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The public alert system put in place during the Cold War gave British citizens four minutes to save themselves from nuclear annihilation. On the other side of the Atlantic, ‘duck and cover’ drills represented the extent to which ordinary US citizens could expect to protect themselves from incoming missiles. Both measures, obviously wholly ineffective in the face of nuclear weapons, framed citizens of the Cold War as passive sufferers of ongoing ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, with no role to play in global political fractures.
Briar March’s documentary, Mothers of The Revolution, changes this narrative. The documentary tells the story of ordinary women who made history but whose contributions to the peace movement are still largely put to one side, even now. These women, campaigned against nuclear weapons and disarmament all while battling sexist and hetero-patriarchal norms. Their actions ultimately contributed to the end of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev referenced the actions of the Greenham women when deciding to normalise relations with the US.
Steered by the voices of Karmen Thomas, Chris Drake and Rebecca Johnson (three of the main public figures in peace camp), March’s documentary uses compelling interviews and takes vibrant material drawing on archival footage from the period. This is used to recreate pivotal scenes from the 1980s movement and provides a powerful account of the Greenham Peace protests.
The non-violent action started as a response to US missiles being sent to Greenham Common air base in 1981 and would become a key political battleground for many years. The spectacle of thousands of women protesting in rural, conservative-inclined England caused major political headaches for the Thatcher administration and hugely influenced public opinion.
And yet, as the women’s testimonies and archival footage shows, the Greenham women were met with regular abuse and intimidation by police officers and disgruntled locals. Opposing groups would have no problem resorting to violence. Scores of protestors were charged with breaching the peace and sent to Holloway prison. Thatcher even hoped to capitalise on the repression and called for an early election.
At the high point of the protest, as many as 70,000 people are reported to have linked arms around the perimeter fence at Greenham, preventing the movement of weapons. Michael Heseltine, then Defence Minister, told parliament that protestors who got too near to the missiles would be shot. It was clear that the optics of mass police brutality and incarceration of middle-class British women was a serious dilemma for the Thatcher government who resorted to using photos of baby Prince William as a distraction from ongoing events at the Common.
The scars of battle are etched into every frame of Mothers of the Revolution and it is clear that the movement galvanised the international community. A Women’s International Day for Peace and Disarmament was organised in Washington, London, New Zealand and Australia, against the deployment of US missiles.
Women from around the world came to Greenham Common to tell their stories, including prominent Māori activist and civil rights campaigner Titiwai Harawa, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Zohl Dé Ishtar, who highlighted the issue of environmental colonisation and its impacts on indigenous communities.
These actions were significant because of the severe damage caused to indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand as a result of nuclear weapon testing. In some cases, radiation contaminated indigenous land and water supplies.
As the protests marked their 40th anniversary in 2021, commemorations have taken place. In August, hundreds of women, men and children marched from Cardiff to Greenham to honour the achievements made by the original Greenham protestors. 36 protestors marched this same route back in 1981.
These commemorations and the actions of the original Greenham women remind us that we cannot stop here. At a time of heightened geopolitical tension between the US and China, ongoing climate breakdown and growing state authoritarianism, Mothers of the Revolution is a lesson that collective and international action remains our most powerful tool. As one of the original protestors recently commented, reflecting on their victory at Greenham, ‘Margaret Thatcher had all the state power as head of government but we had a different kind of power.’
Mothers of the Revolution was released in October 2021 and is available to watch online
Abigail Yartey is a freelance reviewer and film critic based in London