Rage, Granny, Rage
By Jessica Papalia
In front of a small stage, six elderly women and one elderly man stand, white papers in hand, meekly smiling at the crowd. Floppy hats atop their heads, shawls draped over their shoulders, long skirts flowing to their ankles, they look as though they come from a different era. One woman in a matching pink hat and shawl speaks to the crowd calmly and with conviction, her Rochester accent flatting each a, "This next song came out of Medicare discussions. Some of us understand this very well but it is an important issue for everyone."
The elderly women and man look at one another, waiting for a cue, then sing in one unified voice,
“This OLD gray Granny ain't what
she used to be,
The audience gasps. The complete lack of political correctness stuns even the hippies here at Sandywoods Farm, a new arts and agricultural living community in Tiverton, RI, where the Raging Grannies are opening for local folk musicians and peace activists Joyce Katzberg & Jimmy Warren. Some laugh. Some grimace. I drop my mouth in shock.
“'Cause WHERE is she supposed to
These are not your typical old people.
I first encountered the Raging Grannies last December at a march and rally for homelessness and affordable housing at the statehouse in Providence. They handed out song sheets among the protesters to the tunes of cherished Christmas classics such as “Deck the Halls” and we listened and sang in awe as these little old women voiced extremely radical opinions, smashing through the homey melodies with powerful lyrics that depicted the harsh reality of America today. One granny, Carol Gjelsvik, brought her six-year-old granddaughter to sing along, a miniature addition to the group bundled up in a little pink coat with a blue scarf. After the rally, Carol explained, chuckling, the little girl asked: “Grandma, what's a hysterectomy?”
A group of elderly women in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada started this whole Raging Grannies business back in 1987. Their first action consisted of dressing up in stereotypical “little old lady” clothes and singing their first songs while presenting their local Member of Parliament with an “ Un-Valentine” in response to his lack of action and commitment on nuclear issues. They weren't excellent singers but they had passion and a sense of humor, three characteristics that remain with the grannies today. “We're just a gaggle of Grannies/ Urging you off of your fannies,” they belted to their fellow citizens of British Columbia and soon they received an outpouring of support from the public, who laughed with them, agreed with them and showed them just how much attention their “Grandma knows best” radicalism could achieve.
The movement spread across Canada in the following years and dozens of “gaggles of grannies” emerged, each targeting local, national and international issues. Soon the flock flew south into the United States where there are now more than 60 Raging Grannies gaggles in 25 states. The organization became “Raging Grannies International,” as there are now gaggles in five countries. Two gaggles hail proudly from our little state of Rhode Island, one from the Westerly area and the other from Providence, each with their own distinct costumes that critique the ageism and sexism prevalent in our society and each with entertaining tunes they penned themselves.
Back at the Raging Grannies performance, a woman in a black hat and a green, corduroy overall dress eloquently introduces a song titled “Immigrant Song” in roughly accented English, “I am an immigrant, I have my papers but some don't. People blame the economic downturn on immigrants and call people illegal. No human is illegal.” Another granny pipes in, “This is a land of immigrants!” The woman in the black hat then cues up the group to sing the song.
“They work in fields and vineyards, harvest food for me and you
our kids or old folks and they work in factories too
And then we send them back!”
The silver peace sign earrings and necklace on the woman in the black hat shine in the light of the performance space. She sings with passion and force, moving her hands along with the tune.
No one's children are illegal
To be human must be legal
Let's work to make this true!”
The woman in the black hat is Marlies Parent, or in Raging Grannies speak, “Granny Marlies”. At the age of 61, back in 2005, she boarded an overnight bus with two other older women, Patricia Hval and Maureen Logan, another feisty Raging Granny singing at this performance, heading for the September 24th march on Washington to end the war in Iraq. Among the hundreds of thousands of protestors, these three Westerly women saw a group of crazily dressed old women singing simple melodies with very poignant lyrics holding a huge banner that said they were the Raging Grannies of Rochester, New York. The Westerly women loved the creative and energetic way these older women were channeling their anger through street theater, dressing up in outrageously stereotypical costumes of floor length skirts, aprons, big hats and knit shawls and serenading all those who passed about the reality of the world around them.
