The Occupy movement and the women of Greenham Common

Feminist experience and input into the theory and practice of nonviolence has much to offer a new generation of grassroots Occupy activists. Rebecca Johnson reflects on the lessons of the successful Greenham Common protest

Rebecca Johnson
12 December 2011

When I visited the recently evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park (yes, they returned, but without tents) I was asked how we did “passive resistance” for so many years at Greenham Common. I replied that there had been nothing passive about our nonviolent persistence! Like some Occupy camps are undergoing, we were evicted many times, but we always came back. We were accused of being ‘fey tinkerbells’ and prematurely declared a failure, yet we achieved our key objectives within 6 years, as shown by the empty silos and restored Common Land. We had more than our share of people with mental health problems, including drugs and alcohol, and we did our best to protect and help them, without compromising on our opposition to the nuclear weapons. Like the Occupy Movement, we were committed to nonviolence, but as the Women’s Peace Camp evolved from its beginnings in 1981, so did our analysis and understanding of how to think and act nonviolently and effectively in the face of daily evictions and frequent violence used against us.

Though traditionalists tend to look to Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King for inspiration; we looked closer to home, and developed theories of feminist nonviolence drawing on historical examples like the Suffragettes and lessons from our own experiences. A 1983 pamphlet from the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group of War Resisters International described nonviolence thus: “It is much more than simply an absence of violence. It is both a principle and a technique, a set of ideas about how life should be lived and a strategy for social change. Respect for life is a fundamental feature, together with the desire for liberation. This means not deliberately killing, hurting, threatening or putting fear into others, in short, not treating them as less human than ourselves.”

Such views would not be out of place in the teachings of Gandhi, King and most of the world’s religions. But in applying feminist experience to nonviolence, we integrated an analysis of power and the necessity to move from traditional power over, used to “dominate, terrorise or oppress”, towards “shared power” or the “power to do things, by the discovery of our own strength as opposed to a passive receiving of power exercised by others, often in our name”. Many women who came to Greenham had suffered domestic and sexual violence at the hands of male relatives or others, often in situations where they had been too young or helpless to defend themselves. Passive responses to violence by the male followers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King might have been viewed as transgressive and challenging because their normal reactions would be to serve violence for violence. But passive behaviour by women risks feeding into feminine stereotypes, since too many men still expect women to be frozen in fear or ineffectual in the face of violence.

If nonviolence is to work as a philosophy and technique to challenge and change violent and oppressive regimes, it must not disempower its practitioners or reinforce the expectations and sense of power of the aggressors. As feminists, we used nonviolence directly to confront and prevent specific, structural and immediate violence perpetrated by individuals or institutions. We also sought to transform the human and structural systems of power and dominance that conferred benefits on users of personal and institutional aggression and oppression. To do this, we tried to decentralise our own leadership and maximise the sources of ideas and takers of responsibility.

As the Occupy Movement is finding, shared leadership is not easy, but it provides important strengths for decentralised movements, especially in the face of intrusive monitoring and intelligence-gathering by security institutions quick to label dissent as domestic extremism or terrorism. The pundits equate this with being leaderless. On the contrary, refusing to emulate vertical power structures creates a different kind of space for sharing leadership, with everyone having to take on some of the responsibilities of developing political initiatives, facilitating communication, and keeping things going in positive directions, domestically as well as politically..

Unlike the male gurus of the past, feminist nonviolence does not require that anger and fear should be suppressed. Such emotions are not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ – often they are motivators for political action. But fear and anger can also be reactive and demotivating, able to be manipulated by adversaries. Channelling these strong emotions into creative actions and resistance uses the powerful energies constructively instead of letting them get stuck in dynamics that escalate dangers and violence.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the violence being confronted – whether nuclear weapons, war or the poverty and hopelessness engendered by corrupt and greedy institutions – the effectiveness of nonviolent approaches is enhanced by the use of unexpected tools, including humour. Entering the base to hold teddy-bear picnics covered in sticky honey and dancing on the nuclear silos were funny as well as compelling, and there is something very absurd about heavily armed soldiers unable to protect their masters’ nuclear weapons from sticky, unstoppable women. Weaving webs around the Pentagon and various US bases as we did in the 1980s can be as successful as mass blockades in closing such institutions for periods of time, while the deceptively fragile ribbons simultaneously symbolised and subverted notions of femininity.

Though the earliest Greenham actions sought to avoid damage to ‘property’, the layers of fences and barbed wire erected all around us caused us to rethink the sanctity of those kinds of oppressive property and look again at the choices made by our Suffragette grandmothers. When we cut swathes of those fences down, we saw ourselves opening doors and windows onto the Common Land. Painting and graffiti can transform excluding walls and speak of the connections and contradictions in our lives, whether the absurdity of casino capitalism enriching the greedy one percent, or nuclear-armed ‘erector-launchers’ trundling along our roads.

Feminist nonviolence is not about notions of biological determinism or stereotypes about women being naturally nicer or more peaceful than men. More than standard models of passive resistance, nonviolence needs to confront power, the uses of political and personal violence, and the oppressiveness of patriarchy’s masculine and feminine straitjackets. Whether viewed through a prism of anti-militarism or anti-capitalism, these are also the issues being confronted on Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, St Paul’s and all the other vibrant, painful, necessary manifestations of a global new generation seeking peace, justice and freedom from poverty. Feminist experience and input into the theory and practice of nonviolence has much to offer a new generation of grassroots Occupy activists.


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData