Obituary: Helen John: 30 September 1937 – 5 November 2017

IssueDecember 2017 - January 2018
Comment by Rebecca Johnson

Helen John, midwife turned feminist peace campaigner, was best known as a founder of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, but her extraordinary life of commitment and peace activism went much further.

After joining a 10-day protest walk from Wales to US air force base Greenham Common in August 1981, Helen chained herself to the fence on 5 September, demanding a public debate about NATO’s deployment of cruise missiles. When that was ignored, she led the way in setting up the peace camp and ensuring its survival for the first year.

Some vilified her for leaving her husband and five children. Typically, Helen challenged her accusers, pointing out the contrast with how men were praised for going off to war. For her, it was much more necessary to do everything in her power to prevent nuclear weapons destroying her family and the whole world.

Helen moved from the peace camp in late 1982, but continued to campaign against cruise missiles through the ‘Greenham Women versus Cruise’ US court case against US president Ronald Reagan and through CND, serving as vice chair 2001–2004.

From the mid 1990s, Helen became involved in protests at the US national security agency Menwith Hill spy base, with periodic ‘WoMenwith Hill’ camps and vigils. She took action with Disarming Grandmothers, Trident Ploughshares and Faslane 365, and highlighted RAF Waddington’s role as the UK’s headquarters for drones, including the armed Reaper drone.

Having got a taste for nonviolent direct action, Helen thoroughly enjoyed getting together with other women to stuff up the warmongers.

She blocked military bases and transports, spraypainted patriarchal landmarks, spoke truth to power in her trials, and served several prison sentences.

In everything she did, she brought passion, commitment and pomposity-puncturing humour.

Helen’s principles and sense of urgency fuelled her campaigning and sometimes made her difficult to work with. She’d get impatient with collective processes and decision-making and head off to do her own thing, but she’d always invite others to join her.

Inspirational and maddening by turns, Helen was also immensely kind, caring and funny, with a throaty chuckle and wonderful smile.

Helen died in her sleep at Spring Mount care home in Bradford, having been confined due to dementia. She’d celebrated her 80th birthday with friends and had heard about the UN adopting the nuclear ban treaty.

I’d like to think that at some level she recognised she could let go now. She leaves her children, grandchildren and many, many good memories and friends.

More than one friend has proposed that the best way to commemorate Helen’s extraordinary life is through continuing nonviolent activism for peace and justice. Let it be.

Topics: Radical lives
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