Older Women as Social Activists: Still Kicking After All These Years

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “older women”?

Is it the thought of  frail and lonely grey-haired women who are burdens to the health care system?

Maybe it’s zoomers, redefining aging with their active lifestyle, and their constant pursuit of youthfulness?

Is it aging feminists from the 1960s and 70s who don’t know the meaning of ‘intersectionality’ and can’t relate to younger generations?

Or … something else?

How about defiant, passionate activists working for social justice and political change — in tiny ripples and majestic waves —  in their communities and globally, while sharing their stories with younger women?

aging activisms posterBy Melodie McCullough

A group of academic researchers at Trent University in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, are using the tools of their trade to tell the stories of community activists from different generations and diverse movements  — and are slamming a few stereotypes along the way.

“Much of the scholarly writing on social movements and activisms is based on the assumption that activism is the domain of youth or famous people,” said Dr. May Chazan, Canada Research Chair in Gender and Feminist Studies at Trent U., in a recent interview with JOURNEY Magazine.

“There is very rarely an analysis of older people. They tend to be invisible.”

Chazan leads a multi-faceted program at Trent U. called Aging Activisms  — it’s activist research, academic mentorship and intergenerational community-building all rolled into one.

By hosting events, initiating projects, and mostly by sharing the activist histories of low-key, every-day women of varied ages, abilities and backgrounds, the group is bridging academic research to real-life women and their real-life social justice work in real communities.

“There are different ways of understanding aging,” said Chazan. “We are telling the stories of women over 60 who are still engaged, still here, still working for change.”

“We are challenging the ‘decline narrative’ that everything is downhill after age 40 kind-of-thing,” she continued. “We are also trying to move away from the idea of having to be physically able, and the ‘active-aging’ and neo-liberal, individualistic idea that it’s your own fault if you’re ‘old’.”

“It’s not necessarily about going to the gym, but about the collective coming together and the powerful work that can happen,” Chazan said.

Aging Activisms is also resisting the narratives that talk about generation gaps, the different waves of feminism, and the idea that older and younger women have nothing in common, she said.

Using oral history, digital storytelling, and activist-archiving, its projects investigate how gender, class, skin colour, ability, ethnicity, sexuality, indigeneity, and age shape women’s activism and their experiences of activist aging.

may chazan 2

Dr. May Chazan, Trent University

Chazan first became interested in the theme of older women and activism in South Africa when she studied and worked for her PhD with grandmothers responding to the country’s HIV and AIDS crisis. These older women were the caregivers of their grand-children, who had lost their parents to the epidemic. They were organizing community initiatives such as soup kitchens and support groups and accessing aid funds.

“It got me interested in the roles that older women are playing as agents of social change, rather than as the frail, ‘burden to the health care system’ stereotype,” Chazan said.

After the birth of her two daughters and the completion of her PhD, she realised her international work would be difficult to continue while teaching and raising a family in Canada. So she decided to shift gears and focus on the same topic locally, in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough and across Canada and the U.S.

She came to Trent University in 2013 as its Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Gender and Feminist Studies. She hired Melissa Baldwin as an intern research assistant who began to do life history work with women across North America.  Baldwin, in her 20s, and Chazan, in her 40s, were interacting with women in their 70s and 80s. They  had experienced the different ‘waves’ of feminism, yet they were able to sit and share their life stories. An intergenerational link emerged contrary to the ‘generation gap’ narrative, Chazan said.

From there, the idea blossomed to bring together local Nogojiwanong/Peterborough older women in “activist gatherings”, including Anishinaabekwe Elders and Knowledge Holders working to create change through language and cultural teaching, and more formal settler community organizations, such as Raging Grannies and Grandmothers Advocacy Network.  In 2015, Jesse Whattam became the second intern assistant and organized a symposium of academics and older women activists of all ages from across the country.

“These are activists who might not be internationally known, but whose work is groundbreaking, and deserving of being remembered . . .”

“It was a vibrant three-day discussion,” said Chazan, and resulted in the launch of the Aging Activisms collective, a loose organization which shares newsletters, research findings and events. As a virtual community, it welcomes new collective members from anywhere in the world.

In 2016, Chazan partnered with Montreal’s Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT) to learn how to do digital story-telling. With this information, the Trent researchers began recording the stories of four generations of activists. Also, a Trent Radio show called “Aging Radically”, hosted by Baldwin and another student, Maddy Macnab, aired numerous interviews of local older women activists. 

A major multi-year venture of Aging Activisms is “Stories of Resistance, Resilience and Resurgence”. In Fall, 2016, as part of May Chazan’s course WMST 4122H at Trent U., and in collaboration with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group – Peterborough and the Trent Community Research Centre, Aging Activisms created its first 12 digital stories with social changers of different ages, abilities, and backgrounds in Nogojiwanong.

a woman's place is in the resistanceListening to these stories, you can hear the voices of women who care deeply about their communities, the causes they champion, the injustices they fight, and their goals and dreams for creating change. They talk about climate change, political leadership, decolonization, community organizing, Black Lives Matter, intergenerational trauma, corporate globalization, immigration detention, the need for queer spaces, the plights of migrants, feminism in religion, refugee migration, accessibility issues, the sacredness of water, urban sprawl, and still more  — all from the lips of just 12 women!

“If we can do 12 stories a year we can start to build an archive of these stories which I think is really important research,” Chazan said, “but just bringing these people together to share their stories is very powerful in itself.”

“Each of these events has deepened our appreciation that research can be a tool for community-building and social change,” she said.

“I just love the piece about having relationships and conversations about activism through differences and ages. For a 20-year-old, there are not too many places to develop relationships with someone who is older, and likewise for older activists, other than their families. It’s been inspiring to realise that this research, these events and conversations, can be that kind of place.”

Now that community relationships have been built over the last few years with Indigenous women, newcomers, settler women and others, Chazan said she hopes to explore new areas in the next five years by looking into less-studied areas, such as the experiences of older LGBT women, trans activists and activism through decolonial and intersectional lenses.

A book, tentatively titled “Aging Activism: Older, Bolder and Changing the World”, is scheduled to be released in August, 2018, co-edited by Chazan, Baldwin and Pat Evans, a long-time research collaborator of Chazan. It will include research-driven chapters, but also reflective pieces and poetry by contributing activists.

Chazan said, throughout the development of Aging Activisms, her students’ input has been central to visioning what it could be. She has worked with 12 to 16 research assistants and is proud of the mentorships she has forged.

“So much of it has been the brilliance of the students, because they bring so much; and, also, the brilliance of the activists who have been part of the research.”

These are activists who might not be internatioanlly known, but whose work is groundbreaking and deserving of being remembered, said Chazan.

“It’s really been fascinating to hear their conversations. They are quieter, less visible, and less documented, but are very much a part of the fabric of creating a kind of community that people want to live in.”


Peterborough, Ontario, Raging Grannies

1 reply

  1. Thank you so much for a wonderful and informative article!!! I celebrate the awesome work you are doing especially with bringing the cation group of women together and highlighting their significant contributions. Brava!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s