the women of the anti-nuclear protest movement
Nuclear war? No thanks.
© Edward Barber. A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at RAF/USAF Greenham. Common after keening in Parliament Square, Westminster, London (1982)
The Edward Barber images that make up the Imperial War Museum's new Peace Signs exhibition are, in the photographer's words, "both a celebration and a warning." Featuring more than 40 photographs of key moments from the British anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, they arrive at a time when Britain's current nuclear deterrent, Trident, is due for renewal at a cost of up to $150 billion (or, you know, 150,000 new nurses, 1.5 million affordable homes, and tuition fees for four million students).
From a Hyde Park peace rally in 1980 to the Embrace the Base event in 1982 — which saw 30,000 women link hands at Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest against weapons located at the military site — not only do the images capture the passion of the movement as a whole, they also shine a light on the vital role played in it by women. As the exhibition opens to the public, we spoke with curator Hilary Roberts about this most turbulent of political decades. "Take the toys away from the boys," read one placard from the period. It still sounds like a good idea.
What attracted you to the images?
Well, I'd been wanted to do this project with Edward Barber for a number of years yet. I first met him, I think, about three or four years ago and looked at the photographs and what appealed to me about them was he individualized, humanized the protest movement of the 80s. You have a sense of diversity, of the people who took part, their creativity, their imagination and their sheer determination of course.
And why now?
Well, Britain is considering the future of its independent nuclear deterrent, the Trident debate. And it is indeed a debate about Britain's exploitation of nuclear technology as a whole. And it seemed a very relevant subject to do at this particular time.
The images are very British as well, aren't they? There's a very British humor to some of them.
Yes, I think you're absolutely right. The humor is there. Of course, apart from the fact that the British have a wonderful sense of humor anyway, there was a tactical element to it, because humor is a wonderful way of attracting attention and making something stand out. So there was an intentional element to that humor. But even so, the sheer creativity of it and the individuality of it. And so much of it is, in fact, incredible polite. There's a wonderful image of lady sitting in a chair, picketing the entrance to Greenham Common, and her sign reads, "Could you stop for a chat?"
And am I right in thinking Greenham Common was the female-only protest camp?
Yes. It all developed from Helen John who marched from her home in Wales to the Greenham Common and, following her reception at Greenham Common, was determined to stay until the end. And, of course, the women's camp at Greenham became the longest running static protest that Britain has know. However, it evolved into a celebration of women's culture and their femininity as well. The key priority was of course the anti-nuclear protest but, many of the protests that were staged by women at Greenham Common took direct inspiration from the suffragette protests at the turn of the century. And Edward Barber himself talks about the occasion when he went to photograph the huge event at Embrace the Base and was excluded by virtue of the fact he was a man. So I think it evolved beyond its original intention and it became a sort of celebration of femininity and women in addition to its main purpose.
Has the role of women in the protest movement occasionally been overlooked?
I think that women's role in society has come under scrutiny at various points in the 20th century. Obviously the suffragette movement was one occasion. Then there was the role that women played during the two world wars. And then of course there was the campaign for equal pay in the 60s and everything that that meant. So there was still a sense in the 1980s, particularly, that women still had a way to go in terms of equality and recognition. Particularly they still had a way to go in terms of their voice in politics and matters of national debate. And it all came together so we Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister, but we also had this. So it was a particularly important time I think for gender in the UK.
What's great about the exhibition is that it highlights the performative elements of the protests too — the costumes particularly.
Well, the costumes are a way of making your point and protesting individually. Some protestors who really loved dressing up and the theatrical side of things, went through an enormous amount of trouble to create costumes and makeup that would actually get their point across. And others really adapted the fashion of the day. So the young people particularly used the peace symbol, badges, jewelry, etc. It all adapted to make their point. But you've really got such a variety in terms of the costumes. Men and women, both of them were very creative.
What would you like people to take from the exhibition?
A sense of the determination, creativity, and diversity of those who joined to protests in the 80s. So every gender, every class of society, every age group. A wide diversity of interests. Women, absolutely, but also so many men as well. I think you get a sense of collective and individual engagement in an issue that was so important at the time and continues to be very important today.
Edward Barber Peace Signs is at IWM London, May 26 - September 4, 2016.
Text Matthew Whitehouse