In September 1981 a small group of 36 Welsh women marched 120 miles from Cardiff to RAF Greenham Common where they promptly chained themselves to the gates. Part of the peace movement Women for Life on Earth, the group were protesting against guided nuclear weapons being stored at Greenham Common and plans by the American government to store cruise missiles in Britain. The protest was soon a media sensation and attracted thousands more protestors at Greenham Common over the next 19 years, and was the world’s longest-running anti-nuclear demonstration.
Over the next 19 years, the protest site at Greenham Common became internationally famous and, crucially, a source of embarrassing media coverage to the governments of Britain and the United States. The site, which became women-only, drew the world’s attention to the debate. Nuclear convoys leading the Greenham Common base were blockaded, missions were disrupted, and eventually the missiles were removed.
Over the course of the Greenham Common occupation, more than 70,000 women demonstrated at the site. It was so significant that the march was recreated in early September 2021, with dozens of people undertaking the over 100 mile journey to reach Greenham Common. Here’s a timeline of the key events during the Greenham Common Protests and their enduring legacy.
August-September 1981: ‘The Women For Life On Earth’ reach Greenham Common
As the threat of longer-range Soviet missiles meant that nuclear war appeared to be drawing closer, NATO made the decision to base American cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire. The Women for Life On Earth started their march in Cardiff, leaving on 27 August and arriving at Greenham Common on 5 September, with the aim of challenging the 96 cruise nuclear missiles being located there. The 36 women chained themselves to the fence surrounding the perimeter of the site.
The early days of the protest have been described as having a ‘festival-like’ atmosphere, with campfires, tents, music, and singing characterising the happy but determined protest. Though there was opposition to the women’s actions, a number of locals were friendly, offering the protesters food and even wooden huts for shelter. As 1982 approached, however, the mood changed radically.
February 1982: women only
In February 1982, it was decided that the protest should involve women only. This was important because the women utilised their identities as mothers to legitimise the protest against nuclear weapons in the name of the safety of their children and future generations. This use of an identity marker established the protest as the first and longest lasting peace encampment.
March 1982: the first blockade
By the early spring of 1982, Greenham Common’s numbers had increased, along with press attention that largely dubbed the women to be nuisances who ought to go home. The government started seeking eviction orders. 250 women participated in the first blockade at the site, with 34 of them being arrested, and one death occurring.
May 1982: eviction and re-location
In May 1982, the first eviction of the peace camp took place as bailiffs and police moved in in an attempt to clear the women and their possessions from the site. Four arrests were made, but the protesters, undeterred, relocated. The protesters being policed and arrested then relocating was an oft-recurring pattern throughout the most turbulent period of the Greenham Common occupation.
What these exchanges did achieve, however, was press attention, which drew many more women to the cause and generated sympathy further afield. Nowhere was this more apparent than in December 1982.
December 1982: ‘Embrace the Base’
In December 1982, a whopping 30,000 women surrounded Greenham Common, joining hands to ‘Embrace the Base’. Thousands of women descended upon the site in response to an unsigned chain letter which aimed to organise a marked event in response to the third anniversary of NATO’s decision to house nuclear missiles on British soil.
Their slogan that ‘arms are for linking’ was chanted, and the daringness, scale, and creativity of the event was evident when, on New Year’s Day 1983, a small group of women climbed the fence to dance on missile silos which were under construction.
January 1983: common land byelaws revoked
The disruption and embarrassment caused by the ‘Embrace the Base’ protest a month earlier meant that the council ramped up its efforts to evict the protestors. Newbury District Council revoked the common land byelaws for Greenham Common, and made itself a private landlord.
In doing so, they were able to begin court proceedings against the protestors to reclaim eviction costs from women whose addresses were listed as the Greenham Common peace camp. The House of Lords later ruled this to be illegal in 1990.
April 1983: women dressed as teddy bears
An incredible 70,000 protesters formed a 14-mile human chain linking Burghfield, Aldermaston, and Greenham. On 1 April 1983, 200 women entered the base dressed as teddy bears. The childlike symbol of the teddy bear was a stark contrast to the highly militarised and male-heavy atmosphere of the base. This further highlighted the safety of the women’s children and future generations to come in the face of nuclear war.
November 1983: the first missiles arrive
The first cruise missiles arrived at Greenham Common air base. 95 more followed in the months after.
December 1983: ‘reflect the base’
In December 1983, 50,000 women circled the base to protest against the cruise missiles which had arrived three weeks previously. Holding up mirrors so that the base could symbolically reflect upon its actions, the day started as a silent vigil.
It ended with hundreds of arrests as women chanted ‘Are you on the side of suicide, are you on the side of homicide, are you on the side of genocide, which side are you on?’ and pulled down large sections of the fence.
1987: weaponry reduced
US and Soviet Union presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which marked the first agreement between the two powers to significantly reduce weaponry. It was the beginning of the end for the cruise missile and other Soviet weapons in Eastern Europe. The role of the peace campaigners was minimised, with the victory being hailed as a victory for the ‘zero option’ of 1981.
August 1989: the first missile leaves Greenham Common
In August 1989, the first missile left Greenham Common air base. This was the beginning of a momentous and hard-won shift for the protestors.
March 1991: total missile removal
The US ordered a total removal of all cruise missiles from Greenham Common in the early spring of 1991. The Soviet Union made similar reciprocal reductions to its stockpiles in Warsaw Pact countries under the treaty. A total of 2,692 missile weapons – 864 across Western Europe, and 1,846 across Eastern Europe – were eliminated.
September 1992: the Americans leave
In what was one of the most momentous victories for the protesters at Greenham Common, the American air force left. This marked the culmination of years of protest and arrests for thousands of women who were united under the same cause.
2000: the fences are taken down
At New Year 2000, the remaining women at Greenham Common saw in the new millennium, then officially left the site. Later the same year, the fences around the base were finally taken down. The site of the protest was turned into a memorial peace garden. The rest of the land was given back to the people and the local council.
The impact of the Greenham Common protests is far-ranging. While it is striking that the protestors contributed to the scaling down of nuclear weapons, an equally profound change took place, the effects of which still echo today.
The women at Greenham Common came from working and middle class backgrounds alike, with their unification under one cause effectively crossing class barriers and drawing attention to the feminist movement. Movements inspired by the protest appeared across the globe. The Greenham Common Protests proved that mass national dissent could be heard on an international stage.