not saying that in any other circumstances I would have met such a variety of women, because I don't think I would cut across class and age and a lot of other barriers.”

Jan Castro Fraser: “Though an individual is strong, but banding together with other like-minded individuals make you even stronger, and also encourages you to develop your own thoughts and actions. And I'm sure, although I’ve never had children, I'm sure it had an impact on the children of the women of my generation who were there.”

Activities at the Peace Camp included singing protest songs and making banners, and holding hands in a large circle around the fence, known as Embrace the Base. Other women chose to cut the fence and try to stop vehicles moving in and out. Jane Dennet and Rosy Bremer described some of the activities they took part in.

Jane Dennet: “There was about sixty of us, got over the fence, got to the silos, got through the razor wire, and up on top of the silos before anybody noticed us.”

Rosy Bremer: “The way we saw it quite simplistically, but also quite rightly, I think, was that we were directly stopping exercises for war and what an amazingly powerful, brilliant thing to do.”

There was strong opposition to these actions, and hundreds of women were arrested, some even imprisoned. But despite the local council trying many times to close down the Peace Camp, many women returned and carried on their protest.

The story of the Greenham Common Peace Camp gained lots of attention in the news, and inspired other protests in the UK and around the world.

It is debated whether the women’s actions contributed to the removal of the nuclear missiles at RAF Greenham Common between 1989 and 1991. But for those who took part, it is a time of their lives that they will never forget.

Katherine Elizabeth Phillips: “But I think those women demonstrating made an enormous difference in this country.”

Jan Castro Fraser: “Without having been involved in Greenham I don't think I would have ended up the person that I have ended up.”

We hope that you have enjoyed hearing the stories of women who chose to challenge at Greenham Common Peace Camp. We will end, as we began, with Thalia Campbell singing one of the protest songs from 40 years ago.

Thalia Campbell, singing to tune of Amazing Grace: “ When all these warheads turn to rust, until our days are done. We'll hold our Mother Earth in trust, for children yet to come.”

The accounts that you have heard have come from the Cold War Conversations Podcast, Imperial War Museums and the University of Portsmouth’s Women’s Community Activism Project. This podcast has been produced with the kind support of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, delivered by the Museums Association.