The Original Raging Grannies:
Using Creative and Humorous Protests for Political Education
Ph.D. Candidate in Adult Education at OISE/UT
Abstract: In this paper, I look at the first group of the Canadian phenomenon of
the Raging Grannies, their history, and their use of imaginative protests and
satirical songs in their efforts to capture public attention, challenge authorities,
and educate on various issues. I also briefly consider some of their impact.
While feminist historians have been diligently retrieving women from the distant past, feminist theoretician Dale Spender suggests we are not good at preserving the more recent heritage (Spender quoted in Reinharz, 1992, p. 215). In the spirit of preserving women’s histories of resistance, and their educational potential, I focussed my MA research on recording the history of the first group of Raging Grannies. This research took place in 1998; I interviewed five of the original members and did archival research on their activities between 1987 to 1991. The Raging Grannies have become a Canadian phenomenon offering a new approach to political protests. Fifteen years after the appearance of the Raging Granny persona there are more than 60 groups across Canada, an achievement in a land of diverse geography and cultures, and growing regionalisation. Also cause for curiosity is the distinctive form of protest they developed. I will focus on the original group of Raging Grannies and their use of creativity and humour in protests as a way to raise issues and educate on social and political issues.
The Raging Grannies began in 1987 in Victoria, British Columbia, and quickly spread across the country. White, middle-class, educated, between the age of 52 and 67, they were anthropologist, teachers, businesswoman, counsellor, artists, homemakers, and librarian. Initially they were reacting to the threat to health and environment posed by the visit of US Navy warships and submarines in the waters surrounding Victoria, vessels that could be powered by nuclear reactors and/or equipped with nuclear arms. They were also reacting to sexism and ageism within the peace group they were involved with: relegated to making coffee, they found little receptivity for their ideas. Finally, when asked about the beginning of the Raging Grannies most went back to their lifelong engagement in a variety of causes. For a few, activism was new. One woman, whose husband was an ex-military officer, was surprised to see possibly nuclear US Navy vessels literally in her backyard (Brightwell, 1998). Phoning around she was outraged to find that there were no emergency plans for the civilian population, only for the military base.
From the beginning they proved imaginative in their protests. They first experimented with street theater to bring attention to the presence of those US vessels in the harbour. Then they dressed in lab coats and, armed with makeshift Geiger counters and turkey basters, they tested water puddles for radiation at popular malls. When curious bystanders asked about their activities they were told about the US vessels in the harbour, which was not in the newspapers.
At that time they called themselves NERT—Nuclear Emergency Response Team. But seeing their movements repeated on TV during the Chernobyl tragedy, they felt they had to do something else. The first action by a group called Raging Grannies took place on February 14, 1987 when they offered an Un-Valentine to their MP, Pat Crofton, then Chairman of the Defence Committee. The broken heart was for his lack of commitment and action on nuclear issues. On a lullaby tune, they had written satirical lyrics for the occasion, which they sang crouching under an umbrella full of holes, symbolising the absurdity of sheltering under a nuclear umbrella. Two weeks later they joined a protest at the BC legislature during the government hearings on uranium mining: a laundry basket, full of a clothesline of women underwear, contained the “briefs” they wished to present at the hearings. In that context, symbols of women’s work and a twist on the word briefs poke fun at the stuffy, often pompous, process of such hearings. The crowd loved it and the Grannies realised the potential of the Raging Granny figure.
From then on, they wore disarming smiles, increasingly colourful clothing as a parody of stereotypes of older women, wrote witty satirical songs, brought a good dose of irreverence and a dynamic imagination for creative protests in their challenges to authorities. Divesting themselves of an “artificial notion of decorum and dignity” (Walker, 1998) they “reversed cultural expectations by empowering themselves in a society which belittles their experience and point of view” (Burns, 1992, p. 21). The Granny figure allowed older women to claim a public space. They often confounded authorities with their unpredictability and imagination. They once rode to the base in a horse-drawn carriage and carried flowers when a nuclear submarine was in. An article found in a granny’s file, which had no date or publication name or author, said: “Officials at the base had to confer for quite a time about the request. . . . Finally the word came that the flowers couldn’t be taken onto the base” (“Grannies Ride in Style”). Their actions often created ambiguity: why would inoffensive flowers delivered in an inoffensive horse-drawn carriage be refused when submarines containing nuclear arms were allowed in? Their unpredictability disturbed complacency, challenged routines, roles, and assumptions.
The Grannies have daringly crashed parties, receptions, commissions and hearings of all kinds to give visibility to issues or events that some wanted secret. The organisers of the first trade show of high-tech military products in Victoria wanted to keep protesters away because their presence would make US uniformed officers in attendance ill at ease (Stewart, 1989, p. 4). To their chagrin the Grannies showed up. The entrance being free for those wearing military uniforms the Grannies got out their veterans’ uniforms or made them with things like cellophane and all kinds of gaudy baubles. Predictably refused entrance, they haggled long enough to allow cameras to reveal the little secret on the evening news. A year later, they resurrected the uniforms and trotted down to the Armed Forces Recruitment Office to sign up as volunteers as the threat of war in the Gulf increased: “unable by law to ask the Grannies their age, the baffled recruiters ploughed through the necessary paper work straight-faced; one Granny was even invited back for a math test! Back they were a week later with knitting needles and wool” (McClaren and Brown, 1993, p. 7). The granny invited back for a chance to qualify as a maritime officer displayed typical Grannies’ humour: “I’m certainly prepared to go in any capacity they send me, . . . I wanted to go as a person who is experienced in conflict resolution. I qualify because I lived with a man for 40 years and brought up children” (Meissner, 1990).
They found, or made, humour in situations or places that may appear humourless. In the early 1990s they were invited to Ottawa for the Ageing Into the Twenty-first Century Conference. They met government officials, who acknowledged the Grannies had their facts right; but they made the officials nervous when they threatened to disrupt the Commonwealth Games if US nuclear vessels were still allowed in Victoria then! Taking the opportunity of being on Parliament Hill to broadcast their concerns to the nation, they launched the Granny Navy. The Ottawa Citizen reported:
The 13 Raging Grannies who launched their own navy on Parliament Hill Friday could only be from lotus land. That there was hardly enough water in the moat around the Centennial Flame to float a rubber duckie. … didn’t deter them in the least. They “rowed” their dinghies on the concrete shoulder until beached by a Mountie. (Foley, 1990, p. 3)
From then on they serenaded US ships with dinghies, canoes, kayaks, and zodiacs as their smallness contrasted dramatically with the tremendous power of warships.
Witty Satirical Songs
Witty satirical songs were also part of their protests. During the free trade talks they used the beaver to raise the issue of Canadian sovereignty in a song;
Here in the Land of the Beaver,
We want to be happy believers,
And the Tridents are out in the Strait,
We have tested the cruise, terrorized caribous,
Maybe we’ll be the fifty-first state
Nya nya nya nya, nya nya nya, nya nya
We will not test the cruise, terrorize caribous,
And we won’t be the fifty-first state
Nya nya nya nya, nya nya nya, nya nya
The Grannies or their scratchy satirical singing were not always welcomed, so at times they used their age and respectability subversively. When the then federal minister for trade, Pat Carney, came for a visit at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, they lined up. Assuming them to be a receiving line, Carney smiled and shook their hands only to hear them break into a song, the
Free Trade Trot:
Who needs a culture or an identity,
When we have Dynasty on our TV,
The deal we’ve waited for,
Our bucks will buy us more,
Consumer goods galore,
We may not know,
Where our next jobs’ coming from,
But we’ll have Calvin Kleins on all our,
Bum, bum, bum, bums.
Acidly, Carney told them: “your singing is a hell of a lot better than your logic!” (Stuckey, 1989) They wrote songs to express their views on social and political issues, be they local or global. To illustrate the environmental costs of greed in the forestry industry they sang;
Take me out to the clearcut,
We’ll picnic on a few stumps,
I want you to know I’m a tree-farming nut,
Who thinks like a chainsaw that’s stuck in a rut!
It’s the buzz of the mill that produces the thrill,
Worth a million trees,
So take me out to the clearcut,
Who needs tall cedars,
If God wanted trees he’d not make it so ea..sy
To whack them away!
The Grannies managed to be informative on the driest of subjects, including PCBs;
Will fry your brain and rot your adre-ee-nals,
Concentrating in our fatty ti-ish-ue,
Is causing oZone layer reduction,
When ultraviolet rays have seared us to the bone,
We won’t get much relief from using coppertone!
It’s not the way that life’s portrayed on our TV,
Our kids might all get cancer,
and have defective genes,
But they will be the best dressed mutants,
that you’ve ever seen!
Because of their unpredictability and colourfulness the Grannies attracted media attention, at times generating debates in the press, which sometimes had their own tinges of humour as shown by these two letters to editors which appeared in local newspapers:
Grannies: ship’em out
Am I alone in being underwhelmed by the latest cutesy episode in the continuing saga of the Raging Grannies (“Grey power platoon,” Nov.3)? Such unique credentials they offer: “living with men and raising kids.” I suggest to the Department of National Defence that it lowers its standards temporarily, recruit the old girls and ship them out to the Persian Gulf. When the Grannies have squared away presidents George Bush and Saddam Hussein, the military might well employ them elsewhere. How about a 10-year posting to Antartica, to establish a Canadian presence there? (Tassie, 1990).
We should all applaud the idea of the Raging Grannies going to the Persian Gulf, that land of sand and prickly heat. To make the trip worthwhile, perhaps they could arrange to take the place of hostages. Canadians on both sides of the Atlantic would benefit from such a gesture. There is also a chance that once Hussein hears the Grannies’ off key singing, he may withdraw to avoid further punishment. (Rodger, 1991)
The media also used humour and called them “a kazoo-playing troupe [who] would rather needle politicians than knit” (Chodan, 1989, p. H3) or said they were “about as subtle as a chainsaw at a church social” (Ciriani, 1989, p. 3). The term Raging Granny has been used to denote persistence and occasionally silliness. During an open house on a US warship, they invited themselves on the deck for a tea party: the Captain, furious, un-ceremonioulsy kicked them off, which was reported in the press by a cartoon. Another cartoon published in the Saanich News (29 August 1990: A4) suggested they would be a great weapon against Saddam Hussein with their screeching voices. Being newsworthy, they helped with diffusion of information through the media. The fact that the Granny figure stuck in the media and in people’s minds revealed the power of imagination, said Doran Doyle (1998), a member of the original group.
Other evidence of their impact has come from unlikely sources. Granny Brightwell (1998), previously married to an ex-military officer, heard it is written that no military personnel can belong to the Raging Grannies. Due to public pressure, of which the Grannies were a major part, changes have been made at the military base: they now have new equipment and a crew of 24 monitoring radiation 24 hours a day when US vessels are in the harbour. Ironically, the crew is called NERT (Nuclear Emergency Response Team)! The base commander is no longer allowed out of Victoria when US ships are in the harbour (Brightwell, 1998). The Grannies on Saltspring Island also helped defeat a plan to build a ferrochromium plant on the island; the rebuked New
Jersey industrialist called them ‘nuts’ and ‘welfare agitators’ but had to look elsewhere when public opinion turned against his project (Acker, 1990, p. 6). A 1999 article reported that secret military documents revealed the RCMP considered the Grannies an “anti-Canadian force” and had an eye on them as a potential threat at the 1997 APEC conference in Vancouver (The Canadian Unitarian January 1999). Before September 11, this had its own share of humour; but now it maybe less so given the criminalisation of dissent and the consequences of such a label.
The creation of more than 60 groups across the country shows an indisputable impact on older women. While each group remains autonomous, they sometimes collaborate as on the GSTea party, pouring tea in local waterways— a spoof on the Boston tea party to express dissent with the GST. There is no central structure but they hold national Un-conventions every two years and regional ones annually. There are also groups in the US, in Greece and possibly in other European countries. In 1999 some Canadian Raging Grannies performed in Europe at the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference. While they spread geographically, they have also broadened the issues they deal with. For example, in 1998 the Fredericton Raging Grannies organised a “Closets are for Brooms” action to protest a homophobic city council. As Martha Ackelsberg (1991, p. 165) suggested, “radicalization is born of action” and the new sense of self that develops when breaking with traditional models allows us to move in new directions; “participation in resistance often engenders a broader consciousness of both the nature and the dimension of social inequality and the power of people united to confront and change it” (1988, p. 307). The Grannies’ experience seems to prove that crossing the boundaries of what is seen as appropriate behaviour with a supportive group can empowered –and lead to questioning “the appropriateness of those boundaries in the first place” (Ackelsberg 1991, p. 165).
The Raging Grannies provide a positive example of channelling rage and despair, and reveal older women ‘s playful energy. Fun, creativity, and humour are often overlooked in protests and in social movement but the Grannies show the power of humour and imagination for effective education on public issues. As a professor pointed out in class years ago, humour is collective as it requires shared understanding; humour shows always have sound tracks of laughter because people may cry alone but laugh together. Humour and creativity require greater intelligence: while analytical skills are necessary they are not enough. They need the ability to analyse and perceive symbols active in a variety of issues but they also require creativity to go beyond and find the humour that reveals the problem and allow the conception of alternatives, along with a sense of mischief and daring to carry out their actions. Creative imagination is the enemy of fragmentation and dehumanisation; it is not a diversion but an essential part of change as it challenges conditioned responses (Coult and Kershaw, 1990, p. 13).
Their willingness to engage tells of a sense of optimism regarding the value and role of older women’s collective action and solidarity. The Raging Grannies are not entertainers, although they often are entertaining. They are intervenors on the socio-political scene. Warren Magnusson, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, called them a “brilliant example of a group acting out their protests” and using their credibility as grandmothers to “undercut the legitimacy of military violence, corporate greed, and governmental insensitivity” (1996, p. 93-94). The irreverence and subversivity of the Raging Grannies is partly due to their identification of older women with an “un-motherly” public rage. They create new space for politics as they perform their protest not as authorities but as ordinary people with something to say, turning their identity, usually a liability, into a resource (Magnusson 1990, p. 536). Their actions are aimed at promoting dialogue and raising consciousness by stimulating political debates. “Faced with mega-billion-dollar expenditures on instruments of destruction and an environment teetering on disaster, a passionate response is highly appropriate” (Howard, 1989, p. 14).
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