At ten minutes to eleven on a sunny California morning, five elderly women have gathered at the quiet, concrete intersection of Fourth and Santa Clara in downtown San Jose. All are wearing large hats decorated with brightly colored flowers and buttons for every liberal cause from labor rights to Medicaid. Around their necks and over their shoulders hang plastic necklaces and wide shawls studded with peace signs. The women huddle together, conferring, occasionally bestowing smiles on the piecemeal crowd that has started to gather around them.
It’s November 11th, Armistice Day. A local chapter of Veterans for Peace has organized an anti-war demonstration, and these women are the headliners. A large bronze bell rings at precisely 11:11, a moment of silence stretches out for the fallen, and minutes later all five ladies take up their places before a growing semi-circle of supporters. There is a split-second lull as the crowd smiles benevolently at the sight: grandmothers dressed up for a peace rally, their clothing vibrant and their hair grey.
Then the women break into song. They start off slow, with a dubiously tonal “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but hit their stride with “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” After a few verses, it turns into a kind of call-and-response with the crowd. “Sing with us!” calls Paula, their leader, a commanding brunette with a “No Drones” shirt and a tote bag at her hip emblazoned with the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote Well behaved women rarely make history. The colorfully striped banner the women hold reads “RAGING GRANNIES” in large black lettering.
The Raging Grannies Songbook describes the Grannies as Trojan horses, encouraging them to turn the harmlessness they inevitably project into an advantage. Sexuality aside, women are rarely considered threatening. If, as Tiny Fey wrote in her memoir Bossypants, a woman is only considered funny as long as someone wants to fuck her, perhaps a parallel can be drawn between comedy and revolution: female anger is generally mocked, not feared, as though the intrinsic act of being a woman dilutes the validity or potency of one’s rage. Age serves only to temper that. A woman is considered dangerous as long as she wields and withholds her sexuality — a force onto which society places a red-inked timestamp. After that, women are expected to calm down; they go from being mocked to being ignored, and are expected to let go of their anger. So no one fears a grandmother.
Police, rabble-rousers, passers-by — all draw closer, taken in by these seemingly sweet old ladies. Then they actually start to hear the singing.
“Atomic bombs!” Paula cries out.
“Gonna get rid of atomic bombs, down by the riverside!” the crowd sings back, some individuals looking mildly confused at their own compliance.
For the Grannies, singing is one way of getting their message across, of tempering their rage, of making sure their voices get heard. They will not go gentle into that good night. These women are not to be trifled with — they are passionate, angry, and often off-key. They would have felled Troy in no time.
The Raging Grannies are united by age and a defined liberal streak. Most members are over sixty, though having actual progeny is not a requirement for admittance. Some are grandmothers — like Essie, whose stringent anti-war views were formed when she fled India for Iran during World War II, losing her mother and contracting polio in the process. Some are not — like Lois, who once joined a group of Grannies in pelting college coaches with condoms while singing about safe sex.
Shirley Lin Kinoshita formed the San Jose gaggle of the Raging Grannies in 2005, but the organization originated in Victoria, BC in 1987. The first Raging Grannies were women upset over the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered ships in their harbor, and sent their Member of Parliament an “un-Valentine” with satirical lyrics about his lack of action on nuclear issues, protesting in clothing that parodied stereotypes of older women. The organization eventually spread well beyond Canada, and the Grannies’ satirical lyrics transformed into full-blown songs. Over 80 Raging Granny groups around the world now sing at protests and stage demonstrations for every cause from water conservation to human rights, fighting the good fight with elaborate hats, embroidered aprons, and pages of clever rhymes. In June, Raging Grannies in Seattle were arrested for protesting Arctic oil drilling; while younger activists walked away after the arrival of Seattle’s Police Apparatus Response Team, the Grannies refused to leave. They had brought their knitting needles.
Shirley was first inspired to form the San Jose Raging Grannies when she met a group of Raging Grannies from Palo Alto. The Palo Alto Grannies are arguably America’s most famous gaggle; they have two factions, the more radical of which, the Action League, was the focus of a 2011 documentary. In Palo Alto, the Grannies had been protesting in front of a hotel President Bush was scheduled to visit. Shirley can’t remember their exact cause — she thinks it was about the Iraq War — but they left quite an impression on her. “I said, ‘Who are these people?’” Shirley recalls, laughing.
San Jose and Palo Alto are as different as Cisco and Google, though the cities are less than a half-hour apart. Palo Alto is regarded as more affluent, streets lined with leafy trees and craftsman homes whose price tags make even Bay Area residents falter. San Jose is more diverse, and its Grannies reflect that; most are from its middle-income communities, and a few live in government-subsidized housing. “The trouble is it’s such a corporate city,” says one San Jose Granny. “It’s just not radical.”
