by Georgia Nelson
Melodic, bold, the songs these Raging Grannies sing will never get old.
In a room at the back of First Churches in Northampton, a group of senior women gather in a circle of 15 chairs around two Moroccan floor rugs. A sign that reads “PLEASE SPEAK LOUDER” in large, bold font sits in the center. The room is full of chatter, and a packet of Tim-Tam biscuits circulates as the women catch up – it has been over a month since some of the members have seen each other.
A woman with long grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses picks up a string with two antique-looking silver bells attached at either end. With one swift flick of the wrist, the bells clang together and the chatter is enveloped by silence. Another woman, wearing a salmon pink turtleneck sweater, leans down into her bag pulling out a half-knitted purple hat, and quietly resumes her knitting duties. The room is filled with a combination of graying hair, woolen sweaters, clogs, reading glasses, and knitted hats. But as the women begin to sing, it becomes obvious that this is much more than a community meeting. These are the Raging Grannies of Western Massachusetts.
“Oh, we’re a Gaggle of Grannies
Urging you off your fannies
We’re telling you now
We’re ANGRY and how!
NO MORE WAR!”
“Raging Grannies Are Conspiring”
This “Gaggle” – or group – of Grannies was formed in 2002, as an offshoot of the Women’s Conference held at First Churches, a Protestant church in Northampton. A group of women in the Pioneer Valley joined forces at the Women’s Peace Conference in 2001 to mourn the beginnings of the Second Gulf War, and all the lives they knew would be lost.
The next year, the women gathered again, however, this time action was taken. The women divided into groups they called caucuses to workshop ideas for local activism. Two of the women at the conference spoke about a group they knew of in Canada of older women who sang protest songs, and the idea that these grannies could be politically active and have fun doing it was music to their ears. Little did they know that just a few years later they would become a unique kind of “affinity group.”
In the world of civil disobedience and peaceful protesting, getting arrested often becomes inevitable – if not welcome. In this sense, an affinity group is basically a group that practices civil disobedience, but is organized about it. The group decides among each other who will get arrested, who will collect the possessions of the arrested, and who will follow the police van to find out where the group will be taken. The concept of affinity groups began during the 19th Century Spanish Civil War to protest fascism. Although many of the Grannies have not been arrested, there is a group within them that welcomes this idea.
The Raging Grannies are internationally renowned, with Gaggles in almost 100 locations across Canada, and the United States, Australia, England, Israel, New Zealand and Scotland. There are Gaggles in Arizona, California, New York, Georgia, Texas, and of course, Massachusetts. In 1988, the first Gaggle was formed in Victoria, British Colombia, by a group of activist women who wanted to make more change through political activism and awareness.
Each Gaggle operates independently in their local area. Every second year, at least across greater Northern America, Gaggles come together in a major city for what they call “UnConventions.” During these UnConventions, or UnCons as the Grannies fondly refer to them, the Gaggles unite and workshop ideas for activism – what seems to work, what doesn’t – and in this way they are able to share and create new ways to educate and inspire the general public in fun and crazy ways.
To become a Raging Granny, all it takes is that you reach the age of 45 and share a love of activism and passion to bring about social change. This Gaggle meets on the second Sunday of each month, and alternates between First Churches in Northampton and Hampshire College in South Amherst. It is a non-hierarchal structure, aside from two “great Grannies” that volunteer to chair the meetings, email the minutes, and conduct the Grannies during rehearsals and gigs. The role of the great Grannies rotates every three months.
At each gig or performance, the Grannies’ heads are adorned with colorful hats covered in flowers, political pin buttons and ribbons. For this Gaggle, the hats are all about getting noticed and making activism colorful and fun. However, each Gaggle has their own unique way of dressing, from crazy hats, to bonnets and robes, and even costumes matching the theme of the protest.
The Raging Grannies of Western Massachusetts are a reflection of the Pioneer Valley area – liberal and very progressive. The message is in their lyrics, as they preach for equality, activism, anti-militarism and anti-consumerism. Their focus is on local and current issues like stopping the Western Mass pipeline, fighting for women’s rights, pushing for gun control, and encouraging others to fight alongside them.
“This Old Gray Granny Ain’t What She Used To Be”
I first heard about the Raging Grannies in the week leading up to the Amherst March For Our Lives event last month, and fell in love with them straight away. After contacting one of the “Grannies,” Anne Perkins, I met up with them at the Amherst Regional High School Civics Fest on April 6. I found myself walking towards the door of her house in Amherst the next day, notebook and voice recorder in hand.
