It is a truth universally acknowledged that irate grandmas are not to be messed with.
Watch out, then, for the Raging Grannies – an affinity group whose members are spread across the world in ‘gaggles’ (their playful collective noun for grannies). Each local gaggle is autonomous, but grannies – or women old enough to be – are bound together by a desire for social justice and a commitment to peaceful activism through satirical song.
“We see our work as the spreading green branches of a great tree, rising up to provide shelter and nourishment for those who will come after us.” – Granny Marcia, Rochester, New York
While entirely non-violent, the Raging Grannies are no wallflowers: dressed up in outlandish hats and outfits, they sing loudly, proudly and badly. In fact, ‘no singing ability’ is a prerequisite. And though they may look and sound humorous, the issues they stand against are no laughing matter. From hydrofracking to unaffordable healthcare, racism to corporate greed, the list of wrongs they want to put right is wide-ranging. “These issues all grow from the same root, and that root is those who use power to subjugate and exploit and oppress others for their own gain,” explains Raging Granny Vicki Ryder in They Named me Vicki, a short documentary honouring her activism.
The story of the Raging Grannies started in 1987 in British Columbia, Canada. Tired of their petitions against nuclear submarines falling on deaf ears, a group of 11 older women came up with a different way to get their voices heard by making a literal song and dance about the issue. When they saw that their quirky looks and lyrics – and sheer pizzazz – finally got them noticed (and sometimes pepper sprayed), they did it again and again, addressing a different injustice each time.
“We were inspired to start the project as we got mad at the government and found other people to speak out together on the street,” original Raging Granny Fran Thoburn tells us. “Our shared concerns about nuclear weapons and ships, and concern for our grandchildren’s futures brought us together.” As the world’s longest-serving Raging Granny, she has since been awarded for peace activism.
News of audacious grannying soon spread, and gaggles began to pop up across Canada and in the US. Today there are over 100 gaggles worldwide and a database of more than 600 songs, each composed by ‘any old gran who feels inspired’ and set to the tune of popular melodies.
“We put away our knitting, tuck the grandkids into bed,
Throw on our shawls and aprons, put our hats upon our heads.
We stand up for the casualties whose blood is being shed.
We rage to end all war!”
Another Raging Granny classic has a chorus as catchy as the well-known original: “Stop the Frack, Jack, and dontcha pollute no more, no more, no more!”
Apart from humour and a sense of outrage, other essential stipulations to grannying include: “Passion. Joy. Delight. No colour sense, obviously. A friendly disposition. Kindness. Scientific curiosity can’t hurt. Maybe a sense of history and our place in it.”
A ready-made, strong female support group is also, perhaps, an answer to the loneliness that can cloud old age. Because while there are plenty of examples in legend and literature of older women revered for their wisdom, the reality is that many nowadays feel ignored as they reach retirement. The Raging Grannies are all too aware of this contradiction, and use it to their advantage by “dressing like innocent little old ladies” to mock ageist stereotypes and do the exact opposite of what most people expect from women over 60.
“Grannying is the least understood yet most powerful weapon we have,” they admit. “We fight isolation by socialising in our group and would like to see more elders politically active. Participating energises and provides company and purpose.”
To Vicki, age equals power because she knows she doesn’t have to be afraid. “I’m not going to lose a job. I don’t have to take care of small children. So I don’t have to be afraid of going to jail. What are they going to do to me?” Still, it’s not always easy. It takes courage to be a Raging Granny, especially when you consider the physical demands of older age. Concerns such as whether a bathroom is nearby become all-important when planning protests.
But despite the challenges, and laughs aside, the desire to make things better for the next generation is the fuel to their feisty granny fire. “Sometimes I wish I could be just like everybody else,” confesses Vicki. “Content to just sit home and bake cookies, knit sweaters – and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my share of knitting for my grandkids!” she laughs. “But I’d like to know that I did what I could to make the world a better place for my grandchildren. I have hope – maybe not in my lifetime but in my grandkids’ lifetime – that things will be better.”
Rage on, Grannies! The world needs you, now more than ever.
AtlasAction: The grannies urge you to “Stay alive and involved, keep active, speak out, make a difference and support young people”. Pour yourself a cup of tea and locate a gaggle of grannies.
This project has been selected as part of AgeFutures, a new storytelling project that maps the innovations transforming the lives of older people, and the designers, entrepreneurs and community leaders – across all generations – behind them. Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Independent Age.