margaretta jolly

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Margaretta Jolly lectures in Twentieth Century Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter. She is the editor of Dear Laughing Motorbyke: Letters from Women Welders of the Second World War (1997) and The Encyclopedia of Life Writing (2001). She is currently writing a book on feminist letter writing in the second wave.


Writing the web: Letters from the women's peace movement


To the many who remember the women's peace camp, begun in 1981 at Greenham Common Royal Airforce Base, Berkshire, to protest the siting of short-range nuclear missiles in Britain, an article about its letters may seem perverse.

Greenham, as it became known, was extraordinary for its innovative direct action as a set of ramshackle encampments with none of the usual campaign infrastructure. It was fascinating for its open-air, women-only community, crossing social boundaries and political constituencies. And it amazed onlookers in its very persistence, notwithstanding the predictable internal splits of later years. The camp endured after the arrival of cruise missiles in 1983, in the face of increasing hostility of locals in nearby Newbury and continued, albeit as a tiny settlement, even after the removal of missiles with Cold War détente in 1990. Indeed, it did not end until 2000, when the airforce base closed and the site returned to the people of Newbury as common land. But letter writing? Who had time to write letters in the mud, rain and jollity outside the barbed wire of a high security base? And wasn't the point of such high-drama witnessing a rejection of the 'safer' and more privatised forms of political lobbying represented by the letter to an MP or local newspaper?

Precisely because its emphasis was deeply activist and the flavour distinctly anarchist, Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp provides a specially interesting demonstration of the political functions of women's letter writing. It reminds us that letter writing is a staple of all political campaigns, lobbying the powers that be and writing to fellow campaigners. Typically a middle-class activity, it has also been specially favoured by those who find more public forms of participation difficult: women, disabled and elderly people amongst others. The camp's originating protest, a walk from Cardiff to Greenham by a group called Women for Life on Earth, had only coalesced because of Ann Pettitt's and others' personal letter writing to likely supporters. When the walkers spontaneously decided to stay at the base gates to try to gain national publicity, they were sustained by the letters of those that couldn't come but who sent letters and parcels or, alternatively, wrote to governments, magistrates, military personnel and the media. As the camp became well known and more radical in style, Greenham support groups from around the country wrote to prisons where women were banged up for trespass or other surrealist crimes like 'breaching the peace'. Letters linked women's peace groups and sister camps set up in the wake of Greenham, in Britain and internationally, including the missile 'defence' base in Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, the Italian cruise missile base in Comiso, Sicily, and the airbase from where the missiles were to be shipped - the Seneca Weapons Army Depot in upstate New York (Blackwood 1984:147-48; Jones 1983:55). At Greenham, letter writing was symbolic too, from the open letters to base commanders and local townspeople to the handwritten newsletters and the personal networking conceived of as 'Greenham Women Everywhere'. In this, letter writing can be understood as part of Greenham's guiding symbol, the web, which, long before the World Wide Web, proposed a virtual community premised on decentred, egalitarian action.

I have given a longer analysis of the history of Greenham in The Feminist Seventies print book accompanying this web book, in which I argue that the camp owed far more to the women's liberation movement of the 1970s than was apparent to many at the time, who saw it initially as a mothers' movement for peace, later as a home for lesbian feminist identity politics. Suffice here to say that one of the interesting aspects of the camp's political evolution and, I argue, its political success, was its ability, especially in the first three years, not only to use both liberal and radical ideas from the seventies' women's movement but to depolarize them. A women-only outdoor protest against nuclear weapons proved to be a powerful, if unexpected, formula not only for bringing a gender analysis to war but for politicising mothering and mothers. The increasing numbers of lesbians involved and the highs of direct action brought out the links between sexuality and liberation alongside those of gender and war, while the need to understand the politics of nuclear defence and the Cold War encouraged an international perspective. As these ideas came together, letter writing between women sympathetic to the campaign, whether or not they had met, turned the functional aspects of networking into an expression of powerfully-felt identity. Both internal and external communications, letters were much like the wool webs that women wove on the fence and between themselves, simultaneously hindering the authorities' control and binding them together in protest.

Reasons of space permit discussion of only two of the many intriguing letters written out of the campaign, and I have chosen the following because they represent different ends of the political spectrum that informed it. In some ways these are expressed in the very genre of political letter each represents, the petition to a public representative in contrast with the missive sent to friends asking them to come to a demonstration. Although both kinds of letters played crucial parts in sustaining political momentum, largely behind the scenes, generally the shift was from the first stance to the second. As political rhetoric, such letters can be seen as symptoms of the changing political model within the women's peace movement itself, in which lobbying the state was rejected for a vision of an alternative public sphere altogether.

The first is an early letter by Ann Pettitt, who was energetically involved at the beginning of the camp and had a keen eye for public relations. Dated 17 September 1981, two weeks after the camp's establishment, she was following up a letter attempting to persuade the BBC and London Weekend Television to hold a televised debate between John Nott, the Secretary of Defence, and some Greenham women:

You may well think that we are merely seeking an excuse to throw rotten vegetables at John Nott, or to get on the telly and shout at him or anyone who wishes to defend present government policies on defence. That is not what we have in mind. The Ministry of Defence has stated that sufficient debate has taken place on the nuclear issue. We disagree. We feel that the kind of discussion we are suggesting, one which takes place between politicians and ordinary people, is notably lacking. You must agree that there is all the difference between a prepared interview, and between a formal debate between opposing 'experts' and a spontaneous, unscripted exchange of views in which each side has to do some hard thinking. (Bardsley 1981)

It is this kind of discussion we are proposing, between say four (at least) of the women who took part in the march, and an equal number of politicians & advisers prepared to defend government policy. We would like to hold a discussion ranging over the whole issue of what constitutes an approved defence for Britain, the position of Europe vis-à-vis the U.S. and Russia, and the question of military spending set beside the growing needs of the Third World.

You must realise that we are not making a light proposal. If any T.V. producer were bold enough to put on such a programme, we would find the prospect of debating with trained politicians daunting - very daunting. Nonetheless some of us would be prepared to try, as members of the public who feel that these really overriding issues are lost in the daily complexities of our political life, to justify by the use of reason the views we hold. We feel it is not too much to ask politicians to do the same, outside of parliament, in the only really public forum that exists - that is the media.

This letter is interesting for two reasons. First, it places (perhaps flatters) the media as the key to policy making and thereby to the campaign's success. Undoubtedly letter writing from a private citizen requesting public representation is the mildest kind of participation in a political process. But Pettitt's statement that power had shifted from parliament to the media suggests a changing sense of the public sphere in which performance, 'spontaneous, unscripted exchange' of the kind offered by the letter itself, might gain a place in policy making. The BBC replied that their programmes such as Panorama and You the Jury were adequate to represent public opinion, while London Weekend Television explained that they did not 'go in' for programmes between ordinary people and politicians. But although no televised debate materialised, the direct actions that followed at Greenham proved that the media did provide the quickest route to public representation in a situation where parliament had surrendered its policy-making powers to NATO. Pettit's subsequent exchange with the rabidly pro-nuclear Lord Chalfont was revealing of how even a failed correspondence could be used. Chalfont agreed in principle to come to a town-hall debate but with the no-win proviso that he only considered it worth arguing with those truly informed of the issue. If Pettitt had needed to prove the problem with conventional parliamentary lobbying, this could not have been better - an unelected peer showing crude sexism and dismissal of the views of the ordinary voter. Pettitt sent one of Chalfont's letters to the Labour weekly New Statesman, who printed it, upon which Chalfont wrote tersely that this betrayal justified the end of their correspondence and refused to reply to any more of Pettitt's letters. In a Women for Life on Earth newsletter Pettitt urged women to realise 'we can pull a pretty big punch just by way of letters only': her artfully amateur form flaunts the hollowness of democratic petition in a nuclear state.

Pettitt's letter is also striking in its invocation of reason. Reason was a key term in contemporary peace movement rhetoric at that time as a contrast to the pretend objectivity and rationality of military-speak in terms such as Mutually Assured Destruction, as 'MAD's' acronym so fittingly suggested (Thompson 1980: 50-53). But reason was also a sensitive term in the feminist context, as her emphatic phrase 'justifying by the use of reason' would suggest. While feminism in the liberal tradition had focused on proving women could be as rational as men, reason had also been thoroughly critiqued by second wavers as an ideological term, historically aligned since the enlightenment with patriarchal domination of all those designated outside its abstractions. Suspicion of conventional forms of political intervention swelled as the camp developed. In the year following Pettitt's missive, the camp went women-only and grew more dramatic in its styles of protest, including a die-in at the London Stock Exchange, the placing of 10,000 stones on Newbury War Memorial and the occupation of the base's sentry box. These resulted in repeated evictions and trials but also media coverage and increasing numbers of supporters. Rather than using the same language as the (un)reasonable military patriarchy, reason's others, the emotion and the body, were proposed as alternative keys to a successful protest. The following letter suggests just this.

The anonymous, handwritten letter leaflet advertising the Embrace the Base action of 12 December 1982 was first sent to 1000 women, who were each asked to copy and send it to ten friends:

text of letter

Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, who reproduced the letter in Greenham Women Everywhere (1983) declared the chain letter 'was an inspiration for many women, giving them a chance to participate on their own terms' precisely because it was so unconventional a political appeal (105). Stephanie Lelland commented that 'true to the Greenham style it was artistic, imaginative, but barely legible. [. . .] We sent out copies of a revised and legible chain letter to thousands of women both in the British Isles and overseas. [. . .] The chain letter as an idea was beautifully simple, and it worked' (Lelland, 1983: 119-120). Privately disseminated through women's friendship networks, framed personally and encouraging personal additions, the chain letter could be viewed as part of what Roseneil has argued was Greenham's principled anarchy, in which 'gatherings at Greenham were initiated rather than organized' (Roseneil, 1995:101). Such initiation, by implication, was open to refusal but, if accepted, would promise a greater form of inclusion. Alice Cook describes receiving the letter thus:

I had been to the camp several times but had not taken an active part for a few months. The letter came out of the blue. … I didn't read so-called 'impartial' information in a newspaper. This was a personal communication addressed to me, requesting things of me, making it plain that every woman was included, was important. Not only did I copy the letter, but I spent a long time considering who to send it to. I didn't send it to women who I thought would hear about the action anyway, nor to women who would never go to such a demonstration. I sent letters to women I thought would be interested but had not become directly involved. I felt that the spur of a personal letter might spark off enthusiasm. As it turned out, several of these women were at Greenham on 12 December.'
(Cook and Kirk 1983:106)

Like the symbol of the spider's web, the 12 October chain letter rewrote culturally feminine imagery of delicate water and weak thread as strong forces that 'work' by adaptation and fluidity. In addition, both images unite passive and active. Women spin and flow but they are also themselves thread, springs, rivers, that simply by physically uniting will be able to challenge the military. This works at the level of letter writing - or even letter photocopying - as copying and sending the letter is syntactically represented as itself a kind of spinning and flowing in the repetition of 'who then do the same', the unfinished series of elliptical points and the use of the present tense. In these ways, the conception of the letter was of a piece with that of the action itself, in which women held hands around the base and decorated the wire with mementoes, indeed sometimes with letters themselves. As one version of the text had it, 'This is a chain letter with a difference. We'll meet as a living chain. See you at the chain-link fence!'

The letter, in its imagery and syntax, supported the idea of women's special relationship not only to the cause of peace but to each other. As epistolary confidantes, public, collective or distant relationships could be as intimate as those bound by life on the frontline. Admittedly, this was no different from many popular uses of letters, which assume a continuity between speech and writing. Epistolarity has long been positioned on the border of oral and written cultures. Yet the convergence of feminist protest with romantic epistolarity was pungently different from the usual campaign or open letter and its specialised and abstracted literacy relationship. It found in the model of a personal letter a means to present the identification and interchangeability of writer and reader that at times appealed to an almost telepathic bond that indeed needed no writing at all to be sustained. Many of the 30,000 women who came on the 12 December and 'embraced the base' in Greenham's most famous demonstration, testified subsequently to feeling just that.

Naturally, not all chain letters, newsletters, postcards or books, were as explicitly spiritualised. Pettitt, for example, had used them at the beginning in an entirely 'please read and pass this on' manner. But this was the language most distinctive of Greenham's later communications and one aspect of what Ynestra King dubbed the 'aesthetic, participatory mode of action' of the women's peace movement (Jones, 1983: 60). Clearly it was not the advocacy of art for art's sake - symbolism was always politicised. Nevertheless such letters crystallise the concept of 'Greenham Women Everywhere' as political action through personalised invitation. They suggest that Greenham worked by speaking to an imagined community rather than to outsiders or sceptics, even as at that community's centre, paradoxically, was a policy of dispersal and leaderlessness (Emberley and Landry 1989).

These letters, of course only a few of thousands that were circulated, seem emblematic of the merging and eventual replacement of humanism as the frame for women's involvement in the peace movement with a feminism that brought together elements of seventies lesbian feminism and eighties identity politics. Indeed, the later Greenham's turn away from the political and public sphere as they are conventionally defined shared features with a weakened form of seventies radical feminism - what Alice Echols has termed in the U.S. context 'cultural feminism' - in which political engagement with both gender and the military were replaced by concerns of lifestyle and the maintenance of a community (Echols 1989). Some might interpret the growing spiritualization of the camp as such. But Greenham can also be seen as an unusually successful, though of course momentary and partial, product of seventies feminism, ironically facilitated by its origins in maternalist pacifism. The massive scale of Greenham in 1982-83 and the emotional impact it made on women from very different backgrounds and political allegiances (including myself) seems to have proved some of the effectiveness of that cultural politics, sustained as it was by visions of life and death on the one hand and unemployment benefit on the other. If Greenham was subsequently marginalised from the national peace movement and alienated many in the local Newbury community, this may not be the criteria by which to judge it , let alone by whether it contributed to ending the arms race. The question is whether it succeeded in creating an alternative public sphere in its own terms, however small, or whether the demands of creating and stabilising a community created too many of its own rules and exclusions.

