Stephanie Davies’ recent memoir Other Girls Like Me is a moving, deeply personal account of one of the great protest movements against nuclear weapons. Davies was a warrior in her own way, committed to the fight against humanity’s stupidest invention. The memoir tells the story of her childhood in rural Hampshire, her socialist father, her growth into radicalism (and feminism), her embrace of her lesbianism, and, centrally, her short time at the Greenham Common peace camp, where women—mothers, daughters, sisters, radical feminists, spiritual hippie lesbians and Wiccans—spent twenty years camped out in front of the nuclear base, run by the US on British soil.
Defying the regnant nuclear madness of the 1980s, these women took nonviolent direct action. They stood up for the human future against militarism and annihilation by searing heat and radiation. In the 1987 collection “Einstein’s Monsters,” Martin Amis describes the facetious names given to nukes by their creators and wielders:
It is ironic, because they are the little boys; we are the little boys. And the irony has since redoubled. By threatening extinction, the ultimate anti-personnel device is in essence an anti-baby device. One is not referring here to the babies who will die but to the babies who will never be born, those who are queueing up in spectral relays until the end of time.
It is appropriate, then, that there were many mothers at Greenham, and that one of the movement’s slogans was a matriarchal order to Take the Toys from the Boys.
This may all seem maudlin or drearily high-minded, but Davies’ account of her life is full of humour and warmth. She has a tremendous ability to concisely evoke places, people and experiences. Describing an early trip to France, she writes:
Soon, both moon and stars were reflected on the smooth surface of the lake, and I walked to its edge, mesmerized by the silence, the darkness, and the sweet earthy scents carried on the warm breeze. Thierry joined me, and we walked along the shore together without speaking, the laughter and chatter of our friends disappearing in the distance behind us, the sound of the water lapping at the shore keeping us company.
The theme of the healing power of nature runs throughout the book. Though Davies found a home and a tribe among the Greenham women, there were risks: soldiers threatened to rape her and her friends at gunpoint and she was nearly irradiated while trespassing at Aldermaston nuclear research facility. Davies took her principles seriously, but she was vulnerable and afraid at times. She also saw the humanity in her apparent enemies—the soldiers were working-class boys, who had joined the army because they had few opportunities in life. The personal and the political are entwined throughout this book, but there is little po-faced radicalism: life, love, music and sex are celebrated, not shunned as frivolous distractions in the manner of some (mostly male) radicals. There are shades of Rosa Luxemburg here.
It is the innate humanism of the author that shines through the most. Davies loved her father deeply, but although he was a socialist and a radical who instilled in her a commitment to justice and integrity, he was old-fashioned when it came to women. There were moments of disillusion and bitterness on Davies’ part, but when he was dying she put all that aside to be with him. Some of the radical feminist Greenham women were insensitive, joking about there being one less man in the world and Davies herself felt that she was being disloyal to the cause of radical feminism by feeling so distraught about her father’s death. But, writes Davies:
death had stolen him, and now I would never gain his approval for trying to change the world as he wanted to change the world. I would never get to show him as the years passed how I matured, how my hatred of men would shift to a love for all humanity … his dying, his final gift, perhaps, starting me on the journey that brought me back from the radical brink, ready to reconnect with the possibility of goodness in all human beings.
As someone who has also lost a father, this moved me almost to tears. The father’s final gift reminds me of the radical hope epitomised by Megan Phelps-Roper, whose life within the Westboro Baptist Church has strengthened her humanism, rather than diminished it.
In the end, the women of Greenham won and the common land was returned to the people, so victories against overwhelming might are still possible (granted, the end of the Cold War also helped). I would have liked to have learned more about Davies’ life after Greenham: her work with Doctors Without Borders, her move to the US, her wife, and her more recent work. The book ends by skipping forward to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where Davies finds herself reinvigorated by the passion of the marchers.
That brings me to some of the weaker parts of the book. Though true to history and Davies’ experiences, the invocation of woo was irritating. For example, after breaking into Stonehenge alongside a throng of Wiccans and spiritual Greenham women, Davies recounts:
I … placed both hands on the stone. A deep humming, a dark vibration, electrified my hands. I breathed in deeply, relaxed, and let the energy enter me, dark and light, powerful and creative … what I felt transcended gender, time, and space. What I felt was the pulsing of the universe, the breathing of the oceans, the life force that gives and gives and gives.
Thankfully the woo is not too prominent, as it takes one out of the narrative, makes everything seem unserious and undermines the integrity of the author as well as of the humanist element of her struggle.
There is another weakness in the final chapter, which is otherwise wonderful. The chapter is a present tense, on-the-ground recounting of the Women’s March, so the omission is understandable, but it would have been nice to see a mention of the fact that the leaders of the Women’s March were discredited for their antisemitism in 2019 (the Democratic National Committee, among other groups, quietly dropped their sponsorship in March of that year).
More broadly, it would have been interesting to hear Davies’ views on the left today and her opinions on some of the issues that have damaged the left in recent years, including the refusal of many leftists to condemn Islamic fascism and the growth of cancel culture and Social Justice theory and activism.
But these are peripheral issues. This memoir is a moving portrait of a young activist, a radical coming-of-age story and an inspiring testament to the women of Greenham, as well as an invitation to reflect on today’s great causes.
Primarily, we must navigate what philosopher Toby Ord calls “the Precipice”—a moment in history when the long-term future of humanity is precariously balanced, threatened by everything from Artificial General Intelligence to pandemics and climate change—and still threatened by nuclear arms. Ord roughly dates the beginning of the Precipice to the emergence of those nightmarish weapons.
There is also more immediate injustice and oppression to be fought. The fight for democracy and human rights rages on, from Hong Kong and Xinjiang to Belarus and Iran. The growth of authoritarianism, in the form of the woke left and the grotesque right, must be combatted. The threat of religious extremism, primarily in its Islamic mutation, presents an almost existential risk in itself. Imagine Islamic State with bioweapons or nukes! All it takes is one security slip-up, and unimaginable devastation could follow. And such fascism threatens the very core of liberty: the freedom of expression (I need not elaborate further there).
Then there is the need to rejuvenate American democracy, post-Trump. There is the poverty, inequality and environmental degradation caused by rampant neoliberal capitalism. And there is still the continuing plight of women, which Stephanie Davies so eloquently articulates. Right now, countless women are suffering rape, genital mutilation and murder at the hands of fellow humans infected by barbaric ideology. There are still problems facing women in the west, of course (for example in Poland), but the women of the Muslim world deserve the greatest share of feminist solidarity—which the western left has largely and shamefully failed to provide in recent years. We have achieved much, as Steven Pinker has amply shown, but the Enlightenment project is an ongoing, perhaps an endless, one.
Other Girls Like Me demonstrates that one can retain one’s humour, scepticism and warmth even while passionately fighting for what is right; and it shows what a commitment to justice and freedom can achieve. This is a lesson that will serve us well in the years to come.