When women fought nuclear bombs

Below is an extract from my first piece for Lacuna, a new human rights magazine. The article is part of Lacuna’s first edition on Protest, which examines (through a series of narrative articles, reviews, interviews and fiction) the different ways people resist and respond to injustice. I wrote about the women who took part in the iconic Greenham Common peace protest in Britain during the 1980s. What drove that protest, who were the women involved, why just women, and what happened next? It was a fascinating piece to research. Dozens of interviews and hours spent scouring archives later, you can read my final piece here: http://www.lacuna.org.uk/thinking/memories-of-a-protest/  Meanwhile, this extract describes one moment of direct action, indicating that the Greenham Common peace camp was more than a static protest. It was  a carefully planned movement reliant on the bravery and unwavering conviction of the women taking part. Comments welcome.


The women wait, blinded by the inky blackness of night. The countryside is still and the winding roads open and empty. Hidden in the dark, women are everywhere, some lying shivering in ditches; thick coats soaked with rainwater, rough and cold against their skin, bodies doused in essential oils to ward off military dog handlers, feet sore from hours of walking to find a good position. They are armed with thin, plastic bags of wet clumps of pink dough, which they call ‘gloop’.

Jean Kaye, or ‘Pankhurst’as she is known on these nights, also waits, alert in her small car. She spots the thunderous parade of military vehicles and whispers into a transistor radio: ‘Pankhurst calling, Pankhurst calling…’Jean starts her car and follows the convoy as it roars through the countryside, shattering the silence.

A shock of flashing blue lights cuts through the darkness as a dozen police vans hurtle along the lanes. These are followed by military support vehicles, and after that US humvees with large machine guns on top. Then come the Cruise missile launchers; the vast cylinder of metal atop a line of thick wheels seems to stretch on forever. Standing on the hill near one of the gates at Greenham Common, one can see the convoy slice its way through the countryside for miles; Jean’s car and the cars of other watchers ant-like, trailing behind.

Then angry screams and chants. At various points on the roads between Greenham Common and Salisbury Plain, where the US army practise firing nuclear weapons at Russia, peace women rise from the darkness unfurling banners and gunging the convoy with gloop.

“I [would] …go into the road with a banner, when it was safe. Most of the time you had to scurry like mad to get out of the way. But sometimes they would stop, and the feeling of empathy you had with the driver and with the earth that you were standing on was really lovely,” says Juliet McBride, gazing out at the Berkshire countryside on a bright day thirty years later. She cocks her blonde head, smiles wickedly and the nostalgia dissipates: “Then you’d climb on top and wait till you got thrown off. Or arrested.”

The women crawl onto the monstrous vehicles, clasping cold metal as military guards reach to pull them away. One woman manages to stick an anti-nuclear poster on the tiny windscreen of a humvee, and another stands on the roof of a van; a slight figure with a crop of brown hair, blue eyes gleaming, legs parted as for thirty seconds she revels in her power, the American government’s nuclear weapons programme at her feet.


From about 1983, when Cruise missiles first arrived at Greenham Common, to the late eighties, the United States Air Force took out a convoy of Cruise missiles roughly once a month from the military base to a secret location in the English countryside to practise its preparations for a nuclear attack on Russia.

“It was supposed to melt into the countryside, but because of monitoring of Cruise Watch and Greenham Women it never did,” says Margaret Downs, a peace activist living in Oxford.

Cruise Watch tracked the movements of convoys across Britain and monitored the government’s development of nuclear bombs. In time, the women at Greenham became adept at spotting the signs of an impending convoy outing. It could be the increased presence of security police around the base or the American officer’s wife living nearby in Newbury who always washed her husband’s smartest uniform and hung it outside to dry a few days before nuclear firing practice. Once the women were certain, they would spread the news to various peace groups across the country. Jean was on a telephone tree of watchers who, at short notice would jump in their cars to spend the night monitoring movements of the convoy and calling ahead to alert peace activists hidden in ditches and verges ready to spring out and protest.

Hazel’s friend Jenny was also part of Cruise Watch and spent many hours chasing convoys with Jean. “Every single time, every single exercise was witnessed by people,” she says. “We would take the women down to Salisbury Plain so they could camp nearby. Sometimes they would camp for a night or a day. They would go and interfere with what was going on. Jean would do a lot of the ferrying women backwards and forwards, often at night. We ended up sleeping in shifts at times.”

Another Cruise watcher Maureen Wilsker lived a few streets from Jean in Witney at the time.

“The message would come through, usually about 11pm that it [the convoy] has moved …Jean would ring me. When I drew out of my house in Bridge Street and drove up to Jean –it doesn’t sound real –but a little police car would pull out from Oscilly’s garage and follow me up to Jean.” Her expression is incredulous. “Jean and I would laugh. It followed us as far as the Newbury roundabout and then another one took over.”

Mahalla Mason was also part of the radical circle living in conservative Witney in the 1980s. “Jean was quite serious about it. We all had these names. Coriander. Only the peace movement would have these names,” she says smiling. “It was very amateur and sneered at. They sneer because you threw paint at it…[but] the theory was if paint can hit it, something much worse can hit it.”

So what did the women achieve by throwing fuschia flour bombs and paint at nuclear convoys?

“It made an absolute nonsense of the whole thing of secrecy and being hidden,” says Nuala. The key aims were to bear witness, make known their opposition, and hinder the convoy’s procession. Slow it down, get in front of vehicles, and if they dared, get on top. Anything, to say, you are not going to rehearse nuclear war smoothly.

