At a conference centre in Manzini, Swaziland, Linda Wills realized just how much the world's grandmothers have in common, and how little.
It happened in May, at an unprecedented gathering of 500 grandmothers from sub-Saharan Africa and 42 of their Canadian counterparts. The conference, organized by the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, was held to draw attention to the child-care burden older African women carry after losing their adult children to the AIDS pandemic.
Ms. Wills, a 68-year-old retired high-school principal, had just sat through a workshop led by a 19-year-old Namibian woman, who had travelled to the three-day assembly with both of her grandmothers. A proud grandma herself, Ms. Wills approached the women afterward, to extend a hand in solidarity.
The role of grandmother or the older woman is being embraced and exploited, which is something we haven't seen before. Dana Sawchuk, Wilfrid Laurier University
"I said, 'Tell me about the rest of your family,' " Ms. Wills says. "And one of them, her face just crumbled. She dissolved into tears."
The other grandmother took Ms. Wills by the hand, led her away a few paces and explained: "Her daughter died three days ago."
That a woman so bereaved could summon the resolve to attend the conference staggered Ms. Wills, whose comfortable Canadian existence suddenly seemed that much farther away.
"I said, 'If that had been me, I would be curled up in a fetal position in the corner; I wouldn't be able to move,' " she recalls telling the other grandmother. "And she said, 'Yes, but this is very important, you know.' "
Strength, forbearance, empathy, love - they are a grandmother's qualities, long familiar within families, but increasingly finding their way into social movements, protests and political rallies of every stripe as women of a certain age pursue meaning through action.
Grandmothers to Grandmothers, which will launch a two-month cross-country caravan next week in which African grandmothers and granddaughters will visit 40 Canadian communities, is but one in a growing roster of groups that have sprouted up around an array of causes, from peace and aid abroad to aboriginal and environmental causes at home.
Launched in Toronto barely four years ago, G2G, as it is
sometimes called, has since spread like a quilt across the country, with 240 local chapters and counting. The idea is to raise awareness of the plight of African grandmothers and their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren and to mobilize support for them abroad.
Members of such groups as the Raging Grannies, Granny Peace Brigade and Canadian Voices of Women for Peace have similarly been speaking truth to power while putting the lie to the calculus that age equals decline.
Some have fallen into activism by accident, having never dreamed that life after kids and careers would entail painting placards and lobbying MPs, much less choking on tear gas or dodging rubber bullets. Some are picking up where their idealistic younger selves left off decades ago, when life got in the way. Many more have managed to fight the good fight throughout their adult lives.
FAR FROM FEEBLE
Whatever their circumstances, their efforts to change the world are simultaneously changing what it means, for some, to be an older female.
"We tend to think of activists as jeans-wearing twentysomethings," says Dana Sawchuk, an associate professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who has studied the Raging Grannies. "The role of grandmother or the older woman is being embraced and exploited, which is something we haven't seen before."
As a result, stereotypes of older women as dependent, depressed and in decline, or as "greedy geezers" - leisure-obsessed consumers who become more conservative with age - are being challenged, Ms. Sawchuk says.
"Whether or not they end the war in Iraq, or whether or not they succeed in getting more funding for AIDS initiatives in Africa, they're affecting some societal change on another level," she says, referring to the changing image of the grandmother. "That may be intended or not, but I think it's happening."
If so, that change has been a long time coming, given the centuries-long history of older women's activism.