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.
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.
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.
In early 2009, "I occupied the Israeli consulate and I got arrested, myself and seven other Jewish women," she says. And last spring, after Israeli forces conducted a deadly high-seas interception of a ship carrying activists to Gaza, she took part in a 36-hour hunger strike at the same Toronto consulate.
Ms. Ruch is now raising money to launch a similar relief voyage from Canada in defiance of Israel's blockade of Gaza.
"I didn't expect this; I didn't expect to have to suffer problems with my family and things like that," she says of her change of course, which put her at odds with her family's views on Israel. At the same time, she says, "I feel very blessed that I can do this. ... Being able to help wakes me up every morning and it motivates me to go on, it gives me energy, it feeds me."
Turning to activism as a mature woman has been like a return to her idealistic youth, "but with even more passion" and the wisdom of experience, Ms. Ruch says.
"You tend to come out on the other side and you see that you can make a difference, that things can change, that things do change," she says. "I just believe that anything is possible, because I've seen it."
Linda Wills can attest to the invigorating effects of taking on social advocacy as an older woman, though "it's not a great big change in where my heart is," given her past experience with community work.
In her former life as a stay-at-home mother, she amassed three university degrees through part-time study and did not take on paid work until her late 40s, as a teacher. While still working as a high-school principal in 2007, she heard about Grandmothers to Grandmothers from her older sister in B.C. and joined a fledgling Halifax chapter.
"I retired that June and then I jumped in with two feet," Ms. Wills says, adding that many of her activist colleagues are professionals who "bring with them all of the skills and knowledge they had in their workplace."
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Older women have the time and know-how to get things done, Ms. Wills says. But the work also "appeals to the heart of a grandmother," she says.
"I know, when my grandchildren come over, I have food, I have clothing, I have a warm bed for them to sleep in. The thought of these grandmothers in Africa prevailing against such horrific odds, it just pulls the strings of our hearts and we want to help them."
As well, Ms. Wills hasn't forgotten the self-consciousness she felt as an aging woman in the work force. "We were 29 for many, many years," she says, "and the reason for that was that it just wasn't good to be an older woman in Canadian society. But now I think women are breaking that completely."
At 87, Alma Norman of Ottawa, a member of the Raging Grannies, is a fitting testament to that statement, with her youthful looks, steady voice and dragon-tattooed thigh. While she doesn't get to as many protests as she used to, and took a pass on the recent G20 demonstrations in Toronto, she remains active; her current focus is restorative justice for aboriginal youth.
A rabble-rouser since her university days at McGill in the 1940s, when female activists were thin on the ground, Ms. Norman is gratified at how that has changed.
"I think that people feel freer to say, 'This is who I am, this is the age I am, this is whatever physical disability I have, but this is what I'm going to do,' " she says. "I think women have got a lot more confidence when it comes to speaking out and being who they are and acting the way they want to act."
There is much Ms. Norman would debate with the powers that be, but as far as granny power goes, she is unequivocal: Get used to it.
Anthony Reinhart is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
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