Framing each side of the door sat two protest signs. The one on the right, a simple black-and-white sign read “ LIVES MATTER.” Opposite this was a tri-colored, and multi-lingual sign, the center green panel translation read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” For the next hour, I sat on her couch, talking, laughing and petting her dog, Willa, as we spoke about the local Gaggle.
When I met Perkins at the Civics Fest the previous night, she was in full Granny costume – a straw hat adorned with a forest of flowers, accompanied by a fluffy, rainbow scarf. This, I learned, is a staple of the Grannies. “From the get-go Raging Grannies have dressed up to get attention,” chuckled Perkins. At home, however, her outfit was totally different, consisting of a teal blue sweater and simple slacks.
Perkins described the different trademarks that each Gaggle has, recalling her trip to the last UnCon she attended in 2012 in Victoria. She arrived in Vancouver a few days before the convention in nearby Victoria. This happened to be the weekend of the Gay Pride parade in Vancouver, so she linked up with the local Gaggle there. “They wear what you think of as ‘granny dresses’ and aprons, and carry rolling pins, and wear little granny bonnets with flowers. So that’s their tradition,” she said.
A flock of feminists and activists living up to their stereotypical roles as elderly female citizens? Priceless. But it gets even better. Perkins explained the Victorian Gaggle, as the original Grannies, dress for whatever occasion arises, so they have a fairly extensive wardrobe. As the Victorian bay is home to a military base, the Gaggle there often focuses on anti-submarine activism, including dressing up in frog costumes and kayaking out into the bay to fend off the submarines. “These are some gutsy grannies,” mused Perkins.
Perkins retired from her work as a carpenter in 2011 and has been a member of the Raging Grannies of Western Massachusetts ever since. Now 75, she looks back on her involvement as a continuation of her activism during her youth and adulthood.
Perkins grew up in Lewiston, Idaho and attended the University of Washington in Seattle in the 60s, studying mathematics for one year before transferring to a degree in history. She reminisced on her time in the mathematics department as a picture of inequality, with her professors providing minimal help and suggesting that she find something more suitable for someone of her character – that is, more suitable for a woman.
Later, when her marriage ended in 1972 at age 29, Perkins went “back to the land.” She settled in Wendell, Massachusetts, and built herself a cabin under what she refers to as male guidance, and self-taught carpentry. Perkins then became an independent carpenter, working within a 50-mile radius of her home. She decided to move closer to town as she aged, and has lived in Amherst for the past 15 years.
Perkins is a doting mother of one daughter and grandmother to two granddaughters. Printed pictures of her family filled the walls and shelves of her living room. She described her eldest granddaughter’s achievements in ballet, and the bond between the two girls, beaming from ear-to-ear the entire time. She credits her family as the driving influences behind her current focus on environmental activism.
Although she cannot pinpoint a particular moment that inspired her activist tendencies, Perkins credits a talk by Martin Luther King at her university combined with the general momentum gained by the civil rights movement during her young adulthood. “I did not know many black people but I was just very moved by books I was reading and the news,” recalled Perkins, shaking her head – still in disbelief – as she continued, “I just knew it was wrong – that slavery had been so wrong, that Jim Crow was so wrong, and keeping people down because of their color.”
Perkins has attended countless events, marches and protests since her early years of activism in the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, to voice her opinion and stand for others who can’t speak for themselves. Her activism ranges from sitting in front of the White House in 1963 in solidarity with the civil rights movement, to gathering in New York City Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, and attending yearly Pride marches in Northampton.
Perkins has protested peacefully both as an individual and as a part of the Grannies and various other groups, including local ad hoc group Mothers Out Front. Climate change is currently her primary focus, and with Mothers Out Front, she has pushed for the passing of a by-law stating all new municipal buildings in Amherst are to be zero energy, or zero net energy. But this new venture has not stopped her involvement with the Raging Grannies.
Perkins points out the continued activism of all of the Grannies. Perhaps this stemmed from their coming-of-age during the ’60s and ’70s, when society and politics were undergoing radical changes and revolutions. “We thought we were all going to make a change! We’re still shocked by the militarism and the corporate greed,” Perkins explained, highlighting two of the motivations behind many of the Grannies’ songs – and there are a lot of them.
Each member of the Western Mass Grannies has a large binder filled with 100 songs. All are set to old tunes, but they have a twist – the lyrics are politically charged masterpieces of Granny power. Their songs cover a range of topics, tunes and melodies, but the power of them is heard by all. On one end of the spectrum if the heart-wrenching ballad of “This Plague of Guns – After Parkland,” set to the tune of “The Water is Wide”, which lists the names of students who died in the Parkland shooting as well as other young victims of gun violence. At the other end of the spectrum is the comic, uplifting tune of “This Old Gray Granny,” set to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare.” This song focuses on healthcare and financial aid for senior citizens, and definitely brings a smile to the face of anyone who hears it, whilst still communicating serious issues.
