Greenham Common, Newbury, England — What brings women from their homes to camp for months at a time in mud and rain, to huddle under umbrellas and pull on six layers of sweaters outside the wire fence of an American Air Force base in southern England?
Their critics dismiss the women campers here at Greenham Common in the midst of the hedges, fields, and farmhouses of Berkshire as naive exhibitionists, militant feminists, headline hunters, communists.
Their defenders say they are selfless adherents of the cause of eliminating all nuclear weapons from Britain so that they and their children can live in safety and peace.
What do the women themselves say? Can they be believed? The questions are particularly relevant now that the women's peace camp at the Greenham Common base has captured headlines across Europe in recent months.
Some time this year this base is to receive the first 96 cruise missiles to be stationed in Britain. Construction work has begun. Women have tried to block trucks bringing equipment and vow they will do so again.
Another camp is hanging on doggedly at a US base at Molesworth, near Cambridge, where another 64 cruise missiles are to be installed. Peace protesters say there are 10 other peace camps around the country, most of them outside US bases, and one outside a Trident submarine plant.
Protesters plan a publicity-generating chain of demonstrations culminating in demonstrations throughout Europe in the autumn of this year. On April 1, for instance, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) plans to join the Greenham Common women to form a human chain 14 miles long from the main gate at Greenham past Aldermaston to the Royal Ordnance Factory at Burfield.
''We'll need between 30- and 40,000 people for the chain,'' CND organizer Dave Wainright, a Cambridge graduate with a geography degree, told me at CND headquarters in Finsbury Park, north London. ''We'll get them,'' he said.
Whatever and whoever the protesters are, NATO governments in Washington, London, Bonn, and elsewhere are paying more and more attention to the peace movement in Europe that the women represent.
Vice-President George Bush's trip to Europe at the end of January . . . the appointment of orator Michael Heseltine as Britain's new defense secretary . . . stirrings in Bonn, Rome, and Brussels in favor of a compromise settlement on medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe . . . recent Soviet hints and suggestions of compromise . . . all have emerged at least in part because of the growth and the publicity and the human dimension of the peace protesters.
As I walked toward the main gate of the base, all I could see was low underbrush strewn with handmade peace signs and wreaths. Underfoot was a sea of mud. Wood smoke filled the air. A rough table was covered with half-opened cans and packages of food. More cans spilled out of doorless cupboards stacked against a tree. A woman tried to scrub a dish in dirty wash water. Black plastic trash barrels overflowed with garbage. Small tents dotted the scene. Sleeping bags were slung beneath plastic sheeting strung from ropes.
It hardly seemed possible that such grime can have become one of the best-known political symbols in Europe.
But it has. Two hundred letters are delivered here each week. Twenty women have registered the camp as their permanent address and have gained places on the local electoral roll. Visitors continually come to exhort the women to stay. Every act of protest - such as sending many of the campers to the House of Commons to sit down in the Palace of Westminster and shout from the public galleries Jan. 17 - is designed for maximum publicity.
Soviet television has filmed here. The Kremlin welcomes the camp's pressure against NATO nuclear weapons. Thatcher government officials here admit privately they cannot match the emotional appeal of the protest last Dec. 12, when 20- to 30,000 women linked hands to ''embrace the base'' around the nine miles of perimeter fence.
Easier to challenge was the protest on New Year's Day: 44 of the women scaled the fence with ladders and danced and sang on one of the silos just built to house the new cruise missiles. After an hour and a quarter the police hauled the women away. The protesters are to appear in court Feb. 14 on charges of breaching the peace, and they will use the occasion to make statements about their cause.
Who are these women?
Sarah Green is a diminutive figure in her 20s, with wide blue eyes. She is a former social worker from Sheffield. She wears a red wool cap, a gray woolen coat, jeans, and hiking boots as she sits on a bale of hay in a circle of women around a smoking open log fire just yards from the base fence.
Clearly she feels a feminist sense of comradeship with the other women: Men, the campers say, have caused war throughout history, leaving women to pick up the pieces. Sarah also has a deep sense of mission to oust nuclear weapons from Britain. She is single, without children.
She served a week in Holloway Prison last summer for sitting in front of a bulldozer evicting the women from their campsite.
''I've been camping here for 14 months now,'' she told me as we sat by the fire in a biting late afternoon wind.
But, I asked, isn't it miserable in the rain, at night?
''Yes,'' she replied, ''it's awful. We've been evicted twice. Until last month, policemen pulled down every tent as soon as we put it up. We can never feel settled, or comfortable. . . .
''But no, it wasn't a hard thing to come here. I am emotionally committed. There's nothing more important. It was a relief to find other women doing this. . . .
''The Gallup Poll says 58 percent of people in Britain don't want cruise missiles. If people thought about it they'd come and join us here. But they're too comfortable, staying at home and watchng TV.
''The only way they'll get rid of us is to put thousands of women in jail. Thirty of us live here now. This is our permanent address. We are registered to vote here, despite the challenge of a Conservative Party candidate. Arrest us and another 30 will come.''
But she says the police ''won't do it. Think of the publicity. . . .''
Becky Griffiths is younger than Sarah. She, too, wears jeans and hiking boots and jokes with other campers that they should bring out a book of ''Greenham fashions.''
''I was in my last year of high school in the Lake District,'' she says, refusing to be more specific about her address.
''I visited here late last year, lived here for a week between Christmas and New Year's, and now I'm back to stay. . . .'' Smoke blew into her eyes as she tried to stay warm by the fire.
''I haven't lived very long,'' Becky went on. ''I want to go on living. If I don't make a future for myself, I won't have one. Nuclear weapons could end everything. . . .
''She paused and looked at me. ''Why do you in the press keep asking us about how we clean our teeth out here, and forget about the reason we're here, the cruise missiles?
''I'm not anti-American. I don't shout 'Yankee go home.' I'm demonstrating here because this base is here. Nuclear arms are bankrupting the world, polluting the world, starving the world. . . .''
The campers have several nurses among them. They have set up chemical toilets. Local police have stopped arresting them.
But problems are piling up. A German woman has twin five-year-old children with her. They sleep in the back of a van and go to school by taxi. A Japanese woman also has a child at the camp.
Friends of the German mother say the British Home Office may be about to deport her on grounds that her children are not receiving proper care.
All expect eviction any minute but say they will simply move a few yards down the slope that runs from the fence.
Bee Burgess was an arts student in Wolverhampton.Young earnest,with black hair and dark eyes and a background that is half-French, half-English, she said, ''A friend of mine visited the camp and was tremendously impressed. I came down later. I was very moved. At 20 I used to write the usual poems of despair, but now I have a cause I can support wholeheartedly.''
She joined Becky Griffiths and others in the New Year's Day dance on the cruise silo inside the base and appears in court Feb. 14.
''I've been camping here for six months, and I feel more able to speak out and talk about my concerns. In France, it's a sad situation. Police don't allow antinuclear protests at all, hardly. It's easier here . . . the Labour Party wants unilateral disarmament, and there are lots of peace groups and letters coming all the time, and publicity. . . .
Bee Burgess says that emotion and logic cannot be seperated completely. ''It's about time someone got emotional about nuclear weapons, before it's too late,'' she said.
Another point of view came from an older woman, the mother of a 22 -year-daughter. A nurse and an ardent feminist with close-cropped hair, she would not give her name. ''You can call me Ms. Greenham,'' she smiled. ''That's Ms. not Miss. get it right. . . .
''I'm half Italian, and I've demonstrated against nuclear weapons in Italy as well. This camp can be really terrible at times, especially when it rains and all you can do is stand under a brolly (umbrella) and get wet for days at a time. I ask myself, 'Why are you here?' The answer is that I have children and I want them to have children.''
''Some women have left husbands and children at home to register their protest by camping here for a while. Almost all have left jobs. They say they exist on donations. They deny receiving any Soviet funds.
They catch the bus to nearby shops. Several are taking driving lessons. They say the camp already has one car and one van as its common property.
At CND headquarters, general secretary Bruce Kent, a Roman Catholic priest, says, ''The reason Greenham Common looks so grim is that the authorities in Newbury have harassed them. The women are not CND people, but they have every right to organize their own protest, and we have the closest links with them.''
A different view come from a government official close to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ''I think the women are absoutely naive and misguided, ''he says. Of course, I want peace, too. We all do. I respect the women's motives. I am sure they are sincere.''
But they are playing into the hands of the Soviet Union. They encourage Moscow to believe that NATO will make one-sided concessions. In that sense the women are doing no one a favor.''