“They never got one out secretly, everyone was protested or witnessed. They realized there was nothing they could do to make these things secret,” says one Cruise watcher and Greenham woman.

After a convoy protest, Jean would drive around the Berkshire countryside collecting tired, hungry women. If they managed to interrupt the convoy, lighting fires in the road or climbing up trucks, the women were often arrested, but never charged. Sometimes they were held for hours and then deposited somewhere random, miles from Greenham or a railway station.

One Greenham woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers being put into a deep, dark pit with a group of other women and left for hours. Soldiers silently paraded around the top, guns strapped across their chests, impervious to the women crying out to be released. “It was dark, you couldn’t see out. It was muddy at the bottom.”

Even for the Greenham women, so used to clashes with the police or challenging the military might of the US armed only with gloop and banners, it was a terrifying experience. Desperate to get out, the women attempted to provoke the officers guarding them, in the hope that they would be charged with assault, arrested and taken out of the pit. It failed. A decade later the Ministry of Defence paid the women £10,000 in damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

Read the full story here.



Austerity bites

Liza was 28, working in a bookshop, and studying for a second degree when she became pregnant. “We moved in together because we thought we ought to. That lasted for a year after she was born.” Liza and her partner made a plan for their daughter’s arrival; he would help with childcare so she could return to work. But the plan unravelled when he decided to embark on a career change during her pregnancy. “So he quit his job and that was very stressful. We had no income really.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting any support from him, and I wasn’t getting any support from anyone else because they all thought he should be supporting me. So I left in order to get some support.” Liza makes a wry face and laughs. She is nearly always laughing; her dry humour usually directed at herself.

Mother and baby survived on income support and tax credits, two “big” overdrafts from her student days and some child support from her daughter’s dad. “That put a strain on our relationship. He didn’t appreciate them taking money straight out of his wages.” But the bigger strain was on Liza, who, driven by loneliness and a desire to escape the constant worry, scoured her local community, a small town outside Bristol, for friendship. “I had gone from being a free spirit to a lonely isolated single parent.”

When Liza says ‘single parent’, her face changes and the heaviness of the stigma darkens her features. But in her eyes is a sharp defiance. Too often lone parents are caricatured in the press and by politicians, particularly if they are women, and these subtle prejudices seep into the lives of single parents as they battle for the services they need to do the difficult job of raising children alone.

Contrast the government’s eagerness to reward married couples to the rhetoric used when discussing social security for single parents.

Then look at the government’s latest childcare announcement, designed to reduce childcare costs through the tax system. This will subsidise childcare for middle to high earners and do little for those parents working below the tax threshold in part-time, low paid employment. And it is the dearth of affordable childcare that forces lone mothers into these jobs.

Find out what happens to Liza over at the New Statesman. I also wrote this piece on the impact of government policy on lone parents here.

The Lone Parent Trap

Lone parent families are twice as likely as coupled families to live in poverty, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the British government’s tax and benefit changes could push a further 400,000 children into poverty by 2020. The government insists that finding work is the best route out of poverty.

But when single parents do find work that they can fit around their children, it is likely to be precarious and low-paid.

There are two million single parents in the UK, nine out of ten are women. What most have in common is a lack of part-time jobs paying a living wage, affordable childcare, or support to help them enter work after years spent raising children.

Single parents receive income support (£71.50 a week) in the United Kingdom and are obliged to look for work when their youngest child turns 5. On Income Support parents receive a tailored service, including a lone parent advisor to help prepare them for work, discuss childcare options and ‘better-off in work calculations’. The Jobcentre is not obliged to continue this provision for parents on Jobseeker’s Allowance, though some centres do.

But with the number of total claimants having doubled from over 750,000 in 2008 to nearly 1.5 million in 2012, even if a Jobcentre wishes to provide a tailored service to help lone parents into work it may lack the capacity to do so.

The government says work is the best route out of poverty and most lone parents want to work. Under the current government’s welfare reforms this means they must attend fortnightly jobcentre interviews to prove they are searching for work. What happens when they get there?

My report on the subject was commissioned and edited jointly by OurKingdom and the Friend, the independent Quaker magazine. It was published simultaneously in OurKingdom and, as a Fox Report, in the Friend. The Fox Report is the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Read the full report here http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rebecca-omonira-oyekanmi/lone-parent-trap

The illustrations were provided by Patrick Koduah, a London based illustrator and animator with prizewinning work that includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for the Rolling Stone Band of the Year 2012.

Women on the Verge

Since 2010 women – old, young, rich, poor – have received blow after blow to their economic independence and social well being. Recent government policy indicates this will continue.

In its analysis of the Autumn Financial Statement the Women’s Budget Group found that women will pay for 81 per cent, just over a billion pounds, of the money raised by the Treasury in 2014/15. Cumulatively, women have paid over three-quarters of the cost to household income from net direct tax, benefit, pay and pension changes introduced by the Coalition since 2010.

Read the rest of this article over at the New Statesman.

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) is an independent organisation of academics, economists, public policy experts and other professionals, who conduct gender equality assessments of the British government’s annual Budgets and Pre-Budget Spending Reviews. They argue that:

Gender budget initiatives go beyond the assessment of programmes targeted specifically at women and girls, and seek to expose assumptions of ‘gender neutrality’ within all economic policy – raising awareness and understanding that budgets will impact differently on women and men because of the different social and economic positioning.

to read the latest WBG analysis of the Autumn Spending Review 2012 or visit the group’s website to read their gender assessment of welfare benefit changes and the effect of government policy on single female pensioners.