With lyrics like “This old gray Granny now needs a test or two / her boob has a lump, it’s true / But what is she supposed to do?” it’s no wonder that this song is a favorite of Perkins’. Although the song is based around humor, it is still incredibly successful in communicating issues faced by senior citizens.
“My hope is that people become aware of issues of concern to us all in a way that they can hear it,” explained Perkins. “A lecture or a harangue people just turn their ears off and I think that with us wearing crazy hats and singing songs – some of them funny, some of them poignant – that it gives people the opportunity to hear about issues in a way that they can take in and not just shut down or shut off.”
And it seems that this is exactly what happens. The crowd at the March For Our Lives event could not get enough of the Grannies, and lyric sheets were passed around so everyone could join in. At the local Civics Fest, a group of students in the Amherst Regional High School’s A capella group stood up next to the Grannies and sung along with them. But the most well received moment for the Grannies was at the Northampton Pride Parade on May 5, where a cacophony of cheers and applause met the Gaggle as they made their way down Main Street aboard their float. They are local celebrities.
“Metal In Their Hips, Metal In Their Knees”
Mabella Mendez is one of the founding members of the Western Massachusetts Gaggle, and has seen the Grannies morph from a small group of 10 gathering in the basement of one of the original member’s houses, to the group of over 25 currently active Raging Grannies.
With purple-rimmed glasses framing her face, Mendez swept the grey curls behind her ear as she spoke fondly of her experiences with the Grannies. One particular incident with the Grannies stood out – an anti-war protest in Greenfield that resulted in the arrest of multiple Grannies. Mendez comically described the events of that day with a scheming smile.
“[The local police] told us, ‘You have a chance – we have to arrest you but you have a chance to leave if you don’t want to be arrested.’ We already knew who was going to be arrested and who wasn’t,” explained Mendez. “I was in charge of taking people’s pocketbooks and whatever they didn’t want to take with them to jail. One of the ladies had an oxygen tank and Dusty – the officer – picked up the tank and walked her to the car, and carried her bag, helped her in, put the tank in. I mean – they were just so nice to all of us.”
Mendez followed the group, the pocketbooks of her fellow protesters in hand, back to the local police station, where Grannies were met with mattresses and pads to accommodate their needs. The Grannies had a lawyer in tow and, ironically, many of the officers at the station were former students of his – which perhaps played some role in the prompt release of the Grannies.
Activism has not always been a priority for Mendez. Throughout her youth and young adulthood, Mendez completely rejected it. Both her mother and father were highly politically active and outspoken in their hometown in the Dominican Republic, resulting in them having to relocate to the United States. Mendez grew up in Vermont, and during her youth she rebelled against the influence of her mother and stepfather and the reputation of her politically outspoken late father.
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Mendez realized she could no longer sit back and watch while her life was being affected. The Vietnam War marked Mendez’ first protest rally at Castleton University in Vermont, where she studied teaching. She was appalled at the conscription of young men across the country and around the world for a war that many did not believe in. Mendez has been an activist ever since.
Mendez later attended graduate school at Antioch University New England, studying marriage and family. As a former teacher, Mendez taught in Vermont, and volunteered at a school in Puerto Rico. She taught at the same private boarding school that her only daughter attended in Vermont. Mendez has lived in Amherst since 2000, and has a granddaughter and another grandchild on the way.
The Raging Grannies has provided Mendez with a colorful and fun way to continue educating and inspiring people to get involved in community activism. For her, the tune of “Raging Grannies Are Conspiring” is the one of the most appealing. Full of sarcasm and satire, the song is set to the tune of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” and was adapted by Rochester Raging Granny Vicki Ryder for the 2006 UnConvention. With lyrics like “Metal in their hips, metal in their knees/They’re hiding weapons no one can see!” the song is a humorous take on Grannies being arrested at rallies and protests.
“I like bringing humor to the whole thing,” said Mendez. “That’s why we dress the way we do, it brings smiles to other people, and the little kids that don’t understand they like to see all this colorful stuff.”
But under the humor is a serious message. For Mendez, the importance lies in community action and joining forces in order to catalyze change: “We have to vote, we have to speak up, we have to be a community.”
“Take Me Out of the War Game”
Margaret “Peggy” Anderson, 81, is another of the original Grannies in the Western Massachusetts Gaggle – and one of the eldest. When she heard about the idea of singing protest songs, she immediately knew she wanted to join, and could get her partner in on the action as well.
