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Interview: The Raging Grannies’ Cheeky Protests for a Better World

 

Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force. – Dorothy L. Sayers
Dr. Dana Sawchuk

Dr. Dana Sawchuk


Dr. Dana Sawchuk is an associate professor in the department of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Her groundbreaking book, The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996 (Wilfrid Laurier Press) has been hailed as essential reading for both scholars and activists.

More recently, the social scientist has turned her attention to the Raging Grannies, one of North America’s most innovative and colourful social movements. The movement is made up of older women, who use flamboyant “granny” costumes and political songs to raise awareness about social justice issues.

The Grannies spring into action at government proceedings, shopping malls, nuclear power plants, city halls, army forces recruiting centers and climate demonstrations.

Sawchuck’s study of Raging Granny activism was published in the Journal of Women & Aging (Vol. 21. No. 3, 2009).

AHB reached Dr. Sawchuk in Waterloo, Ontario.

Ruth Dempsey: What got you interested in the Raging Grannies?

Dana Sawchuk: About 10 years ago, I was teaching a course on social ethics. I was reading about the contemporary Canadian peace movement, and I came across a reference to a Victoria-based group, known as the Raging Grannies. They had gained notoriety in the late 1980s for opposing Canada’s nuclear arms policies. What really piqued my imagination was the stir the Grannies made by presenting “briefs” – a clothesline with various types of underwear hanging on it during at an anti-uranium rally at the B.C. legislature. That protest strategy stuck in my mind. And when years later, I noticed the Grannies pull stunts at protests around Ontario, I knew I had to find out more about the group.

RD: How did they get started?

DS: Well, it turns out the Victoria Raging Grannies I read about were the original Raging Grannies. In fact, the action in the legislature was one of their first major protests or “rages.” The group was formed when several women, active in the peace movement, became frustrated with traditional, male-dominated forms of protesting and decided to find a new way.

RD: How large is the group today?

The Raging Grannies

The Raging Grannies

DS: No one really knows how many Grannies are out there since there is no central organizing body for the group. Still, we can safely say that there are hundreds, if not thousands of Grannies worldwide. For me, that’s one of the impressive things about the movement. From Victoria, the group spread throughout Canada and eventually into the United States. Now there are groups or “gaggles,” as they call them, as far away as Australia, Israel and Japan.

The Grannies keep in touch through a newsletter, The Granny Grapevine, and an electronic mailing list where they publicize events and share strategies with one another.

RD: Do they remain primarily concerned with peace issues?

DS: Opposition to war remains central to their mission. Many groups are active in protesting the situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Also, some groups work hard over the holidays to challenge the sale of war toys to children.

Fundamentally, the Grannies are driven by their desire to leave the world a better place for future generations – for their grandchildren, if you will. So, over the years, they have mobilized around a variety of issues: pollution, homelessness, corporate greed, aboriginal rights, child poverty and health care reform.

RD: Is there such a thing as a “typical” Raging Granny?

DS: Well, all the Grannies are passionate about social justice and most of them were activists long before joining the group. Indeed, many of the Grannies I interviewed have a history of activism that dates back several decades! Most members of the group are in 50s or 60s and some are in their 80s and 90s. But there are a few Grannies in their 40s, too.

They all dress in stereotypical granny costumes: aprons, shawls, skirts, hats and sensible shoes – you get the idea. Not all of the women are biological grandmothers. Although, I think, the notion they are drawing on the wisdom of an older generation of women is fairly well accepted throughout the group.

RD: How do they get their message out?

Raging Grannies

DS: I would say mainly through their songs. Their satirical songs are a hallmark of the movement and figure prominently in their protests.

They also use stunts to attract media attention and get people to think about the issues. Some are quite outrageous. You have probably heard about the antics of the Ottawa Grannies, aka “the Parliament Hill Mob.” Some mob members got arrested one year when they tried to go over the barricades at 24 Sussex Drive to deliver lumps of coal in Christmas stockings to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Another year, these same Grannies slithered down Sparks Street in a giant earthworm costume to mark Earth Day.

It’s true, the Grannies have fun getting their message out but they are serious about their causes. They focus on their homework, becoming thoroughly informed about the issues they champion.

RD: Let’s talk a little more about those satirical songs. Where do the Grannies get them?

DS: They write their own songs, sometimes as individuals and sometimes in teams within groups. Then they share them with one another.

Most of the songs are adapted from well-known tunes. In other words, the Grannies simply change the words to convey their messages. For example, Take Me Out to the Ball Game becomes Take Me Out to the Clearcut to protest the destruction of forests. The Raging Granny version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic begins with the lines “Glory, glory Hallelujah! We’re dropping bombs on poor Fallujah” – a reference to Iraq.

These satirical pieces are clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when they poke fun at politicians and other powers-that-be. The songs also make you think. I can spend hours reading lyrics on the Raging Granny song website.

RD: So how would you sum up their contribution?

Raging Grannies

DS: The Raging Grannies are great challengers. They challenge the status quo by engaging in action for social justice. They challenge stereotypical conceptions about activists. Not all activists are jeans-wearing 20somethings, for example.

They also challenge stereotypes about aging – the notion that people grow more conservative as they age, for instance, and that all seniors are content to spend their spare time playing golf or bingo. It’s also interesting that in a culture obsessed with the latest anti-aging technique, the Grannies flaunt their aged status, embracing the later years as both gift, and opportunity.

In the end, the Raging Grannies demonstrate growing old and political activism can forge a pathway to a better world and be fun, too.