I look at my photographs of Greenham Common from the early 1980s and I see more now than I saw then. I see the women again, certainly: defiant, rainbow-colourful and vibrant; and I see the sharp razor wire perimeter and the police presence; but I also see competing masculinities that I hadn't thought about before.
The camp(s) were set up to make the public aware of the American cruise missiles stationed there at the behest of Thatcher and Reagan. My photographs are from circa 1984 and were taken during a 'solidarity visit' - a type of flying visit whose intention was to bring women into the camp temporarily to swell numbers and to observe and take part in an 'action'. I went down on a full coach from Newcastle around about easter time, travelling overnight to arrive there at dawn.
I'd started my PhD on Romano-British villas, and had been struggling to find a real focus of analysis rather than sticking with the usual (for the time) description-catalogue-synthesis approach. I was interested in the idea of 'space syntax' and how people moved through architectural space, and being at Greenham and seeing the way that material culture, space, barriers and boundaries were used to affect gendered encounters was a bit of an eye opener.
The first thing that struck me was the physicality of the place and the obsession that the police had with the women breaching the boundary. The women's 'actions' were, despite the harsh punishments handed out to them including scores of imprisonments, mainly symbolic rather than harmful - tying coloured ribbons to the perimeter fences, delivering creative coffins, wire cutting, dancing on silos and dressing up as teddy bears.
This collective group of women, many with children and babies, every day faced a perimeter of razor wire sometimes over twenty metres deep in the presence of regular constabulary police, MOD police and the British military. Many writing about the peace camp have commented on the polarised differences between the women's side and the harsh, militarised male perimeter and interior, a kind of binary structure well known to archaeologists: life/death, soft/hard, female/male, open/secret.
The police response was quite extraordinary, especially after the arrival of the first mass protest in 1982.
The women's peace camp was unprecedentedly successful in attracting attention towards a situation that was not, in terms of the behaviour of the peace protesters, violent. I've wondered how in the minds of senior police these skirmishes were comparable to the Battle of Orgreave - which would take place in June 1984. Often at Greenham very senior police officers were in attendance, to orchestrate the responses and the scale of those responses to the most minor of symbolic acts. They had their orders.
It was and is hard to see why the women so apparently very threatening, and who was really threatening who. But it was clear that the police were using a political authority over space and boundaries to manipulate and affect this situation. The police and the media chose to categorise the chasing, arrest and criminalisation of protesters at Greenham Common as defensive acts on the part of the police constabulary. The police were brutal.
I remember photographing an 'action' with my crap camera, waiting to be arrested (as was the woman next to me carrying her baby), watching policemen chasing down, arresting and carting off young women who had had the temerity to object to American cruise missiles being based in England along with the American personnel required to deploy them. The right-wing media were in full vitriolic flight, and frothed up the blood pressure of a nation with their fist-banging rants about these dreadful woman needed to be 'back at home' with their children.
But yet ... not all the men on the boundary were quite so protective of the American tech and personnel within, and quite so antagonistic towards the women peace protesters. This place was not actually 'binary' at all; and subversion of the binary structure was not all about women entering traditional male realm of political discourse and male military space. The barriers were not only penetrable by wire-cutters and climbing, and nor were they only subverted and subvertible one way. There was an undercurrent there, a back-and-forth traffic of ideas, flowing underneath the facades of two seemingly 'masculinised' groups: the members of the British military personnel in 15 Squadron RAF Regiment, and the MoD police, some of whom were prepared to talk and be photographed.
When I stopped and spoke to the RAF peronnel behind the wire, at first they laughed at me. 'You're a journalist?' No, I said, I was down with some other Newcastle university students for the day to support the peace protesters. They asked me why I wanted to do that, and I said that it wasn't much, but I didn't like the idea of American cruise missiles on British soil, and a gesture was better than nothing. The response surprised me. 'Well, don't think we're that fucking happy about it all, either.'
Well why aren't you happy about it? I asked. The talk alluded to resentment of the Americans who were living at the heart of the base, servicing the cruise missiles, with access to fair-weather living conditions, imported big new American cars, and a PX with low-priced food and all the goods they could want - whilst the RAF personnel had access to a small shack that didn't even keep out the wind and the rain and MoD personnel drove to work in 1970s Datsuns and Ford Cortinas. What would you do if I tried to climb this fence?' I asked. 'Were supposed to shoot you,' was the dead-pan response. Would you? 'No.'
I also spoke to a couple of the MOD policemen. They didn't seem to like being instruments of the government, and were happy to leave 'that kind of thing' to the regular constabulary. They weren't going to be shooting any unarmed women civilians on British soil. I asked one MoD policeman what he though of the mass arrests and imprisonments that had been taking place courtesy of the police and the courts. He shook his head almost imperceptibly and smiled for the camera, surrounded by the debris of an otherwise useless RAF base. It was only there for the Americans. They were only there for the Americans. I was only there because of the Americans.
Maybe at Greenham in Oxfordshire as elsewhere in the country, the regular Constabulary took better instruction from Thatcher's government than did the MoD or the RAF. As at Orgreave, the Police became instruments not of justice, law and order, but of government ideology and Thatcher-think. The women of Greenham Common in the peace camps raised a voice in protest, endured a bitterly hostile media and some brutal police behaviour, and they wove a narrative which, still to this day, has many strands to unpick.
And the men and the masculinities there? Was the undertow of these competing masculinities affected by the presence of so many women, or would it have existed anyway? I walked the whole of the perimeter that day and talked to RAF and MoD personnel for hours. I strongly suspect it wasn't all about who had the biggest cars.
Just as I was about to post this piece at the end of 2016, the declassifying of files in late December 2016 relating to the naval base at Faslane on the Clyde became front page news, largely because of Thatcher's iron attitude towards the peace protesters there.
These secret government files, opened under the 30-year rule, show that Thatcher was apparently horrified at the incursions by the peace protesters - mostly women - in 1988, and gave the green light for them to be shot as necessary.
What stands out to me, though, is the fact that she felt she had to do this; and that even after she gave that green light, no peace protestor was ever shot. Incursions occurred from 1988 to 1996, naval personnel were court-martialled, and both they and MoD police were subject to 'remedial action'. But no-one had a bullet put into them. The armed personnel in the navy and the MoD police went out of their way to apprehend and detain. No shots were fired. Thatcher did not get her witches burnt at the stake, because that outcome was not part of the ethos and the masculinities of these groups of men. As at Greenham, they acted against the grain of their landscapes towards these women, redefining their orthodox masculinities, and I think that that is worth acknowledging.
In 1996 Claire Davies and Mhari Logan, who swam at night across freezing waters to a hunter-killer nuclear sub and climbed down its access hatch, in an audacious breach of security, were simply apprehended by naval personnel, and handed over to the MoD police. It was only later that they were taken to Clydesbank police station to face charges - charges that interestingly were later shelved by prosecutors.
At Faslane and Greenham, the Navy, the RAF and the MoD police behaved in contrast to the regular police constabulary - despite Thatcher, despite a frothing media, despite the court martials, despite the pressure arising from the Special Relationship. To me, it is of huge significance that out of the competing masculinities at the nuclear bases with peace camps, emerged a British masculine narrative that, for once, made women safer.
Anderson, Eric 2005 'Orthodox and inclusive masculinity: competing masculinities among heterosexual men in a feminized terrain' in Sociological Perspectives 48: 3, pp 337-355. Pacific Sociological Association
Enloe, Cynthia H 2000 edition Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, pp 76-80. University of California Press.