The most famous women’s movement committed to civil disobedience in the UK, prior to the Greenham Common Women, were the Suffragettes. They became frustrated at the lack of progress in obtaining the vote for women and decided more direct action was needed. In 1903 they founded the Women’s Social and Political Union with the motto “Deeds not words”. Membership was limited to women only and at first the tactics were designed to cause disruption but the lack of government response led later to deliberate lawbreaking which resulted in imprisonment and hunger strikes.
In 1918 women over 30 who owned some property got the vote. This gave voting rights to 40% of the women of the UK. It was not until 1928 that women finally achieved the same voting rights as men.
The commitment to civil disobedience and its use in hastening the end of British rule in India has led to enormous respect and affection for Mahatma Gandhi. He now has a statue in Parliament Square not far from the statue to Winston Churchill, who famously denounced him as a half naked seditious fakir. After the countrywide campaign of civil disobedience demanding an end to British rule in India, the Indian viceroy held talks with Gandhi which Churchill denounced. He also said “the truth is that Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will have to be grappled with and finally crushed”. But in practice it was Churchill’s devotion to the empire that was crushed and Gandhi-ism became a highly respected tradition.
There were contacts between Gandhi and the African American community and Gandhi denounced the practice of segregation as “a negation of civilisation”. Gandhi’s philosophy directly influenced Martin Luther King who visited India in 1959 and met with the Gandhi family. King concluded that the Gandhi-an approach of nonviolent resistance would “bring about a solution to the race problem in America”. Sadly that problem is not fully solved, but the civil rights movement achieved a great advance and used non-violent resistance to do so.
The Greenham women were constantly sneered at and belittled in the British media but their protest– alongside others worldwide–helped to bring about the Reagan-Gorbachev agreement and certainly freed Greenham Common of nuclear weapons.
Both Gandhi and King were inspired by Henry Thoreau who spoke and wrote advocating civil disobedience. In 1849 in his essay he argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences. He suggests that we have a duty to avoid acquiescence, which enables the government to make us agents of injustice.
Thoreau was inspired by his opposition to slavery and early American imperialism – in particular the war against Mexico. He argued that democracy is no cure the problem of injustice, as majorities, simply by virtue of being majorities, do not gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. The judgement of an individual and individual conscience is not necessarily inferior to the decisions of a political body, or majority and therefore it “is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right”. Thoreau tells his audience that they cannot blame the problem of slavery solely on pro-slavery southern politicians. He says that there are thousands opposed to slavery and the war and “yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them”. He argues that we have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice our practical support and that paying taxes is one way in which otherwise well-meaning people collaborate in injustice.
Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences. He suggests that we have a duty to avoid acquiescence, which enables the government to make us agents of injustice.
I do not know whether the Greenham Women read Thoreau or were inspired by the Suffragettes or Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but they certainly lived up to the principles that Thoreau demands of us. The movement started in 1981 when a group of women and then by the decision to site cruise missiles in the UK organised a protest march from Cardiff to the Greenham Common base and there they set up a peace camp. Between 1981 and 1983 they attempted to disrupt construction work but despite their efforts the first cruise missiles arrived in 1983. The protests continued and many women faced court cases, fines and sometimes imprisonment for their actions.
In 1987 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This paved the way for the removal of cruise missiles from Greenham and by 1991 all were gone. The U.S. Air Force left the base in 1992. Today Greenham is no longer a military base. Part of it is a business park and the rest common land.
The Greenham women were constantly sneered at and belittled in the British media but their protest– alongside others worldwide–helped to bring about the Reagan-Gorbachev agreement and certainly freed Greenham Common of nuclear weapons. Their protest belongs in a long, proud tradition dating back to Thoreau, on which we should perhaps reflect in these dangerous and difficult times when faith in political leaders is at an all-time low.
This straightforward and honest account of life as a Greenham woman by a then very young Juley Howard, enables us to understand the instincts and experiences of one of the women of the peace camp at Greenham and to honour the determination of the women involved to protest at the proliferation of nuclear weaponry in the Reagan/Thatcher years.