On the long bus ride back to Rhode Island, the ladies decided to bring that energy home and start a Raging Grannies group in their area. Another older Westerly woman named Jane Johnson attended the September 2005 D.C. protest as well with a group of Quakers and was arrested there. As Jane puts it on the Raging Grannies of Westerly website, “My Jailbird celebration at Westerly Friends Meetinghouse after being arrested at the White House in 2005 was the occasion for the founding of the Westerly Granny gaggle.” Soon enough, there were a dozen grannies meeting monthly at the Quaker Meeting House in Westerly, writing songs and attending “gigs,” performances they've been asked to do, and “rages,” performances where they just show up without being asked. “Rages” include actions such as singing songs against materialism and toys that promote violence to the tune of holiday classics in popular shopping areas in Westerly and New London during Christmas shopping season. At first shoppers hear the familiar tunes and think the women are regular carolers but once they hear, “GI Joe, don't you know, war is not the way” instead of “Jingle Bells,” they realize that these women are making a statement that speaks directly to them. Some are irritated by it and walk away but others laugh and even sing along with song handouts provided by the grannies.
Scholars of women's studies have called the Raging Grannies an example of women's collective resistance, particularly focusing on ageism and sexism, and have debated the meaning of dressing in silly granny clothing for their protests. Some feminist scholars argue that their distinctive costumes are the group's primary way of confronting the invisibility usually suffered by older women in society, particularly by the media. Others find that the costumes embody the granny stereotype enough to critique it without having to say a word. Yet others find it degrading, making the women seem ridiculous and therefore demeaning the serious message of their lyrics.
One such group is the Providence gaggle of Raging Grannies, founded and led by Nondas Hurst Voll, age 77. Nondas speaks with one of the most calming voices I have ever heard. There is a seriousness to her; she speaks in a dignified way, her house is decorated in a dignified way, she even sits in a dignified way. A life-long activist, Nondas has views on activism that differ from the traditional perspective of the Raging Grannies who are famous for their shockingly politically incorrect lyrics, such as one gaggle's recent youtube hit where they openly sing, “F*** YOU” to Representative Todd Akin in response to his statements on legitimate rape. Nondas takes a much more measured approach to activism, writing in an interview follow-up, “I've met many people during this long life with differing views, opposing cultures, various religions, and so forth. It has taught me that our sense of truth depends upon our own background and experience is not expected to be the same for anyone else.” Even during the Iraq war of the Bush administration, she maintained that every U.S. president, even those whose actions she strongly disagreed with, deserves respect. She had an extremely successful career in the non-profit sector, serving as Executive Director of the Fund for Community Progress for 14 years, an organization that brought together 28 nonprofit grassroots agencies in RI, and chaired the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence until last year.
True to Nondas' form, the Providence gaggle of Raging Grannies looks much more dignified than other gaggles. They dress all in black and wear matching red and blue scarves made by one of their members, still looking very clearly as if they are part of a group but avoiding the crazy hats and silly shawls. “We think it looks ridiculous!” Nondas said openly about traditional Raging Grannies costumes in an interview at her pristine house in a well-kept development called “Elmhurst Arboretum” in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Providence. Even though the costumes get the group more publicity, the Providence grannies believe it is degrading to wear such costumes and refuse to do so. They still fully recognize the importance of publicity though, for the media loves covering crazily dressed Raging Grannies and in many cases, getting coverage of the demonstrations, rallies and events social activists organize is the most important service the grannies can provide.
Nondas is very clear about another distinct aspect of the Providence gaggle. “Our group made a conscious decision, they really want to try to sing when there is a cause or a rally or a demonstration, and not just perform because you've been invited to perform,” she continues with precision. “A class on advocacy for social justice, I said good, I'll go to that. That's a different purpose rather than just standing up at luncheon at the Marriot and singing for a holiday party.” These seemingly strict standards set by the Providence gaggle may come from their long histories of experience with activism; some of them, including Nondas, demonstrated every Friday night in front of the federal building in downtown Providence for ten years to protest the role of the U.S. in the Contra war in Nicaragua. Despite this core of life-long activists in Providence, the Providence gaggle meets rarely, only once every few months, and openly admires the work and commitment of other more active gaggles of grannies.
