“People need to understand that despite our cute little old lady appearance we are very serious women working with urgency as we reach the end of our lives.”
The scene: A political rally in West Palm Beach, Florida on the day of the January 2017 Women’s Marches. The crowd has been listening to a lineup of speakers for a couple of hours by now and the energy is waning, when a group of older women takes the stage in floppy hats, shawls, aprons and colorful outfits. To the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, they start singing.
“We’re the Raging Grannies and we’re here to take a stand,
To keep choice free for women and to keep our families planned.
We proclaim our dignity, and justice we demand…
We are Raging Grannies strong!
They bring down the house.
The Raging Grannies always bring down the house. They show up wherever they feel their voices are needed, whether it’s a local issue at stake or a national one. And with their homespun costumes and deceptively sweet songs, they use humor to, as their flyer says, “promote peace, justice, and social and economic equality.” Their take on “granny” is irreverent and strategic.
Now a widespread network of grassroots “gaggles,” the Grannies originated in Canada in 1986 when a group of women got together to protest the presence of US nuclear submarines off Victoria, B.C.— and no one listened. They felt they had to do something to attract more attention, so they decided to show what little old ladies can do. They dressed up in old lady hats, aprons and shawls, wrote outrageous songs and sang their message. All of a sudden, everyone listened. They became media magnets. Other women in Canada picked up the idea, and eventually it trickled down to the US.
To learn more, Senior Planet talked to Vickie Ryder, a Raging Granny since 2002. Ryder writes a lot of the Grannies’ songs and has started gaggles in both of her former homes, Rochester, New York and Delray Beach, Florida. She spoke to us from her current home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
How did you become a Raging Granny?
Back in 2002, a friend came to my house in Rochester with a Raging Grannies T-shirt, and I decided I wanted one. We were about to go to war with Iraq, the local library budget was being cut, and I was raging. When I went online to find the T-shirt, I discovered that there were Raging Grannies all over the country who were doing stuff together. There was no gaggle in Rochester at the time, so I started one. I heard there was a rally at the library to protest budget cuts. I called some women friends, and we wrote songs and sang, and the crowd went wild.
A few years later, my husband and I retired and started snowbirding to Florida. I thought, the need for raging doesn’t stop, so I started a gaggle in Florida. I invited women to come to my home—30 women showed up in my living room. I didn’t realize it would be a phenomenon.
The first time we appeared in Florida was in 2006, when we went to a City Council hearing about a proposed development in downtown Delray that would have displaced poor people and ruined the character of the Village. I signed up to testify and sang my testimony. Then other Grannies in the room stood up and joined with me in song. Being so unexpected made it powerful. The chair of the commission tried to gavel us down, but my right was to have three minutes at the microphone, and I stuck to my guns.
The Rochester and Florida gaggles are still going strong. Luckily when we moved to Raleigh, there already was a gaggle, so I didn’t have to start one.
There are gaggles all over North America. Tell us a little about the Grannies organization.
Actually, we call ourselves a disorganization, because although we assist and support each other, each gaggle is autonomous. Every two years we have an “UnConvention,” which alternates between Canada and US. By the way, when I refer to us as “we,” I’m saying it loosely since I can’t speak for all Grannies. We’re not much for rules—we do what feels right.
We show up wherever we feel our message needs to be heard. We might appear at a rally, a farmer’s market, a city council meeting or commission hearing. We appear and do our thing whether we’re invited or not.
Why do you call yourself Grannies? Isn’t that a little ageist?
Our shtick is to appear as sweet little old ladies. We’re proud of being grannies, with both a big and a little “G”— we can get away with being more offensive as “grannies.” Not all of us are biological grandmothers. What’s important is that we’re raging. We spent the first half of our lives accumulating wisdom and experience, and as elders we’re obligated to share it.
Personally, I marched with Martin Luther King in 1963 and here I am 54 years later still marching. I lived through the McCarthy era and know what it’s like to be part of an oppressed political force.
People need to understand that despite our cute little old lady appearance, we are very serious women working with urgency as we reach the ends of our lives, because we want to leave our grandchildren a better world. There are days I’d rather bake cookies than march, but these times compel us to get off our fannies. As our motto states, “we’re a gaggle of grannies urging you to get off your fannies.”
Do the Grannies support specific candidates or political parties?
The grannies are not all of one political voice. We don’t support political parties or candidates—we support issues. That’s where we try to keep our focus. The issues we support are sustainable environment; and justice for all oppressed segments of society including women, the LGBT, black, immigrant, and disabled communities. We don’t align with other organizations, like the ACLU—though we would sing at an ACLU rally. We’re autonomous. We have songs about Black Lives Matter, anti–police brutality. We marched to save Planned Parenthood.
We don’t take a break. When Obama was in the White House we were still out there fighting. I don’t see that having a Democrat in the White House will stop war. Under Obama, the United States bombed seven countries, we had more incarceration of black people, more pipelines. To me it’s not about the parties—it’s about right or wrong.
Now, with the new administration, we’re going to be even busier, writing more songs, getting out more.
Do you ever campaign for older people’s issues?
Absolutely—look at our song “Old Gray Granny,” which we sang to the tune of “Old Gray Mare” when there were cuts to Medicare. The first verse goes…
“This old gray Granny ain’t what she used to be,
Had a hysterectomy, needs a colonoscopy,
But she can’t afford to pay for her care and so
I guess we’ll have to shoot her now.”
Tell us about why you sing your message.
The magic of music transcends the spoken word. People remember and pay attention to lyrics that are set to music. Our songs are very effective in getting the ear of people, but we’re careful to say that we’re not entertainers. We just convey a serious message that’s sung instead of spoken—it’s not background music.
Do you have to be able to sing to be a Raging Granny?
Absolutely not! I’m fortunate that I can carry a tune, but we prefer to be rough around the edges. It’s part of our charm. Many of our grannies have no patience with rehearsing. We’re activists, not performers.
Have you made a difference?
We’ve seen a difference, but it’s very difficult to know what worked. We get up and sing and like all activists, we visit congress people, sign petitions, march in the streets. We are also citizens and do other things. Change has happened, but was it because we were there? Was there a lyric in a song that touched a chord? What we can measure is the support and boosts in morale and encouragement that we give to other activists. With the North Carolina Grannies, I’ve worked with the Moral Monday Movement fighting voter suppression and LGBT bathroom bills. We’ve been winning in the courts because these are constitutional issues. It’s a long struggle and takes many forms, but our singing encourages people to keep fighting.
How do people find a “gaggle?”
Visit RagingGrannies.org to find more information and links to gaggles. If there isn’t a gaggle in your area, there is a starter kit so you can start your own, though most of the time when people go on the website and don’t find a gaggle in their city, they’ll email the admin.
Starting your own gaggle of Raging Grannies is easy. All you need is a few good women and a few good songs. If you provide the women, we can provide the songs—at least to get you started.
- Visit the Raging Grannies online
- Locate a Raging Grannies gaggle
- Browse Raging Grannies local Facebook pages
Top photo: ©Jose… Flickr/CC