In September 1981, Helen John, a midwife from Essex joined a march from Cardiff to Newbury to protest at the siting of ninety-four nuclear missiles at Greenham airbase. In the process, she inadvertently became one of the founders of a women-only protest whose scale would be unparalleled in recent British history.
Helen was born in Romford to parents who worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham. Growing up during the Second World War, she recalled how anxious her parents were for the safety of their children during bombing raids which killed friends and family. Growing up during war, and then later watching the nuclear arms race unfold, made a huge impact on her.
As a nurse and midwife, I have tried all my working life to keep people alive and I’m not inclined to support people who plan to kill others, for whatever reason.
When Helen left home to join the march in Cardiff, her five children, the youngest of them three and a half, were to be looked after by her husband. Dissatisfied with the lack of publicity when the march arrived at Greenham RAF base, she decided she would live at the peace camp full-time, away from her family. Many women after her chose to do the same. Her experience at Greenham began a lifelong commitment to campaigning against war and for nuclear disarmament, and it was a decision that exacted this high personal cost. Helen observed that while it was acceptable for men to leave their families and go off to war, if women left their families to fight for peace, they were shamed for it.
She was a formidable part of a movement to alter the nature of non-violent direct action and as part of a small group, occupied the sentry box at Greenham’s main gate. The women sang, laughed and whooped at the non-plussed guards. At the trial, Helen used the public platform to argue her defence politically, a voice which she continued to employ not only to combat the growth of militarism domestically and internationally, but to raise awareness of such injustices as the dreadful conditions in women’s prisons and the commercial exploitation of women worldwide.
Helen’s contribution also lies in the everyday nature of her activism; teaching women prisoners to read and write, donating clothes or providing women with a meal, a bath and a bed when they needed it. She was the epitome of the suffragette motto ‘Deeds not Words’.
Having spent ten years living in a tent at Greenham peace camp, Helen, now in her mid-fifties, was a seasoned protester and committed feminist. Her activism was characterised by the non-violent direct action pioneered at the peace camp. She had been arrested and imprisoned countless times, thirty-two times for criminal damage alone. She was one of the first people to be charged under new anti-terror legislation for walking 15ft across a sentry line at RAF Menwith Hill which housed a US eavesdropping operation run by the US National Security Agency.
Despite being patronisingly described by the media as a ‘Grannie’ or a ‘pensioner’, Helen’s activism was forward-thinking, determined and intellectual. It often mocked the authorities – who found her ability to disrupt high-security military activities with what she called ‘non-co-operation’ singularly humiliating. Her creative use of non-violent direct action was in part designed to attract the attention of the media and politicians – for instance, standing against Tony Blair for the Sedgefield constituency in the 2001 and 2005 elections, her campaign conducted from behind bars due to her conviction on charges of criminal damage.
Helens dedication to the peace movement and upholding the right to protest was expressed in every aspect of her life. Her energetic, challenging and inventive campaigning methods have inspired decades of young activists. After 25 years of tireless work, Helen was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for ‘rendering valuable services to the cause of peace, justice and human dignity.’
While we have been conditioned to expect a softening of women as they grow older, become respectable grandmothers and fade into the background, Helen John remained strikingly fearless and unorthodox.
She died peacefully on 5th November 2017, aged 81. As the legacy of Greenham echoes down through new generations of young women, we can remember Helen’s words as fundamental to our movement: “In sisterhood and total defiance.”