History student and Cold War-era historian, Harry Roberts, explores the links between the recent Women’s March and the 1980s Greenham Women protests for International Women’s Day. If you’d like to share this story on Twitter, the International Women’s Day hashtag is #BeBoldForChange.
“At a first glance, the ‘Women’s March’ that took place following President Trump’s inauguration in late January may seem to have little to do with the Cold War; yet events at the Greenham Common anti-nuclear peace camp during the 1980s reverberate with contemporary resonance. Superficially the Greenham Women were an anti-nuclear protest group, engaging in non-violent protest against the situation of US cruise missiles in the remote Berkshire countryside. With the ‘heating up’ of the Cold War during the early to mid-1980s, nuclear warfare seemed a realistic possibility. The Thatcher government’s decision to house 160 US nuclear weapons left the British public staring down the barrel of a potential Soviet nuclear strike.
“Yet, within this context the female protestors at Greenham Common were far from a single-issue protest movement. Their anti-nuclear convictions formed the umbrella for a host of issues, campaigning for the rights of disabled children, supporting refugees, and protesting police brutality. In theory, their campaign was about nuclear weapons, yet their actions had a much deeper context, serving as a revolt against the imposition of a patriarchal, war-mongering nuclear state.
“A banner on display at a recent ‘Women’s March’ captured the similarity between the two contexts, emboldening protestors to ‘Grab ‘Em by the Patriarchy’. This not only subverted President Trump’s notorious 2005 remark, but expressed the wider focus of the movement. A cursory glance at the march’s manifesto displays their desire to “free ourselves and our society from the institution of awarding power, agency, and resources disproportionately to masculinity.”
“Predictably, much of the press coverage surrounding the march focused on the anti-Trump element of the protest. Media outlets sprung into life at the prospect of greater protestor turnout than enjoyed at the Presidential inauguration. Whilst the new administration certainly fuelled the campaign, to conceive of it purely in terms of anti-Trump protest belittles its aims.
“The march’s manifesto does not even mention his name, yet mainstream perceptions have largely steamrollered the gender dynamic under a tsunami of anti-Trump rhetoric. In much the same way, the Greenham Women’s broader feminist agenda was ignored in favour of depictions as “peace thugettes.”
“What they lack in contextual similarity both the Greenham Women and the Women’s March suffered from an ignorance of their true aims. Never were they solely about nuclear weapons or President Trump.
“In both these campaigns women “pronounced their bold message of resistance and self-determination” against a patriarchal society, and, in the case of Donald Trump, a leader they decry as a misogynist. The feminist scholar Sonya Rose wrote that gendered conflict bubbles away underneath society, only surfacing at particular historical moments. The Women’s March and the Greenham protest exist as such moments, where building feminist sentiment boiled over in the disguise of single-issue protest.
“The march embraced a host of varying attitudes and viewpoints. Divided by opinion yet united by a common cause, the women present drew upon their gender to “affirm [their] shared humanity and to pronounce a bold message of resistance and self-determination.”
“A striking element of the march was its focus upon maternity and children. One prominent placard read: “I am here because my daughters deserve better than you.” Coupled with the presence of thousands of children who attended the marches, a clear link was made between the protest and the well-being of future generations.
“This echoed events at Greenham thirty years previously. There protestors emphasised their maternity, empowering their anti-nuclear protest by appealing to the safety of their children. A stereotypical view in a 1982 Daily Mail articlemourned “we bear the children who will be slaughtered. Why shouldn’t we be the ones to protest?”
“By emphasising their femininity, the Greenham Women symbolised life and birth, contrasting starkly with the deadly nuclear threat. In both movements many women took ownership of gender norms. In doing so occupying the stereotypically male domain of high politics, whilst physically occupying the male location of RAF Greenham Common.
“Female marchers adopted a similar process, taking ownership of the female body to strike back against gender norms peddled by the current administration. A common sight amongst the marchers was female genitalia fancy-dress, often accompanied by monikers such as “the pussy strikes back” or “keep your filthy laws off my silky drawers.” Presenting the female body in this way celebrated and drew attention to the protestors’ femininity, signalling the gendered nature of their resistance.
“This adopted a more comical tone than displays of female agency at Greenham Common. Women would wrap barbed wire around their bodies to symbolize the vulnerability of their naked flesh to the patriarchal state. Whilst undoubtedly more extreme, both actions display the specific role the female body plays in feminist protest movements. This is thrown into sharper relief in the context of the recent ‘free the nipple’ campaign lining social media.
“Both the Women’s March and the protests at Greenham Common show that the focus of feminist campaigns are often lost, reduced to their most palatable form by the mainstream media. It is far easier to conceive of anti-nuclear or anti-Trump protests, rather than addressing the key gendered inequality existing in society today. Despite their historical separation, pointing the historical lens at Greenham Common deepens our understanding of the anti-patriarchal agenda of current feminism. The Greenham protests have much to say to the current crop of female campaigners. Time will tell if they are able to sustain the same social, cultural and political legacy as their fore-mothers. On the balance of current evidence, I wouldn’t bet against them…”
With thanks to: The Sigrid Møeller Collection at the Danish Peace Institute http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/abase/sange/greenham/sigrid.htm
Feminist Archive South http://feministarchivesouth.org.uk/ (Many more materials hosted here)
Reuters images © 2017 Thomson Reuters