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Linda Wills at her home in Nova Scotia. She belongs to Grandmothers to Grandmothers, which is about to launch a two-month cross-country caravan. (PAUL DARROW/Paul Darrow for the Globe and Mail)
Linda Wills at her home in Nova Scotia. She belongs to Grandmothers to Grandmothers, which is about to launch a two-month cross-country caravan. (PAUL DARROW/Paul Darrow for the Globe and Mail)

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The ladies who lambaste Add to ...

While it may be tempting to view the surge in granny groups as a baby-boomer novelty, "women have always done all kinds of different things," says Jean Douglas-Webb, 64, a leading-edge boomer and a grandmother who helped to found the Grandmothers to Grandmothers chapter in Abbotsford, B.C.

The difference now is that older women are finally realizing the rewards of several decades of feminism - being valued for their contributions beyond child-rearing, retiring from successful careers, feeling pride rather than shame about their age and deciding for themselves how to spend their free time.

"We've lived our lives, we've seen what's happening, we're fit, we're educated and we have this energy to do something," says Ms. Douglas-Webb, who long ago divorced her husband, moved in with a female partner and refashioned her surname from her grandmothers' birth names. "We can't just sit still. And there's a lot of us."

Simple demographics have no doubt boosted the number of older women available to embrace social causes. In 1971, less than 9 per cent of Canadian women were 65 or older; by 2015, that number is expected to have reached 15 per cent.

Still, other factors - the examples set by other activist women, the increasing respect these women enjoy and their life experiences as distinct from men's - also play a significant role.

MATRIARCHS' MAKEOVER

Carole Roy, an assistant professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says the pejorative terms "crone" and "hag" were used heavily in the not-too-distant past to express derision for outspoken older women. But now they're being reclaimed as terms of empowerment.

Unlike many men who "have power when they are young and have power when they are old," women often move from a youthful focus on winning male approval to "becoming more radicalized" as they age, she says.

Historically, this change in women was cast negatively, for its unsettling effects in a male-dominated world. "It was considered that these women could see through the bullshit, really, and it was a threat to the patriarchal order," Ms. Roy says.

While women's movements reach back to Greek and Roman times, it was the Raging Grannies - who formed in 1987 to protest against the routine presence of U.S. nuclear-powered and missile-equipped submarines in Victoria - who were the first to draw specifically on their status as grandmothers to amplify social concerns.

"One of the things that was the most exciting with the Raging Grannies was that I started to hear young women, and even young men, saying, 'When I get older, I want to be a Raging Granny,' " Ms. Roy says. "There are very few other images of older women that young people want to be."

As a young single mother in London, Ont., Sandra Ruch was always drawn to humanitarian concerns, but had little time to pursue her interest in them while working clerical jobs and teaching part-time at a Hebrew school.

Active in her synagogue and an avowed supporter of Israel, she had no idea of the turn her life would take once her children, now 29 and 26, went off to university.

"I walked away and became free, and now [activism]is the focus of my life," Ms. Ruch says.

It was 2004, and Ms. Ruch was looking to take a year off to travel. Lacking the funds to ramble around as a tourist, she decided to work as a volunteer in four different countries, but her plans changed when she got to Israel.

"I got to Haifa and I got very involved in Palestinian solidarity, peace and justice for Palestine," she says. "It's all I could focus on, and I decided to stay."

Two years later, Ms. Ruch made her way back to Canada and settled in Toronto, where she took a job in administration at Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, a 50-year-old agency born out of fears of worldwide nuclear war. She now devotes much of her spare time to protesting against what she considers unjust treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, of which she was a staunch supporter just a few years ago.

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