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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Women for Peace - Banners from Greenham Common

Updated: Apr 3

I picked up the ‘Women for Peace – Banners from Greenham Common’ book by Charlotte Dew, at the Book Art Bookshop during the Low residency. Having spent a considerable amount of my life perfecting the art of placard-making for the various protest demonstrations I have attended (I now have a box full of them in my attic) and given my recent interest in textiles – this book practically leapt off the shelf and into my arms. Serendipity at play again.

 


The book’s introduction provides an insight into the purpose of banner art and the role banners play in protest, ‘as objects banners ‘mediate social interactions as they become invested with protestors’ feelings and ideas’ They are a focus for the energy generated by a collective cause and a tool for conveying its messages.’ (page 9) Dew explains how the banners became a hallmark of the protests which endured for nearly 2-decades, ‘throughout the different camps, during the many years of the campaigning at Greenham Common, banners were present, as tools of protest, and a back-drop to daily life lived ’at the wire’ fence, surrounding the airbase.’ (page 31) Later on, Dew adds, ‘banners acted as testament to participation in an event, illustrated the history and range of campaigning activity, and provided a visual reminder of the women’s shared experiences.’ (page 48) So, the function of the banner art is not just to communicate a message during the protest but also to act as archival material – in the same way that I have kept boxes full of placards and costumes I have worn at protests – they embody memories of an event, a community and the actions which took place.



 

“Women’s Work”

 

Dew delves into the historic use of banners in women’s protest, referencing the women’s suffrage campaign, ‘banners have played a significant role in the female-led campaigns. From those carried at the suffrage rallies and processions of the early 20th century – many designed by the Artist Suffrage League – to those held aloft by women taking part in the 1926 National Peacemakers Pilgrimage, planned by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.’ (page 36) As someone who has attended many protests, and photographed many inspiring hand-made placards created by other activists, I have noted how rarely I have seen any textile banners. It seems poignant that campaigns led exclusively by women should use this medium – typically viewed as “women’s work” - to embody the messages they wished to communicate. Dew writes in her conclusion, ‘the increasingly plural definitions of the materials with which fine art can be made, and some redressing of the male art historical bias in the twenty-first century, makes these broader readings of Greenham banners more likely.’ (page 217) Personally, I think this statement is overly optimistic as I think there is still a huge male art bias and prejudice against what is considered a stereotypically “feminine” medium, but I also hopeful that these creations will be viewed as fine art.


I loved this example of "holding politicians to account for their words" given my recent music video 'It's Their Responsibility' for which I made a series of placards with caricatures of politicians alongside the ludicrous things they have said.

 

Dew later elaborates on the specific function of banners in the Suffrage campaign, ‘the Greenham banners differed markedly from some of the suffrage designs and their campaign philosophy. ‘The set of [suffrage] heroine banners reflects the organisational ideology of the Suffrage movement, which unlike present-day feminism with its insistence on collective structure, set up its leaders as sources of inspiration and devotion… None of the ‘heroines’ of Greenham are celebrated on their banners, only the activities and beliefs of the camp’. (page 128) The sense of community which is conveyed throughout this book is palpable and I found this focus on “collectivism” as opposed to hero-worshipping individuals very interesting, especially as this is a criticism frequently weighed at me (maybe I was asking for it by choosing to wear a super-hero costume?). I have been called an “attention-seeker”, “self-publicist”, “spoilt brat”, “little madam” and “Prima Donna” by other Remain campaigners who believed that I was campaigning out of self-interest instead of for the collective good. There is perhaps a grain of truth to their attacks, but I was also put on a pedestal as one of very few young women who were active in the campaign and it’s not like I haven’t done a lot of work behind-the-scenes to support grassroots groups in their initiatives. I also think there is an element of misogyny, as this criticism was not directed at the male figureheads of our campaign. I was recently trolled on Twitter by someone who said “It’s all about you”, I replied asking the troll if they had a problem with women taking up space or having an opinion and the reply I got was “you are an example of why women shouldn’t have got the vote”. 100 years on - are we seriously still having this debate?



