“Protect and Survive,” an information campaign published by the British government in 1980, informed the public of how “to make your home and your family as safe as possible under nuclear attack.”
Part of the plan advised civilians to prop suitcases against the walls, stuffed with clothes and books “to absorb the radiation.” In the event of incoming nuclear missiles, the government would give a four-minute warning.
The Cold War was heating up between the United States and the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan, who would go on to declare the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire,” announced the U.S. would increase nuclear arsenals in NATO countries. That included bringing cruise missiles to Greenham Common, a Royal Air Force base in Berkshire, England, 60 miles from London.
Like many people, Karmen Thomas thought basing nuclear weapons in Britain would make the country a target. “The whole nuclear threat was very much out there,” she says in the new documentary Mothers of the Revolution. “I had that feeling of complete helplessness, of not being able to protect your child.”
Protecting children was a central concern of Women for Life on Earth, a group organized by Thomas and others. In the summer of 1981, they marched from Wales to Greenham Common to protest the plan to deploy nuclear weapons. Some women remained at the base after the march, forming the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a presence that would endure through rain, mud, ridicule, arrests, confrontation, and violence over 18 years. Mothers of the Revolution tells the story of the large role Greenham women played in the international movement for a world without nuclear weapons.
The film covers events in roughly chronological order, using interviews with veteran activists and dramatized segments to supplement video from the 1980s. Songs by Greenham women and folk artists like Peggy Seeger, appropriately peppered with punk, evoke the exhilaration of solidarity in action.
Take the scenes from “Embrace the Base.” Using mimeographed chain letters and telephone trees, Greenham women reached out to their networks with an ambitious plan to bring 16,000 women to link arms around the base. Almost twice that number arrived, a chain of more than 30,000 women surrounding the 9-mile perimeter. The first day, they embraced the base. The second day, they blocked it.
Taking inspiration from the more confrontational tactics of the British suffragettes, Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was explicitly feminist, intentionally defying norms with anti-authoritarian, physically bold direct action. The aim was not just to draw attention to the base, but to shut it down. There were blockades of roads into the base, groups that tracked and paint-bombed convoys carrying nuclear weapons, and many actions when women cut the base fence or climbed over it.
Perhaps because they were often underestimated, the unarmed women activists often ran rings around police and armed guards. They locked police out of a sentry box in one Keystone Cops incident, and they got into the base one New Year’s Eve to dance in the moonlight on top of a missile silo. Even when nuclear warheads were in place, a group of women managed to climb into a control tower. Once there, they hung a peace banner and spent two hours flashing lights, trying to alert the military to their presence.
Other confrontations were less amusing. Conservatives and tabloid media labeled Greenham women shrews, harpies, neglectful mothers, “lesbians and communists.” The abuse didn’t stop at words. Instead of taking Greenham woman Chris Drake to the precinct after arrest, police brought her to a room on the base where they assaulted her with blows, aerosol spray, and hot coffee. In one incident, a police vehicle crushed 23-year-old Helen Thomas to death, an event a court ruled accidental.
Yet despite attacks by police and civilian vigilantes, the women found strength in each other. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp became a center of cultural change, with some women staying long-term and others staying when they could. There were camps at every gate of the base, each expressive of a different political philosophy. “Here was a place where you could be anything,” says Chris Drake in the film. “It wasn’t a safe time, really, to be lesbian or gay. But being at Greenham, there wasn’t that fear.”
Women in the disarmament movement held “Greenham Women Everywhere” protests in the U.S. and Europe and built international community with activists in Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. When a delegation of Greenham women visited the USSR in 1983, they reached out to the Moscow Group to Establish Trust Between East and West, a peace group calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Despite the danger of being seen to oppose the government, Moscow Group member Olga Medvedkov went with the Greenham delegation to meet with a Soviet military committee. Her presence in the film is one of its highlights.
When Mikhail Gorbachev become leader of the Soviet Union, he began reforms that progressed to his signing the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Reagan. That treaty removed more than 2,600 land-based missiles from Eastern and Western Europe, including Britain, and was hailed as the end of the Cold War. The U.S. removed nuclear weapons and withdrew troops from Greenham Common a few years later. Today, it is a park with businesses, memorials, and empty missile silos.
The Greenham women couldn’t have foreseen all the various pressures and opportunities that allowed Gorbachev to start his glasnost reforms. But their insistence that nuclear weapons were unacceptable influenced public imagination and pressured governments. Mothers of the Revolution quotes Gorbachev, years after the INF negotiations, thanking the Greenham women for their part in making the treaty possible.
The world has slipped backward from that hopeful moment. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the INF Treaty. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a humanitarian crisis with his invasion of Ukraine. As Putin squares off against the U.S. and NATO, he has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons. Once again, as it did in 1980, the possibility of nuclear attack seems more than theoretical.
It might seem naïve at a time like this to look back with admiration on a grassroots, nonviolent peace camp. But the Greenham women proved they could make a difference. When Olga Medvedkov met with the Greenham women in Moscow in 1983, she had already experienced the punitive power of the Soviet state. Her husband had been arrested and “disappeared” for six months for his activism. Later, when Medvedkov herself was tried on a bogus charge, she was pregnant and expecting to be sent to a Soviet labor camp. The Greenham women and others raised an international outcry, and her sentence was suspended. “Don’t think you’re too little to do big things, because they just might happen,” Medvedkov says at the end of the film. “Everybody’s big if they’re pursuing big and good ideas.”
VALERIE SCHLOREDT is the books editor at YES!, where she leads print and online coverage of literature, media, and film, with a focus on social change movements. Valerie worked for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London for seven years, has followed the police reform process in Seattle as a citizen activist since 2010, and continues to monitor developments in both London and Seattle. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English.