Forty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the newly formed campaign group Women for Life on Earth, marched 120 miles from Cardiff, Wales to Berkshire, England to protest Margaret Thatcher’s agreement to allow US nuclear cruise missiles to be stored at the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common. As Mothers of the Revolution, a compelling new documentary directed by Briar March and narrated by Glenda Jackson argues, the subsequent establishment of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in 1981—which remained until the last protesters left in 2000—would go on to have an often overlooked, but significant role in de-escalating the nuclear arms race.
Despite being discredited and misrepresented by the media, arrested by heavy-handed police, and the target of condemnation and scorn from both the UK government and some members of the public (particularly in nearby Newbury) thousands of women continued to come from all over the world to Greenham to challenge the presence of nuclear missiles in Britain and the recklessness of the superpowers’ actions.
Greenham, which would inspire the creation of peace camps across Europe, saw many major actions take place there over the years including 30,000 women joining hands to encircle and ‘Embrace the Base’ in December 1982, followed by a group of women climbing the fence to enter the base, dancing on some of the missile silos that were under construction on New Year’s Day, 1983. Later that year, 70,000 protesters formed a 14-mile human chain from Greenham to a facility in Burghfield, which had been used to assemble Britain’s nuclear arsenal since the 1950s.
March’s film weaves archive footage with recreated sequences, along with some fascinating contemporary interviews with those who were there such as Chris Drake. She left West Yorkshire home to live at the camp in 1982, determined to protect her children and ensure that they had a future, feeling both empowered and a sense of freedom at Greenham that allowed her to embrace her own sexuality. As explored in Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams’ Rebel Dykes, Greenham proved to be a lesbian utopia of friendship and sexual liberation, and living there was a rite of passage for many gay women in the 80s and early 90s.
In this current time of female-led activist movements, along with a troubling push from some governments to limit the right to protest, Mothers of the Revolution is both an acknowledgement of what was achieved by the women of Greenham and an inspiring testament to the power in ordinary people’s hands to effect change when they come together with a common purpose.
With Mothers of the Revolution now available to buy or rent on digital platforms, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Chris Drake about what initially drew her to the camp, some of her overriding memories of her time there, the impact the experience had on her life, and her continued activism today.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I thought Mothers of The Revolution was fascinating. It’s a really powerful and inspiring film.
Chris Drake: “I’m glad you thought so. To be honest, I was a bit concerned about how we would come across. I organized a private viewing of it and watched the film with five of my friends, including three who I’d been at Greenham with, and everybody so far seems to have enjoyed it. So that’s good.”
Going right back to the beginning, could you give me an insight into what drew you to Greenham in the first place, why did you feel like you had to be there?
“In the very beginning, I was married with three children. I’d read bits and pieces about cruise missiles, then in the town where I live, Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, there was a screening at the town hall of a film called The War Game by Peter Watkins. It had been made in the 60s, but had been banned from being shown on television for about twenty years. It depicts the aftermath of a nuclear war and it completely traumatized me. I kept thinking about about it and I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I decided that I had to do something because I have a firm belief that if you have children it’s not just about feeding and clothing them, but it’s also about creating an environment for them where they can live safely. After watching that film, I was afraid that they wouldn’t have a life and I still do have that fear, even though they’re grown up now.”
“So I put a notice in the local paper and I called a meeting, which I’d never done before, asking if anybody wanted to join me to talk about the film or about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When I got to the room that I’d booked it was only me there and I thought, ‘maybe this wasn’t such a good idea!’ But by about five minutes after the meeting had started it was standing room only. Following on from that meeting, I set up a CND group to bring the attention of the people in my town to nuclear weapons. Then I booked a minivan and organized a trip to Greenham and that changed my whole life.”
How long had the Greenham peace camp been going when you took your first trip there?
“Not very long actually, I went with some other women from the local CND group I’d set up. The demonstration we went down for was called ‘Embrace The Base’, where 30,000 women stood around the perimeter fence. Then the next day there was an action called ‘Close The Base’. The other women who’d come down with me went back after that. I was planning to stay for a week, but during the ‘Close The Base’ action we blockaded the road and the police were just picking us up and throwing us and I hit my back on the concrete curb. So I ended up having to go home because I was in a lot of pain.”
“It was traumatizing because I’d never had an interaction with the police before. I’d never actually done anything really. I’d stayed in my little box if you like. I think we all get one when we’re born and I’d stayed in mine and I hadn’t said or done anything to make any ripples. So it was shocking for me that the police behaved the way they did. A couple of weeks after I got back home my sister came to live with us. She’d just got divorced and was essentially homeless and my children really loved her, so after about six months we decided that she would stay living in our house and I would go and live at Greenham Common in the second year of the camp.”
“I knew that my children were being cared for and I went because of the same fears that I’d had when I first watched that movie. Greenham changed my life in so many ways because it gave me a space to be myself. Definitely for me, and I think it’s the case for lots of other people, that we become who other people want us to become, we don’t actually become ourselves. But going to Greenham allowed me that space and that exploration to find my voice and finding my voice there changed my life. I always thought that if every woman could have come to Greenham their lives would have been different. I think there are a lot of women who don’t live their full lives because they don’t really know who they are. They’re what they think they should be, or what they’re told to be. At Greenham all of those chains were gone so it was very freeing.”
Those heteronormative societal expectations and traditional roles, particularly at that time, of wife, mother, and housewife.
“Yeah, absolutely, although once you’re a mother, you’re always a mother. I come from a working class community in Yorkshire and I was brought up to believe that I would get married and I would have children, that was my destiny. I knew when I was 11-years-old that I was a lesbian, but I still ended up getting married because in the end I felt it was easier to do that, because during that time, it was even more unacceptable to be gay or lesbian or just to be different. It still is today to a degree today, but during that time it was really difficult.”
“I had friend who had been my best friend for years and one day when I’d come up from Greenham to see my kids we went for a walk together. She’d just had a baby and as we were walking along I came out to her and she said, ‘Don’t ever come near my child or me again.’ That’s what it was like then and I know for lots of gay women now it’s still the same, but at least there are places where you can find someone to talk to. There was nothing like that when I was coming out and it was a case of being erased, denying lesbians even existed. Actually, we used to sing a funny song at camp about Queen Victoria saying lesbians didn’t exist!”
“I was lucky that my family didn’t disown me, but I know lots of women who were disowned by their families. Also nowadays there is such a thing as a hate crime. I know the police don’t always act on it, but it is there at least. When I got attacked one night after I’d gone for a drink and to watch a band with friends we ended up at the casualty department. One of my friends had her nose broken and I got cracked ribs. When the man who did it went to court they gave him a conditional discharge, because he was training to be a social worker and the judge said that if they’d found him guilty he wouldn’t have been able to finish his training. I’m not sure that they could get away with something that blatant now, but then they could.”
What was it about Greenham that made you feel comfortable enough to come out?
“Not only was it an atmosphere where I found a voice, but I was listened to. It was like what I had to say had some worth. That hadn’t happened to me before and that gave me confidence. I come from a small mill town, but there I had conversations with women from all over the world. We had discussions and we talked about politics. We weren’t all lesbian women, there were straight women there as well of course. There was a sense of security, we knew that we would always do our best to protect each other and to help each other. The comradeship was amazing. It gave you a place to bloom. I’ve always said about Greenham, and it sounds a bit mushy, but I do actually feel like it was where I was born. I’ve been back a number of times since and I remember sitting by the fire and looking around at everybody listening to the conversation and thinking, this is where I became me. I’ve been myself since that first day I arrived there and it’s a gift.”
I know there were various different camps within the main peace camp, was there a sense of them being tribal, with the identity of the camps based on different interests?
“The camps were the colours of the rainbow and they were in different places. I helped to set up green and orange gates, but actually I ended up living at blue gate for years. We were the first camp you saw when you drove up from Newbury, so we were very visible and we got a lot of aggravation. We called ourselves the working class camp because it was mostly working class women that were there. Then you had orange gate which was set back in the woods. They were all very different, but they weren’t tribal and there were straight women and gay women at all the gates. Despite the fact it was outside a nuclear base and there was lots of violence, I’ve never felt so safe. Having said that, terrible things happened to me but that was out of my control. That was because the police and the Ministry of Defence officers decided to do things that were not okay.”
How well do you think the documentary captures Greenham, what it was like to be there and what it stood for?
“I think it’s a very well-rounded film and it explains very clearly what we stood for and what we stood against, but there were stories that were really important to me that I told that had never left me before that weren’t in the film. I understand that it would have to be days and days long to have included everything, because we all have our own stories and you can only fit so much into a movie. It didn’t show for example, that while the British press were calling us ‘filthy lesbians’ and ‘dirty whores’ and all the other things that they called us, we had delegations that came to us from some of the trade unions. We had a delegation from Latin America, and we had the delegation from Russia. So we knew that people all over the world were aware that we were there and we were always very clear about why we were there.”
“When the cruise missile talks happened in Geneva about 20 of us went over there. I hitchhiked with my friends and some people went in the van. We got to where the talks were being held at the Russian Embassy and four of us managed to break in and we spoke to the arms negotiators. So we also went to different places in the world to talk about nuclear weapons and to talk about Greenham.”
“Some women came to Greenham for different periods of time and it was always brilliant to see them all, but this one woman I remember had come for the weekend and we were sat around the fire and I noticed she wasn’t saying a lot and was just taking everything in. When she was leaving the next day I went to see her off and I said, ‘Will you come back?’ And she said, ‘No, I won’t.’ And I said, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ And she said, ‘Because if I come back, I’ll have to change everything. I will have to change my whole life and I’m too afraid to do that.’ That was my story in a sense, that you find yourself there but sometimes finding yourself can be too scary, like it was for her. But I bless the day that I arrived, because I like who I am.”
You mentioned those homophobic headlines in the press, which are pretty shocking now. Was that something that you had a sense of throughout the whole time of being there?
“I think it mellowed a tiny bit over the years. The British are quite funny in that they like people that have got stickability, the fact that we were still there years later meant that we got a reluctant, grudging acknowledgement. A sense of, ‘Well, at least you did what you believed in.’ The lesbian thing became less towards the end, but most of the time that I was there it wasn’t just that you were a lesbian that was hurled against you, it was the fact that you were going against the policy that the government had decided upon. I remember being attacked by someone one night when I was getting into my tent to go to sleep. Then he ran away. A really brave person! The police were always wandering around, so I said to a policeman, ‘I’ve just been attacked, can you take a statement or something?’ And he just looked at me, and I’ve never forgotten the look on his face, and he said, ‘I’m not here to look after shit like you.’ That was a policeman!”
“Our sexuality was seen as totally unacceptable, not that that is anybody else’s business and whether it was true or whether it wasn’t true is nothing to do with anybody else, but it didn’t hurt because I had waited for years to come out and once I was out I was really out and proud and I still am. So the newspaper headlines didn’t bother me personally, but I thought it was wrong that they could try and stop our message about cruise missiles, which was really important for the people of Britain, by slandering our sexuality. It’s still shocking when you read some of the things that they put in the newspapers. It was on the front page too, it wasn’t like it was shoved away on the back with the football. Looking at it now you think, ‘they really said that?!’
“I’m very conscious though that many of us women from Greenham have worked on lots of women’s issues, including campaigning for safe places for women and for us to be who we wanted to be without having to ask permission and I’m really grateful to them. I just went on a Reclaim The Night march a couple of nights ago in the small town that I live in. I get a bit upset sometimes, like when I was holding my placard at that march, I thought, ‘I did this forty years ago! Why am I still having to do this now?!’ But I was glad that I was there. We had a lesbian march just before the pandemic in Leeds and we had to have police protection. In some ways it’s different now, but in lots of ways we are going backwards.”
So you’ve obviously been involved in all sorts of protests and actions since Greenham?
“Oh gosh, yeah. I do lots of work in solidarity with Palestine and I’ve done that for a long time. At the moment I do lots of activities related to Kill The Bill. I’ve been on lots of demonstrations around that because that act would take away our right to free speech and free assembly. It’s a terrifying bill. So many of the policies of this present government are appalling to me as a person, so there’s lots to do.”
