Exploring the role craft played at the The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp started in 1981 when a group of women under the name ‘Women For Life on Earth’ marched from Cardiff to the RAF airbase at Greenham Common, Berkshire. They were marching in protest at the recent decision by NATO to allow US cruise missiles to be stored at the airbase. The women resolved to remain there until the missiles were removed, which they were in 1991. The camp remained until 2000, when the land was restored to civilian ownership. In February 1982, the women collectively decided that the camp should be a women-only space. In the years that followed, the women of Greenham established a site of radical new domesticity, which rejected the constraints of the nuclear family as much as the nuclear weapons held in the base.
Crafting became an essential characteristic of the protests at Greenham, and is one of the ways in which the peace camp redefined the domestic. Traditionally seen as a women’s activity, crafting is usually expected to take place in the privacy of the home. Yet at Greenham, craft was made unapologetically public, drawing attention to the often undervalued labour of women, and was resituated at the centre of a highly politicised protest. What’s more, crafting became central to the fostering of community at the camp.
Paula Allen, ‘Decorate the Base’, 1982. © Paula Allen Photography
One important way crafting was used at Greenham was in the decoration of the chain-link fence around the perimeter of the airbase. Symbolically, this fence represented the divide between the masculinist operations of war conducted inside the base, and the non-violent, all-woman camp on the outside; a highly fraught boundary between public and private, the fence often figured heavily in protest actions. During the ‘Embrace the Base’ event of 1982, thousands of women travelled to the camp to link arms, encircling the entire base in their embrace. Women were also asked to bring an object to attach to the fence: ‘anything related to “real” life – as opposed to the unreal world that the military base represents’. These objects were then woven into the surface of the fence, which became a rich tapestry of all sorts of things: ‘fruits, records, an empty Bacardi bottle, thousands of balloons, vegetables, statements from the UN Declaration of Human Rights’ to name just a few. An evocative visual representation of the once separate lives of Greenham women now woven together, the fence was at once an effective symbol of the newly forged community at Greenham, and a form of protest in that it illustrated all that was at risk in the face of nuclear destruction.
The technique of weaving was not only used in the decoration of the perimeter fence. When blockading the entrances to the airbase, the women would entangle themselves in spider’s webs made from yarn. These webs, binding them to their surroundings and equally to one another, enabled the women to employ craftwork as a highly efficacious tool of non-violent protest. As Alexandra Kokoli has commented, when the majority-male police force tried to untangle and remove the women, they were subjected to exactly the sort of ‘fiddly task’ traditionally required of women. Here, the practices of crafting and weaving became physically embodied by the protestors who became a literal part of the fabric of resistance. The ways in which we now understand crafting to foster communities (knitting circles, for example) is shown here in its most extreme sense, literally bonding these women together.
Ed Barber, Peace Moves, Greenham Common, 1982. © Edward Barber 2016
In a sense, the women of Greenham Common wove yarn into the webs and in between their own bodies, but equally they also wove a community, and a network, which existed beyond the physical location of the camp. A popular song sung at the camp had the refrain ‘Carry Greenham Home’, which truly expressed how to be a Greenham woman was to hold an ideology, an attitude that life could be radically reinvented, long after the end of the camp. More than purely a protest against nuclear arms, the peace camp represented the possibility of a reimagined way of life, existing and even thriving without the patriarchal structure of the nuclear family or normative ideas about the organisation of domestic labour.
Four decades on from the start of the camp, in our bizarre pandemic era of social distancing, many of us are spending more time than ever in our homes and our relationship to domesticity has been brought to the forefront. There is a lot to be learnt at this time from the women of Greenham, and although we won’t be holding hands in mass demonstrations of solidarity any time soon, the community-building power they saw in craftwork is inspiring. In 1981, the women of Greenham mobilised craft against the impending threat of a nuclear crisis. In 2020, when social distancing is causing endemic loneliness and isolation, we can seek inspiration from how crafting built community at Greenham, even when we are not physically close.
Words: Dora Housham
About: Dora Housham is a recent Art History graduate from the University of Sussex. She has a particular interest in twentieth-century art and popular media: protest art, crafts, magazines and posters. As an aspiring writer and curator, she is focused on research about modern social history through art and material culture.
To find out more about the Greenham Common Peace Camp and the women who were part of it, check out Greenham Women Everywhere