Why Women?

AuthorKirk, Gwyn

THIS ESSAY FOCUSES ON TWO WOMEN'S PEACE MOVEMENTS I HAVE been involved in that have shaped my understandings of women's peace organizing. The first is the Greenham Common Women's Peace movement in Britain, which started in the early 1980s. The second is the International Women's Network Against Militarism that currently connects women in the Asia-Pacific region, Puerto Rico, and the continental United States. I present brief accounts of these projects, and then discuss how they address the question: "why women?"

Greenham Common Women's Peace Movement

As Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to establish forward bases for nuclear weapons in Europe, with the border between East and West Germany acting as the dividing line between the two superpowers. In what the public later learned was a confidential meeting between US President Jimmy Carter and a few European heads of state in 1979, it was agreed that the United States would site a total of 464 ground-launched nuclear missiles in Belgium, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and West Germany, each one 15 times more lethal than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. This proposed deployment and the first use policy of the United States--whereby this country is prepared to escalate a conflict by using nuclear weapons before an adversary does so--gave rise to talk of a "limited" nuclear war in Europe. US Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque (quoted in Green 1986,50) was quoted as saying:

There isn't any question, if there's a trade-off we'd rather trade the Russians London or Bonn than we would Washington or Boston.... That's just the nature of international politics ... We fought World War I in Europe, we fought World War II in Europe and if you dummies let us, we'll fight World War III in Europe. In August 1981, about 40 women, children, and men walked from Cardiff in South Wales to the US Air Force base at Greenham Common, a distance of 120 miles. Their goal was to stimulate public debate over the decision to site 96 cruise missiles there (Pettitt 2006). This initiative provoked little publicity, so participants decided to stay, hoping to draw attention to this dangerous escalation of the nuclear arms race and the fact that cruise missiles in Britain would be under US control. This became the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, a round-the-clock campaign of nonviolent direct action that disrupted business as usual at the base for many years. (1) A wider movement supported the peace camp, with individuals and groups from Britain and many parts of the world, summed up by the slogan "Greenham Women Are Everywhere!"

I first visited Greenham in February 1982, two weeks after women there declared the peace camp a women's space. They felt that the men were not pulling their weight in the day-to-day running of the place; men were aggressive in protests, and the police tended to respond to them with violence (Cockburn 2012, 38). Women wanted to create a space where they could express their fear and rage about nuclear weapons, and where women's voices, opinions, and decisions would prevail (Cook & Kirk 1983, Harford & Hopkins 1984).

Some feminists criticized Greenham as not feminist enough, claiming for instance that too many women said, "I'm doing this for my children" (see, e.g., Snitow 1985). Some activists in the wider peace movement opposed the women-only decision as divisive and argued that opposing the nuclear arms race was too important to be restricted to women (Cockburn 2012, 40). A few women left the camp over this decision, but many more came. Peace camp participant Katrina Howse (quoted in Cook & Kirk 1983, 80) argued that, rather than excluding men, the decision to make the camp a women-only space was about including women and essential to ensuring "that women's strength ... is regarded as important." Like many others, I was attracted to this campaign because it was organized by women and was very creative compared to my experience of other political movements (Kirk 1989). I participated in early actions and interviewed women living at Greenham, as well as those involved in women's groups that sprang up across the country to support the camp and to organize locally. (2)

Greenham women were mainly white, somewhat mixed in terms of class, diverse in age, and included a strong lesbian presence. Some women had an explicit feminist analysis and saw patriarchy and militarism as a "continuum of violence ... that pervades all our lives, from the nuclear family to the nuclear state" (Chester et al. 1983,18). Some opposed the massive profits made from war by demonstrating outside the London Stock Exchange. They protested cuts to the National Health Service, ostensibly due to lack of funds, though military spending was kept at high levels. Others opposed the stockpiling of food in Europe to inflate prices, while elsewhere people were starving. Still others focused on Rio Tinto, a multinational company involved in uranium mining, or on the severe impacts of British, French, and US atomic testing on Pacific Island communities. Together, women said no to war, militarism, and violence, and yes to justice, sustainability, and peace.

Greenham was a heart through which many women circulated, contributing in ways that made sense to them, making connections among issues, and learning on the go. The Greenham movement provided a powerful context in which women were emboldened to speak out (Moore et al. 2017; Roseneil 1995, 2000). The peace camp was also an experiment in collective living, a place of change and flux where women came and went and adopted new ideas or identities. Gradually, many women developed a more intersectional analysis, though no one used this term back then. Women at the peace camp remained focused on stopping the deployment of cruise missiles while recognizing that militarism is connected to many other issues. Although there were ups and downs, arguments, and some serious differences of opinion over the years, Greenham was successful because it was a women's movement.

Many women had felt excluded by political parties, trade unions, or antinuclear organizations. There seemed to be no space in these groups to express intense feelings or to ask basic questions. Typically, men were in leadership positions. People sat in rows. The discussion of nuclear weapons often focused on technical details: throw-weights or tons of TNT. Many women found this style of organizing alienating and frustrating. By contrast, activist Leslie Bolton (quoted in Cook & Kirk 1983,83) described her local women's peace group as a "completely different way of doing things." Women introduced themselves and made space for everyone to talk and express their feelings. Local Greenham groups initiated their own activities and attended major actions together. They held workshops or planning meetings to prepare for these events and organized childcare and transportation. They provided emotional support and encouragement, which was especially important for newcomers. This may seem commonplace now, but it was a new experience for many women in Britain at the time. In addition, this methodology was part of and contributed to feminist thinking about nonviolent action: as nonhierarchical, decentralized, and based on individual initiative, people's interdependence, and the power of cooperation (Kirk 1989).


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT