Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Disarming Patriarchy: Feminism and Political Action at Greenham

Sasha Roseneil
Buckingham: Open University Press
ISBN 0 335 1905 7
£12.99 (pb)
viii +225 pp.

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Sasha Roseneil's Disarming Patriarchy: Feminism and Political Action at Greenham provides a detailed examination of the history and every day life of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, garnered through participant observation and thirty-five in-depth interviews. As an ethnographic and historical document alone, it is a significant and fascinating book. However, Roseneil's work also offers a compelling analysis of how women's participation in the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp served not only to challenge U.S.A. led global militarism but also provided the participants with a physical and intellectual space to envisage and live new forms of consciousness and identity. For example, Roseneil makes sexuality a particular focus of inquiry, highlighting the way in which lesbian identities were 'normalized' and lesbianism 'became a "thinkable" practice and identity available to all women at Greenham' (p. 158).

Greenham's status as an exclusively women's peace camp, to some extent, symbolized connections participants made between masculinity and militarism. This was a link which was often reinforced as women came into contact with male soldiers, male police officers and a male dominated judicial system in the course of daily harassment, routine evictions and criminal prosecutions. However, beyond this, the importance of a specifically women's camp was rooted in a more positive vision of the political and personal transformations that women's collective action could generate. As Roseneil maintains the women posed an intertwined 'challenge to the nuclear state and to patriarchal gender relations' (p. 97).

Roseneil's analysis clearly reveals that motivations for participation in the peace camp were complex and shifting, constantly redefined by the interaction of personal biography and collective experience. That there was no one emblematic Greenham identity was reflected in the different levels of the women's involvement (visitors, stayers and campers) and the physical structure of the camp which was in fact a number of interlinked but distinctive camps housed around the base's different gates. Roseneil examines attempts to organize and re-configure domestic life and work in the face of frequent evictions, poor sanitary conditions and often debilitating exposure to high levels of electromagnetic radiation. Her standing as a former participant in the camp offered her unique access to the women and this resonates in the fascinating interview material she weaves throughout her account.

Overall, the book fills an important gap in the literature on recent women's movements and feminist organizing, analyzing 'the most visible form of women's activism (and together with the miner's strike of any form of oppositional politics) in Britain in the 1980s' (p. 4). Roseneil's contribution makes this lucana seem even more anomalous. Certainly a conundrum of Greenham is that its legacy has been so thoroughly undervalued. In this respect, one of the most interesting questions about Greenham is perhaps the most difficult to assess: what impact did the camp have on larger processes of global disarmament?

As Roseneil maintains it is difficult to conclusively demonstrate the influence of social movements on usually secret government decisions. Further, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the triumphalist attitude of the West in claiming victory in the cold war has obscured the achievements of the peace movement. She rightly argues that the cause and effect model is often inappropriate for looking at the achievements of social movements. To this end she stresses that the Greenham ethos prioritized the means of political struggle as much as the ends. Here Roseneil reflects well on the tension between the goals of pressuring governments to disarm and swaying public support for the anti-nuclear cause on the one hand and challenging gender subordination and the heterosexual norm on the other. These two broad objectives were intertwined goals and this combination militated against a purely pragmatic anti-nuclear struggle, at times placing it at odds more conservative segments of the peace movement.

Roseneil describes the plethora of direct action techniques which were pioneered and refined at Greenham and passed on to other social movements and direct action campaigns. Yet, her stress on the spontaneous character of the camp as well as her resistance to describing the activities of camp actors in terms of strategies makes it is difficult to draw out what forms of organising during the camp's twelve and a half year existence were more successful than others. What is abundantly chronicled and skilfully analyzed is the meaning that the camp had for participants. Her analysis gives the reader a vivid sense of some of the joys and tensions of communal living on a grand scale, making Greenham come alive as a terrain for women's personal and collective empowerment.

Stephanie Linkogle
Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997