Are there any other stories from Greenham that didn’t make it into the film that you’d like to share?
“There are all sorts of different stories, but there is one about meeting an American man that I’d like to share. When I was living at the camp I caught the bus to London to go on a demonstration outside The Sun newspaper offices. At the second stop in Newbury, this man got on and he came and sat on the backseat near me. He said, ‘Hello, are you from Newbury?’ I told him that I lived at the Women’s Peace Camp and he said, ‘Oh, I’m an American soldier inside the base.’ And we ended up having a conversation all the way to London. He tried to persuade me to his way of thinking, and I think he actually believed his own propaganda, which was a bit sad. He said, ‘I’ve come to protect you.’ And I said, ‘But I never asked you to. I never told you that I was more important than anybody else or that I needed your protection. I don’t want you to be here because you’re actually causing a threat to us, you’re not protecting us.’ He got off at the stop before me in London and I said, ‘I’ll see you again inside the base’ and he just smiled and walked off.”
“When I got back to the camp three weeks later I decided to go into the base by orange gate. So I went inside and there was a squadie standing guard on the gate and he panicked and freaked out. So I said, ‘Just ring the Americans and they’ll send someone’ and so he got on his radio and then this Jeep appeared screaming up to the gate and three Americans got out. They all had guns and they walked over to me and one of them was the man I’d met on the bus. I looked at him and I said, ‘What are you going to do now, are you going to shoot me?’ He just turned around and got back into the Jeep and stayed there while the other two evicted me and then they all drove off.”
“I found out afterwards that he’d been sent back to America for turning around when he saw me. I had asked him on the bus what he would you if he saw me inside the base and he said, ‘Nothing’. I said, ‘But you’d get orders to do something’, but actually when it came to it he didn’t do anything. Every so often he pops into my head because I remember every frame of it and I wonder what happened to him when he got back to America, whether they made him leave the Air Force or not. It was the sort of encounter that you probably have once in lifetime. I don’t know where he is now, but he did the right thing in the end and if he ever gets to read this I thank him for that.”
Looking back, does it surprise you how much you were able to achieve and what sense of pride do you feel now for what you collectively achieved by being at Greenham?
“No, I don’t think it does, because we were all there for the same reason, we all wanted the same thing, we were all working for the same thing, we all suffered in some ways for same thing. I think there was a time when we thought that we would stop the missiles from coming in. When that happened I beat myself up about it for a couple of days because we didn’t stop them. But I think where we had a lot of power was that we were able to pick ourselves back up again and say to each other, ‘But how could we stop a plane?'”
“Later on we went on to stop cruise missile convoys with the weapons on board when they were doing exercises. So we could do that, but we were never going to stop a plane. Once we got our heads around that, then I think there a cry from all of us saying, ‘We have to make sure that the missiles leave.’ That was always the aim and personally I always knew that that would happen, because I knew that we weren’t going to go anywhere until they were gone. I left camp the day after the last missile left. I was there when the missiles came in and to watch that plane landing knowing what was on it was one of the worst moments of my life, so there was no way that they were going to stay there.”
“I think people don’t recognize their own power and that there is a power in a belief, in a goal, in a collectiveness. Politically things are going on all over the world and ordinary people have the power to change it, but they’re not doing that because they don’t believe in themselves. What we had there at Greenham was a belief that what was happening was wrong and we had to change it. Only when people start believing that will they change this crappy world that they’ve created for all of us. We did it, we worked hard, and we got the missiles removed, but there’s so much more that’s killing us and we need to have that same spirit and that same energy and that same power and that same believability that we can do it, otherwise we’re all done for.”
I hope the film will inspire people who might feel like change isn’t possible to actually go out there and do something and remind people that we all have a voice.
“I truly hope so, because one of the main problems now is that people think that they can do it all online. It’s great to do things online, but when you’re sitting in your own front room on your computer nobody sees you. At Greenham we were always visible, we were always there, and you need to be visible to make change happen. Doing it at home on your own is part of it, but it can’t be all of it because that’s not how you change anything.”
By James Kleinmann
Mothers of the Revolution is available to buy or rent on digital platforms now.