Anderson grew up in the Midwest, living in rented farms around Indiana until she was 13, then moving to Illinois. Anderson’s father was a union man, working in steel mills Indiana and Illinois and participating in local worker’s strikes. She recalls that her mother was also very liberal, voting for the Democratic party, and Anderson acknowledges her upbringing as an influencing factor in her activism.
Anderson attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1955-1959, during the beginnings of the Vietnam War. As a part of her studies in journalism, she decided to write an essay about the iron fist that was militarism as it began to tighten its grip on America. She was concerned that the culture of militarism was taking away the innocence and lives of many young men across the country. For Anderson, this was her first real flirtation with politics, and in that moment, a long-standing passion for activism bloomed.
Andrea Wright, 80, has shared a home with Anderson in Easthampton since 1980. Wright grew up in the small town of Warren, Pennsylvania, and moved to the Pioneer Valley area in 1969. The two met through a mutual friend when Anderson was living in Vermont with her family, and they now share five grandchildren from previous marriages. Both Wright and Andrea describe the relationships with their families, including Anderson’s ex-husband, as amicable. “Everyone accepts us,” said Anderson.
Wright credits her love of singing as one of the reasons she enjoys protesting alongside the Grannies. “I never think of myself as an activist but I suppose other people think of me as one,” Wright pondered, conferring with Anderson and laughing at the mention of the Raging Grannies. “I don’t like to get arrested and stuff like that. But I love to sing – although I don’t take singing as being politically active.”
Perhaps Wright was just being modest when she denied being an activist, because I soon learned she was part of the Peace Corps in its inaugural in 1962. Wright was involved in educating local school teachers in Ethiopia, at a time when the country’s illiteracy rate was at 93 per cent. She reflects on her time there with fondness and a kind of humility that makes it seem as if the Peace Corps was just another regular day job – although she did describe it as exciting.
“Our group doubled the number of secondary school teachers in the whole country,” said Wright, with a new kind of animation. “A friend of mine has kept in touch with his student who is now in his 60s, and his daughter has just started at Smith College. And he said, ‘If it hadn’t been for the Peace Corps he never would have been able to go to school – and neither would his daughter.’”
Anderson’s passion for anti-war and anti-militarism has continued well into her senior years. She and Wright, alongside the rest of the Raging Grannies, have been involved in yearly efforts to educate others about the connection between militarism, war and consumerism. Each year around Christmas, the Grannies gather at Hampshire Mall – uninvited of course – armed with little toy soldiers with tags attached: “Don’t buy war toys for your children.” They place these all around the stores that sell toys, then gather in the mall to sing songs preaching anti-militarism and anti-consumerism.
“The security people come and ask us to leave usually,” said Anderson, a devil-may care smirk lighting up her face from beneath the brim of her tilted lavender newsboy cap. “But you can get a lot done before that happens.”
Both Anderson and Wright practice these values in their real lives. Their children have never received toy guns or any war toys. With this, Anderson emphasized that her son, Dan, is gentle and peaceable. “We would never give the grandchildren war toys or guns either,” said Anderson.
It’s no surprise that Anderson’s favorite Raging Granny song is about the proliferation of American military bases: “We’ve got bases in Hawaii, bases all around.” When this song is performed, the Grannies like to have a little fun with it, wearing in baseball caps and pretending to play baseball. To the Grannies, the word “base” should only be used when talking about sports, not in the context of training young men and women for combat.
Wright, however, tends to be more in favor of songs about politics and the government. Even back in her young adulthood, politics was at the forefront of her agenda. Wright travelled around Africa for three months following her time in the Peace Corps.
She eventually came home to protest the Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, and ensure she was able to vote. There was mention of a particular song that begins with the line “He’s such a misogynist prick,” which Wright admitted is one of her favorite songs in the Raging Grannies’ repertoire.
“We’re the Raging Grannies and We’re Here To Take A Stand.”
The bells chime again, as this month’s co-Great Granny, Elsa Cline, calls the Grannies to order. After discussing the program for the upcoming Pride Parade on May 5th, there is only a handful of minutes left – just enough time to squeeze in a few more songs. To my right sits Linda Gordon, or “that hippie with all the kids?!” as Wright once referred to her. (I later learned that Gordon is mother to seven children.) Her fingers move nimbly, working the four needles attached to the woolen socks she is knitting. She places the quarter-knitted socks back into her bag at the sound of the bells, nestling them next to her calendar diary, the front of it covered by a red, white and blue sticker reading “CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE.” She grasps the shiny pitch pipe swinging from her neck, turns the dial, and places her lips to the opening. A pitch-perfect E note reverberates around the room. A chorus of hums ensues.
‘So join this Gaggle of Grannies
Get up off of your fannies
We won’t tolerate
Racism and hate