Here we can return to the concept of letter writing as web-making. As Roseneil argues, in many ways Greenham's web can be understood as the image of a new social movement. Such movements have been typically theorised as challenging the hierarchical models of traditional pressure groups in their structural fluidity, horizontal and reticulate networks and emphasis on changing values rather than acquisition of goods or power (Roseneil 1995; Melucci 1989). Greenham was indeed a diverse and leaderless campaign, graphically represented by its famous 'rainbow of gates', each hosting a particular taste and community. And certainly commentators at the time interpreted the campaign as pioneering alternative ways of organising:

A web with a few threads is weak and can be broken, but the more threads it is composed of, the greater its strength. It makes a very good analogy for the way in which women have rejuvenated the peace movement. By connections made through many diverse channels, a widespread network has grown up of women committed to working for peace.
(Cook and Kirk 1983:126)

The web has become a symbol of the networking which draws together and strengthens the activities of local groups through the world. (Eglin 1987:245)

But the ideology of 'Greenham Women Everywhere' also contained its tensions. In principle famously centripetal and increasingly conceived of as a web of difference across race and region, it could also revert to a centrifugal managing of identity that could be severely judgemental of those perceived to threaten it: for example, on one occasion when a woman was expelled from a ritual circle. Ideals of women's instinctive communication were uneven virtually as well as in person. One anonymous circular letter sent in October 1982 invited women to join a London support group on Friday evenings 'to "beam their power and energy" to the women at the peace camp at Greenham' explaining that they are 'thinking perhaps of one woman who they might have met or know there; also, at women (people) who are on the inside of the camp, trying to help them open themselves to the 'other' (ie our) side of the meaning of the base and peace camp'. This request abruptly breaks off to remark that 'Whilst I was there recently, a huge American car drove out of the gates driven by a very smart black woman'. This observation receives no comment but this in itself speaks of the drastic limitations in the assumptions that underlie the letter, combined with a fascination of both the rare sight of a black woman at Greenham and the clear evidence that she is on the other side of the fence, signified in the archetypal image of power, the American car. In what sense would this woman receive the 'beaming', in what sense do the Greenham women wish her to? The letter's subsequent suggestion that the 'destructive energy' inside the base might burst out of its own accord, confounds the sense of uncertainty about the relationship between those 'inside' and 'outside' the women's movement as much as the base.

One of the most moving epistolary productions to come out of the protest was Lynne Jones' 'Open Letter to an Unknown Woman at the Falklands Victory March Day 1982' (Jones, 1982). The letter dramatises the failure of dialogue between mothers of soldiers and peace protestors at a parade of soldiers returning from the Falklands war. The 'unknown woman' Jones addresses was a mother who had been chatting to the protestors who were at that point incognito, sharing her profound relief that her son had survived the war, but who was 'incomprehending, distressed' when the protestors hoisted a banner and turned their backs on the parade. 'We share the same values, you and I', writes Jones, but the terrible gap in any understanding of this truth is obvious in the event of an open letter that will never be read by its addressee, only by other feminists and pacifists.

On this level the web becomes incompatible with successful dialogue with what is conventionally understood to be the general public and the public sphere. It would be easy to conclude that at this point a campaign has lost its point. But at stake are not only the pros and cons of women-centred protest and separatism in general but the general relationship of political action to the development of a community. Today's uses of the world wide web, touted as revolutionising political action, suggest the ways in which new social movements of the kind pioneered by varying groups in the seventies and emblematised in the web, anticipated the crucial role of communication in doing so. In this, the emphasis on personal relationship was inseparable from the revolutionary perspectives on gender that the feminist seventies had brought to the peace movement. Here peace letters are like those of war, neither simply reflecting the ideologies that propel their struggle, nor entirely indifferent to those ideologies, but somewhere in between. Even campaign letters are texts in this sense - constructive as well as communicative, part of a deep ritual of identity.

Unpublished letters cited are in the Glamorgan Record Office. I am extremely grateful for permission to use them. The chain letter was reproduced from Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams, Ideas, and Actions from the Women's Peace Movement (1983). Every effort was made to obtain copyright permission but at the time of publication it has not been possible to trace the author(s) of the letter. I would be pleased to hear from the above person or people.