 Dew discusses the misogynistic response of the media to the Greenham common protests in the pre-social media era, ‘[Campbell] sites the reaction of the “gutter press”…. Recounting that reporters were more interested in photographing the women in their short skirts than writing about the focus and demands of their protest’ (page 200). This point made me realise that the sexist slurs I am regularly labelled with by trolls is nothing new. And I dread to think what the backlash to the Greenham protests would have been like if social media had been as ubiquitous as it is now.

 

I loved the description which Dew gives of the protest camp, which emphasises the role which creativity has always played in activism, ‘protest camps … are often “laboratories of insurrection imagination”, spaces in which experimental, collaborative and richly creative actions are dreamed up and deployed ... infused with art, protest camps often include designated areas for creative productions and performances of music, art, theatre. When creativity is used not only as an escape or accoutrement but as central to strategies of action, colourful and effective forms of resistance can take shape’.’ (page 178) Nevertheless, it also made me reflect on the way that art can and is being ‘sanitised’ by publicly funded organisations and elite art institutions who don’t approve of art having a political agenda. Arts Council England, for example, recently backtracked on a statement it issued advising NPOs to be wary of "overtly political or activist" statements made by staff which might expose them to “reputational risk” and breach their funding agreements. I have to ask if art can’t be political – what is even the point of it? (Money laundering?)

 


Dew explains how Greenham Common was more than just a series of protests, but a counter-culture which had art at its core, ‘in her 1985 essay ‘Banners and the Women’s Peace Movement’ Moira Vincentelli suggest that ‘Greenham Common is not just a political phenomenon… it stands for a whole alternative culture and just as it has forced some women to take on an alternative lifestyle it has also inspired a new women-centred folk art in the poems, songs, ad hoc architecture and banners’ (page 119). I have noticed the male bias which also exists in the cannon of folk art history and admire the work of my colleague, artist-researcher, Lucy Wright who has written a ‘Folk is a Feminist Issue’ manifesta and attempts to redress this imbalance. I think it is a huge shame that the women, such as those at Greenham Common, are not always celebrated and recognised for their contribution to folk art history.

 

I do wonder if the Greenham Common’s collectivist philosophy may have contributed to this gender imbalance, since individual artists achieve greater impact and recognition than communities. Dew explains in the book how ‘banners would often ‘go missing’, and some were lost or destroyed’ (page 48) the majority of surviving banners were created by a single woman, Thalia Campbell, who made an effort to preserve her banners ‘when she left, they would go with her. They were precious and needed at other events’ (page 49). She clearly valued the banners as works of art and her foresight to preserve them meant that, ‘in 1983, Campbell curated and toured her own exhibition titled ‘100 Years of Women’s Banners’, which travelled to regional UK galleries, halls and churches… She recalls that people frequently offered banners to be added to the exhibition, and it became necessary to devise a definition of a women’s banner to justify those she could and could not accept’ (page 216).

 

Collective Identity

 

Dew documents how ‘Banners representing specific groups, often regional branches of a national organisation, or people from a specific place united in fighting for the same cause, were used at peace events…this type of banner gives a sense of the extent to which campaigners travelled across the country to take part and demonstrate their support for a campaign’ (page 148). This is something I have observed during the Remain campaign, which was a national movement against Brexit, local groups would form and attend “national” events (usually in London) as collective groups often carrying a printed banner or placards with their localised group name as evidence of the effort they had made to travel to attend the event. I have a particularly fond memories of “Yorshire for Europe” protests outside Westminster and the European Commission in Brussels, a particularly musical group who brought a brass band and sang trad folk or pop songs with altered lyrics, for example, ‘lie, lie, lie, Theresa’ to the tune of ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones. They of course carried Yorkshire flags (white rose on a sky-blue background) alongside their EU flags.



 

Banner Design

 

I was interested to read about (and see in the photographs) the different banner designs, and the importance of the choice of messaging. My particular favourites were, ‘War is Menstrual Envy’ and ‘No More Toys for the Boys’ because of their clearly feminist agenda and ‘Remembrance is Not Enough’ (page 86) because I have often found the glorification of conflict difficult to stomach. Dew also gives the example of a banner which included a group’s name ‘Women for Life on Earth’, quoting an activist, Pettitt who explained ‘in case this title might be mistaken for some kind of anti-abortion, religious, right-to-life outfit… we threw in for good measure the explanatory sub-title: “Women’s Action for Disarmament”’ (page 24). I think this is a great example of the importance of considering wider context when choosing group names or the statements which you use during protests, to clarify your meaning and not accidentally be mistaken for something else. I often advocate for ‘Audience Response Theory’ in the creation of political art – where the audience completes the meaning of the art through their interpretation – especially with political messaging, clarity of meaning is of paramount importance.



Dew goes into the specifics of the materiality of the banner designs, ‘[Campbell] describes practical considerations in selecting fabrics for a banner; the ground must be heavier than the material applied to it and the whole banner should be kept as light as possible, to avoid sagging. To ensure the fabric would hold-up to being carried and hung. Campbell adds tape into the seams and double sews them for strength’ (page 200). I would do well to learn from this guidance – given my recent creative debacles resulting from impractical choice of materials (the 12-litre bucket full of solid plaster which was arm-achingly heavy to carry and the star-umbrella which consistently tangled and was almost immediately destroyed by the ferocious Liverpool winds). Although, I did double-sew my WANGLAND flag which may have saved it from being damaged when someone pulled it down during the MA interim show.


This banner is my favourite because it shows the impact of collective action and emphasises the collectivist philosophy of the Greenham Common camp.


Dew also describes how the Greenham women would sew ‘a row of tactile objects… to the bottom edge of the banner, in place of traditional tassels, which children could play with and be entertained by when the banner was hung on the fence. The link between children and the nuclear threat was a principle narrative in Greenham’s largest protest event Embrace the Base in December 1982, when more than 30,00 people linked arms around the length of the airbase and attached personal effects, especially children’s clothes and toys to the fence’ (page 72) ‘in order to symbolically block out the base’ (page 98). I loved this example of breaking from the traditional form in order to emphasise a specific message. It also reminded me of the KITTY’S LAUNDERETTE banner I saw in Liverpool Tate, which had miniature items of clothing attached to the banner to create a 3-dimensional washing line – exploiting the tactility of the textiles medium for greater impact.


Sometimes the simplest messaging is the most powerful.


I was also delighted to read about the symbolic use of colour in the banner design – given my research focus on the symbolic use of colour in portraits and which I intend to use in my future creation of flags. ‘A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel; you do not want to read it, you want to worship it. Choose purple and gold for ambition, red for courage, green for long-cherished hopes…’ (pages 200-202). Of course, the meaning of colours is always subjective and personal, but I loved this interpretation of what colours stand for in protest banners.

 

Other Protest Art Forms

 

The focus of the book is of course the banners used at Greenham Common, however, Dew also mentions other forms of protest art which were used to communicate the community’s political messages. She writes about another artist who was pivotal in the campaign, ‘Katrina Howse … lived at Greenham from August 1982 to February 2000. Her creative output encompasses murals, paintings, drawings, puppets and forms, as well as painted banners’ (page 37). Having used a papier-mâché puppet (of Theresa May) during performances with the singing Boris Johnson impersonator, Drew Galdron, at protests, I was excited to learn about their use at Greenham.



An account by Juliet Nelson details how during an occupation of a missile silo, ‘every now and then we’d link arms in a big circle and dance around the top of the sile. We were all ecstatic’ (page 213) and subsequently, ‘we were all whisked off to Newbury nick, singing all the way… The noise of our singing was deafening. The police seemed to be affected in the same way as the base personnel – completely awestruck that we’d done it and that we were so jubilant about it’ (page 214). I loved this use of dance and song as acts of protest (of course I would) because it reinforces my belief that ‘joy is an act of defiance’. Authorities try to oppress and subjugate through intimidation with the aim of controlling through instilling fear – to laugh, dance, sing and be joyful, in the face of inhumane treatment is truly defiant.



"Why are you staring at paper instead of giving me attention?!"



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