The Saturday night “gig” at Sandywoods Farm was a fundraiser for the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence and was an instance of what the grannies call “singing to the choir.” The Westerly grannies argue that there is value to singing to a friendly audience as well. “The idea is to be not be preachy but funny, to make our point in a way that is satire rather than telling people off,” Marlies explained in a personal interview earlier this week. “We're trying to get our point across by making people laugh and think at the same time.”
For Marlies, now 68 and the main songwriter for the Westerly Raging Grannies, the central issue is war. Growing up in post-World War II Germany when the country was still in ruins, she saw first-hand the horrific impact war can have. “There were so many people so messed up by the war. People felt very fooled by their own government,” she describes. “I always felt very strongly that war was not the answer to anything.” The gaggle addresses many issues of social justice through their songs and is very open to singing about whatever issues interests its grannies. However, Marlies states clearly, “The one strict rule is non-violence and a sense of humor, which is more important than even your ability to sing!” A therapist and counselor for HIV/AIDS patients for more than twenty years, she recently published her first novel, titled Shadow Shapes, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Married, mother of two and grandmother of three, she began serious activism again around the war in Iraq and has increased this work since she entered semi-retirement.
Most of these grannies agree that retirement and fewer responsibilities have allowed for them to commit more of their time to activism. “Because we are older women, there is a stereotype, you're over the hill, don't have much to say anymore, you don't have much power,” Marlies states frankly. “Hopefully the Raging Grannies destroys that stereotype or challenges it.” Ageism and sexism are two forms of discrimination intrinsically wrapped up in the power of the Raging Grannies. They have a clear message to American society about what the elderly are capable of and are actually doing every day in the country. These women (and men) have lived through social change unimaginable at times of their births: the civil right movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the list goes on. One Westerly granny, Penny Jackim, a resident of Sandywoods Farm, is 82 years old and still out there, singing at protests with her fellow younger grannies, truly “walking the walk” even when it's difficult to do so. Many of these women see no other way of living out their retired years; they feel they must do something about the world they are leaving to their grandchildren.
The sole male on the stage at Sandywoods Farm, Peter Nightingale, age 65, is one of such “grannies” that experienced radicalization later in life. In a rainbow wig, bowler hat and green apron, he personifies the playfulness of the Raging Grannies. “Lots of activists are deadly serious and we are serious about issues too,” he explained in an interview last week. “But we like to wrap them up in something that is a mixture of jest and seriousness. This has always been important to me.” Growing up in Holland, he always sympathized with the left wing, though as a student in the 1960s, he wasn't someone who actually participated in protests. Now a professor of physics at URI, he has felt a change his identity as an activist over the last decade. “I'm a theoretical physicist, so keep that in mind. I think about things and read about things,” he said with a laugh. “But I feel more urgency now. When you grow older, you have kids and we have one grandson and three more grandkids coming at the end of this year. So you start to think, well is this world the world I want my kids and grandkids to live in? And my answer is no, very definitely not.”
Peter finds the whole gender issue irrelevant in his joining of the Raging Grannies, although he's never met another male granny outside of the Westerly gaggle. He adopts the name “Granny Paige” when he's in costume and sometimes puts on a falsetto voice, which always draws laughs from the crowd. The Raging Grannies appealed to him because everyone involved is at an age where they have a long-term view of things and understand that the only way to make a movement last is if you have fun doing it. “No one expects to change the world by next week,” he described of the Raging Grannies. “Everyone is really persistent and slowly maybe we'll have an impact. We're persistent if nothing else and if you do something part serious, part fun, it's easier to be persistent.”
