The ‘Mothers of the Revolution’ Who Stared Down Nuclear Weapons
The doc ‘Mothers of the Revolution’ chronicles the women who spent years protesting the nukes at RAF Greenham Common. One of those brave women, Rebecca Johnson, tells their story.
In September 1981, a ten-day walk from Wales under the banner of Women for Life on Earth arrived at the main gate of RAF Greenham Common, sixty miles west of London. Home to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing of the U.S. Air Force, this nuclear base was designated by NATO to deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles in Europe. We called for this decision to be publicly debated.
When ignored, Women for Life on Earth grew into the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. I began living there in 1982 and stayed until the 1987 U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banned and eliminated all land-based medium-range nuclear weapons from Europe, including Cruise, Pershing and SS20s.
After years of being airbrushed out of histories of the Cold War, Greenham’s actions, struggles and legacy are being spotlighted in a new film, Mothers of the Revolution, from acclaimed New Zealand director Briar March. Showing contemporaneous news footage from the 1980s along with dramatized vignettes and reflections from women who got involved with the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s, the film weaves an illustrative narrative from the experiences of a small cross section of activists—not only from Britain, but Russia, East and West Europe, the United States, and the Pacific.
Though it’s taken a long time for our contribution to the INF Treaty to be publicly recognized, other treaties have been influenced by Greenham’s feminist-humanitarian activism and strategies, most notably the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into international law in January 2021.
While living at Greenham for five years I came to understand what we really need: Not weapons and power over others, but communities that are empowered to love, question and create. We took forward new theories and practices of nonviolence that were feminist and assertive. We didn’t suppress deep human emotions like fear, love and anger, but channelled them into power for change. We needed to be activist and analytical, passionate and diplomatic, stubborn and flexible, courageous and truthful—no matter who tried to silence us.
The cruise missiles arrived in November 1983, which felt like a bitter defeat at first. Yet we refused to give up. Our first response was to show our resistance by occupying the Greenham Control Tower two days after Christmas. We climbed to the top, attached a large “Peace on Earth” bedsheet banner and then went inside, out of the biting wind. There we found military manuals that were shockingly naïve about how to deal with nuclear and chemical weapons accidents on the base. We spent hours writing “Greenham Women are Everywhere” and “Stop military MADness” on every page, so that we could get a jury trial and raise awareness locally and politically. We hit the headlines and made sure that the authorities couldn’t ignore what we had done.
By 1984 we were facing intensified attacks, evictions and imprisonments as the politicians and militarists tried to make us leave. They wanted to hold wargames and take cruise missiles out on public roads every few weeks. We kept disrupting their plans. Together with local Cruisewatch groups, we filmed the nuclear convoys and marked them with pink paint and porridge.
Over the peace camp’s most active decade, hundreds of thousands of women and girls participated, and many more carried Greenham home to stop militarism and nuclear colonialism wherever they lived. Over a thousand of us served prison sentences ranging from seven days to two years. By 1989, as required by the INF Treaty, the weapons and launchers were removed. The soldiers left soon after. Wild ponies now graze on Greenham Common’s runway, where nuclear and chemical weapons used to land.
By challenging the arrogant power of the major military-nuclear establishments, our peace camp played our part in ending the Cold War. More than that, however, we developed new ways to build communities of resistance. The challenges were immense, but we were determined to pursue peace and justice in ways that rejected both violence and passivity. This meant challenging ourselves as well as undermining the patriarchal abuses of power that imposed heteronormative stereotypes on women and girls. Like many, I fell in love while at Greenham, able at last to accept myself as a lesbian.
Were we mothers of a revolution? If anything, I think we were part of a long continuum of struggles for women’s rights and safety, following in the footsteps of the women who fought so hard to vote and live free from oppression, slavery, and misogyny. Not mothers but daughters—of all those brave feminist revolutionaries.
I’m so glad Mothers of the Revolution ends with such an inspiring call to action showing the faces and voices of a new generation of fierce Daughters who are campaigning for girls’ education, climate justice, peace, and women’s rights to live free of patriarchal perpetrators and their greedy, oppressive systems of violence. Together we can stop the destroyers and strengthen the naturally diverse, interdependent lives that share and protect our beautiful Mother Earth. That’s our revolution, and we are not finished yet.