The San Jose Grannies joined forces with the Action League for their first gig in 2005, a collaborative effort in San Francisco’s Union Square to protest the U.S. government’s use of torture. Surrounded by a magenta billboard for the latest iPhone, silver-blue skyscrapers, and the imposing façade of the Westin St. Francis, the Grannies sang, accompanied by their guitars, tambourines, and accordions. They held skits in the square. Volunteers dressed in orange jumpsuits and white hoods stood on stools with their hands tied behind their backs, reenacting photos of inmates. One Granny donned a wig made of thick blonde yarn, tied an apron at her waist, and danced around singing about the Geneva Protocol. The tourists riding San Francisco’s fabled trolley cars hung out of their windows, staring as they passed by.
Most of the Grannies have no background in music, and many had little experience in activism before they joined the group. They insist that the singing matters — not how good it is, but that it’s done at all. It’s what draws onlookers and participants alike. The Grannies tackle serious issues — war, labor rights, climate change — and their singing is more than a shtick.
“Our Grannies are not taken very seriously by people,” Essie admits. “But I think we do good work.”
Essie is sweet and soft-spoken; she showed up to her first Raging Grannies meeting with an ingratiating bottle of wine. Her life has taken her across the globe and social strata, from doodling at her father’s side in a Bombay coffee shop to scrubbing the floors of his chocolate factory in Pakistan. That was before she moved to Iran to work as a secretary, before she moved to New Jersey with her husband, before they decided to go back to Iran and then found that the Revolution had changed too much of what they had left behind. Before she moved to California and took up the hatted mantle of a Raging Granny.
Essie likes the hats. “It’s a good cover-up not to show yourself,” she says. “Because if I show myself, maybe the FBI will make a big file for me. So when I wear this hat, I feel safe. It’s like a shield.”
For Julia, a San Jose Granny with wispy curls and defined lip liner, singing is a way of uplifting her rage. Anger is corrosive, and she is tired of being hollowed out. Protesting with the Raging Grannies is her way of mitigating the helplessness with which she has been intimately acquainted: bed sheets, a hard wooden board tied to her right arm, and a complete loss of agency. Julia had polio when she was five years old, and for three months lay in a hospital crib, her cries interrupted at night when nurses threatened to tie her to the bedposts. She felt utterly powerless, and decided that humanity’s three real enemies were sickness, disease, and suffering. First as an EKG technician and now as an activist, she has spent her life fighting back against these specters.
“I’m more angry than when I was younger,” Julia says. “Everything is money, money, money.”
“It’s given me a voice,” Julia says of the Raging Grannies. She used to take part in Occupy protests, chanting and yelling and holding up signs, but not anymore. “I’m too tired. It’s too confrontational… I’m sixty-five now.”
Age is a serious factor in the Grannies’ form of protest. They can show up for an hour or so, sing, and leave. Revolution isn’t necessarily a young person’s game, but prolonged protest marches might be.
Singing can’t solve everything, and it can’t completely dissolve Julia’s frustration. Even as she admits the toll her anger takes on her, it is something she cannot easily ignore. If anything, her ire has only grown more potent with age, stacking up alongside the years she has lived. “I’m more angry than when I was younger,” Julia says. “Everything is money, money, money. Our whole system is driving us crazy; making us lonely, angry, desperate. Worried all the time. And it didn’t always used to be that way.”
Longing for “the good old days” seems to be a rite of passage for every generation. But Julia is doing more than longing or complaining. She’s fighting back. She’s harnessing both her anger and her nostalgia. She’s singing.
Joan Wilderman is one of the few members of the San Jose Raging Grannies who has been arrested (“many times!” she will chortle, if you ask). At ninety-two, “Granny Goose,” as the others call her, rarely attends protests. But she still hosts rehearsals for the gaggle. On the first Friday of November, the San Jose Grannies gather together around the large wooden oval of her kitchen table. The soft yellow of lamp and kitchen light shines gently over pale, cropped hair and Shirley’s hat: a pink beret studded with protest buttons (“Move to Amend!”).
The Grannies hold rehearsals the first Friday of every month, meetings punctuated by vocal opinions instead of vocal warm-ups. They begin by discussing the plight of homeless people of San Jose. “The homeless are like refugees,” Julia, one of nine at this month’s rehearsal, says angrily. “Refugees of capitalism.”
Paula has written two songs for a rally the Raging Grannies will be attending the following Tuesday in order to advocate for a higher minimum wage. Many of the Raging Grannies’ songs are from their website’s archive, pieces other gaggles have written and sung. Lois has piles and piles of song sheets in her home, a decade’s worth of musical malcontent. Other songs come from Raging Granny songbooks, with chapters like “Environment from A-Z—Aids to Zero Discharge.” Paula hands out song sheets for her own compositions: “$15 An Hour” and “Workers Pay $15.” They begin with “$15 An Hour,” which is set to the tune of “Sixteen Tons.” The Grannies nearly always set their songs to pre-existing jingles, to help their fans (and themselves) carry the tune. Nursery rhymes like “Are You Sleeping” are crowd favorites. “$15 An Hour” sounds like a work chant, every beat amplified by the tinny ring of Lois’ tambourine. The Grannies stumble over some of the longer phrases, as “minimum wages” and “safer places to work” strain against the song’s strict syllabic rhythms.
There is no firm set of rules to determine which protests the Grannies attend. If someone isn’t comfortable with a particular event, she can choose not to go. Many echo each other in saying that the Grannies simply target injustice wherever they find it. “We go to any gig where we are needed,” Essie says. “We are an unstructured, radical group of older women who say what they want.”
The Grannies are not famous for their tonality. An actual directive in their Best Practices guide reassures the Grannies that they need not worry about “singing on key.” They function like a church choir, not an a cappella group; music is merely a medium though which to spread their message. They have no pitch pipe. They have no sheet music. They joke about their lack of musical talent. “There are about three of us who carry us, pretty much,” Lois Fiedler, a sharp Granny with snow-white hair, says bluntly. “We’re loud.”
In 1976, Lois went to New York City for a meeting of the American Psychology Association and encountered a silent protest. “I remember being shocked,” she says. “It seemed to me that there should be a better way to get people’s attention than to be quiet in New York City.”
Lois was born in a paper mill town, where winters made a body dream of California and snow would come knocking at a house’s second floor. Her hometown of Park Falls, Wisconsin sits to the far north of the state, fifty miles south of Lake Superior. There were no colleges close by. Lois’s father once travelled a hundred miles to seek treatment at a hospital. The town’s population, like a northern Wisconsin winter, was overwhelmingly white. The one Jewish family in town shaved off three-quarters of their last name and filed into a Congregational Church pew on Sundays.
Lois attributes much of who she is — activist, teacher, Raging Granny — to the woman who raised her. The woman who acted as social worker and society page reporter and psychologist for their tiny town in northern Wisconsin. Who once pulled her daughter out of bed on a Saturday morning to look after children neither of them knew, because the father had just been arrested for arson and the mother needed to figure out how to spool her life back together. Lois’s mother planted the seeds of activism in her daughter before Lois had even realized that there were causes to fight and sing for.
For each Granny, dissension has grown out of different roots. For Shirley Lin Kinoshita, a Hawaiian transplant on Californian soil, it took two very different forces: Berkeley and God.
Shirley attended the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, during the formation of its student revolution. “It was a wild time,” she remembers. “There were students occupying the administration building and burning police cars and marching in the streets.” Shirley only marched once — in a demonstration to protest the National Guard’s presence on campus — wheeling her young son alongside her in a pram.
Her parents were Chinese immigrants who worked in a garment shop on the main island of Hawaii, in a nation that has a long and complicated history with immigration. Even more than Berkeley and its contagious spirit of revolution, Shirley credits her faith with shaping her character. Many of the causes she takes up, she says, are inspired by that faith. “Now it’s Syrian refugees who are not welcome,” she says, shaking her head. “That is not a Christian teaching. Or an American teaching. If you were a stranger and you were welcomed, you feel like you should pass that on. It’s Leviticus…’I was a stranger and you…'”
Many of the San Jose Grannies are white, and note there is a kind of protection that comes from that: Black Lives Matter protestors are often viewed and treated as “threatening” by police whether they are eighteen or eighty. While there are women of color in the group, currently none are Black. Shirley talks about this relative privilege, and how, perhaps, it makes the Grannies’ protesting easier for authorities to swallow.
These women have been hardworking citizens, raised families, built churches. They have earned the right to sing, off-tempo and often off-key, about issues they believe in.
All of the Grannies have their own distinct motivation, some fueled by embers that have lain dormant for decades. What unites them is that now, as retirees, they have time. Julia’s busy schedule as an EKG technician used to keep her from scouring the news; when she retired, she could have taken up knitting or baking or traveling, but instead she took up activism. Essie raised two daughters, taught cooking classes, and learned to navigate California on her own. Lois was a professor long before she thought of herself as an activist. Shirley, the group’s first leader and still one of its most active members, only joined the movement in earnest once she retired from her job as a librarian.
These women have been hardworking citizens, raised families, built churches. They have earned the right to sing, off-tempo and often off-key, about issues they believe in. After all, not all activists were raised to shout from the cradle. Some had to come to their causes gradually, drawn by Scripture, or a mother’s legacy, or the need to cast off a thick and nearly suffocating anger and helplessness.
Activism isn’t just for the young, though it’s often expected from the young. These Trojan horses are ones to watch out for. “I’m a free lady now,” Essie says with a smile. “I don’t get scared of the FBI or CIA, because I say, what have I got to lose? I’m an old lady. I just need my medications.”
All photos by Teresa Mathew.