Maureen Logan, age 66, another founder of the Raging Grannies in Westerly, fully agrees that she became more radical as she got older. Maureen was in high school and college during the Vietnam War but was a conservative Catholic girl in conservative Catholic schools and never participated in the anti-war movement. The women's movement is what really radicalized her, as well as the teacher's union labor movement. She moved to Westerly in 1970 to teach high school English and within three years, she was president of the teacher's union. “The teacher's labor movement made me understand that you've got to do action because at some point, you're pushed far enough,” she described to me in a phone interview. In the 1970s, the teachers went on strike in Westerly three times, one of which was the longest strike in history of Rhode Island. Maureen received her political education on the picket line, in front of the school board, holding signs and chanting with her fellow teachers. “I was president [of the teacher's union] and pregnant in 1976 and we were about to go on strike. Everyone thought it would be terrific to have a pregnant president go to jail!” she stops and laughs.
Maureen views much of what the Raging Grannies do as a way of educating the public, particularly young people. She appears to be the leader of the gaggle, introducing the group at the Sandywoods performance on Saturday night in her big pink floppy hat covered in colorful political pins and her bright pink “I'm a Raging Granny!” shirt. She has a wide smile that reveals dimples and a loud, confident voice that reveals decades of speaking over the din of high school students. Since she's been in Westerly for so long and it's a place were many people stay their whole lives, she has taught many of the people who pass by her gaggle as they protest in downtown Westerly every Saturday morning, holding signs at a busy intersection near the town fountain. “The police walking by, I had all of them in 9th grade English. Its important to be a role model of democracy, if you believe in it, get out there!” The Raging Grannies have protested different issues over the last several years, beginning with a focus on the American wars in the Middle East and shifting in recent years to corporate greed in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which the gaggle deeply supports.
Her favorite moment is when cars pass by with children in them who stare at the grannies with their powerful signs, (Maureen's favorite says “No Blood for Oil”), because its what she calls a “teachable moment.” “I personally find the Raging Grannies to be an opportunity to protest, express my freedom of speech for something that takes my anger and turns it into something more creative,” Maureen said passionately as her closing words of the interview. “And it's a teachable moment when we stand down there and children come by.” Two years after the Raging Grannies began protesting near the town fountain in downtown Westerly, a group of young teenagers had a protest of their own, holding big signs arguing for the town to provide a place to ride their BMX bikes, in that exact spot. “They knew they got idea because of us. We made that the place in Westerly to protest,” Maureen said proudly. “That makes me feel great; it's what democracy is all about.”
The Raging Grannies wrap up their show back at Sandywoods Farm and receive calls for an encore from the small friendly audience. The gaggle marches back on stage and sings a song titled “Occupy Wall Street” to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell.
“Our budget's in the ditch,
Our budget's in the ditch,
Hi-ho we're broke, you know,
‘Cuz we don't tax the rich!”
“We've occupied their lair,
We've occupied their lair,
Hi ho, we'll never go,
Until they've paid their share!”
The young couple sitting next to me whistles and applauds as the Raging Grannies take their final bows, laughing out loud. The grannies take their seats with a sigh as the main act begins their show. A few sneak away and return several minutes later, costume-less, looking more like my grandma than the wacky, colorful hat and shawl-adorned Raging Grannies they were on stage. During intermission, the group gathers up their stuff and heads out the door, saying their goodbyes. It's 9:30pm; time for them to head home and get to bed, making me instantly realize that these powerful, radical activist still live out the normal daily lives of retirees.
I say goodbye to the group and settle into my seat as the intermission speaker begins, who mentions the continuing war in Afghanistan. From the back of the room, the husband of a Raging Granny yells out, “This is grandpa talking — those boys we're sending out there, their lives are priceless!” The passion in his voice makes something Nondas said during her interview pop into my head, “We're still engaged and caring and willing to leave the TV and the chocolates and go out and be seen standing for something. We're walking the walk, not just sitting at home complaining.” In my notebook I write, “Walking the walk and in bed by 10.”
Maybe grandma does know best.
The Westerly Raging Grannies at Sandywoods Farm — October 2012