99 Problems

Published on January 23rd, 2020 | by Jennifer Young


Older Women Might Be the Climate Heroes We Need

Last month, I took my two-year-old to her very first climate strike. We attended a small rally in front of our local Congress member’s office in support of the Green New Deal. I looked around at the crowd of neighbors joining us on the chilly morning, and was surprised at the diversity of attendees holding signs and megaphones – there were high school kids, young professionals, parents with babies, seniors, and representatives of a number of local Christian and Jewish congregations, including a rabbi and a pastor. We all crowded into an awkward aggregation on the edge of the busy sidewalk, as passersby walked in and out of the shoe repair shop and the hipster coffee bar, and pigeons scrutinized us from the faded shop awnings. As my daughter sat in her stroller and ate animal crackers (including, I thought ruefully, several species that will soon be extinct in the wild), she kicked her feet excitedly whenever someone began a new chant. 

One of the organizers spoke to the crowd about the obstacles blocking the United States in working towards zero carbon emissions. She was wearing a baby in a carrier. “I’m not willing to risk my son’s life on a political point,” she told the crowd. “The only thing we lack to fix this problem is political will.” 

I was about my daughter’s age when my mother took me to my first protest. It was the early 1980s, so we attended a rally against nuclear arms. In my blurry memories, grown-ups hold brightly colored signs as kids and dogs run beneath their legs. 

I wish my mother could have joined us for this momentous occasion, but I live in New York City, and she lives in Canada, where she participated in her own city’s climate strike. I know my daughter won’t remember this rally, but I think it’s important that she knows that the women in her family are willing to speak out against injustice of all kinds, especially the triple injustice of climate change, where vulnerable and marginalized populations, who did little to contribute to the climate crisis, are impacted disproportionately by flooding, famine, wildfires, desertification, and other impacts of climate change. 

I want to claim this kind of intergenerational activism as my family tradition. Just as my mother became active in the environmental and peace movements after I was born because she was worried about my future, I also feel compelled to become more involved in making a better planet for my own child. As a mother, I want to fix all my kid’s problems, from healing a skinned knee to intervening with a toy-stealing playmate. So why wouldn’t I want to fix the climate for her, too? I want my daughter to know that many generations of women stand with her – not only her own grandmother, but thousands of mothers and grandmothers who are fighting for future generations. 

Photo by Sybylla Climate on Unsplash

I realized it was time for me and my daughter to attend our first rally together after I watched footage on Facebook of Jane Fonda being arrested. Early this fall, Fonda, an octogenarian actress and grandmother, announced that she was suspending all of her commitments in order to move to Washington, D.C., to launch a campaign to fight climate change. True to her word, Fonda has shown up to the Capitol every Friday morning at 11am to protest. She has vowed to keep up her actions, however, until she’s due to film the next season of her hit Netflix show, Grace and Frankie. “This is a collective crisis that demands massive collective action,” Fonda stated in an online video. “We have to make systemic changes.” 

In late December, days before her 82nd birthday, Fonda was arrested during the weekly protest. It was her fifth arrest for climate activism. Photographers captured her, clad in her iconic red coat, standing with an intergenerational coalition of activists and celebrities. Fonda says she is inspired by Greta Thunberg and all the student climate strikers. But she’s not new to activism. She became politicized in Paris during the general strike of 1968, and soon became an outspoken activist. She protested the Vietnam War, participated in the indigenous occupation of Alcatraz, and stood alongside pipeline protestors at Standing Rock. Most people in their eighties are stepping back from public life, yet Fonda seems to be just hitting her stride. “I never would have expected my life to get so much fuller and, in some ways, more meaningful as I moved into my 8th decade,” she wrote on her blog. 

Older activists besides Fonda are also making their mark in the climate movement. Like Fonda, many older activists have been involved in various political causes for most of their lives. They were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war struggle, nuclear disarmament, and AIDS and LGBTQ activism. There are a number of older activist groups working for climate change, often protesting alongside student and youth climate activist groups. The Gray Panthers, founded with a name-check to the militant activism of the Black Panthers, was started by Maggie Kuhn in 1970 to protest forced retirement policies. Alongside their work against ageism, and advocating for improved Medicare and Social Security policies, the Gray Panthers also recently launched a climate activism program called “Gray and Green,” investigating the ways that elderly people are impacted by climate change, and how they can fight it. There are also groups such as Elders for Climate Justice and Elders Climate Action that are actively mobilizing thousands of older people in their fight to ensure a future for their grandchildren. 

And then there’s the Raging Grannies, an international group of older women who began organizing against nuclear warships in the 1980s. Confronting the sexist, patriarchal notion that elderly women should simply fade into the background, they decided to be outrageous – wearing their most overstated thrift store “old lady outfits,” and elaborately decorated hats, they pride themselves on being “troublemakers,” singing satirical songs loudly and proudly off-key, and bringing attention to environmental issues, gun control, and women’s rights, among other issues. They were founded in my hometown of Victoria. B.C., so I grew up watching them at protests. (I asked my mother if she wanted to become a Raging Granny, but she said that she doesn’t look good in hats.)

A Raging Granny in Toronto. Photo by Joshua Sherurcij.

Over the last few years, there has been a surge of interest in organizing intergenerational climate movement coalitions. Mothers Out Front, founded in 2013, is a national organization made up of mothers and grandmothers dedicated to fighting climate change. Many of these women are new to activism, but felt that they had no choice than to act now to create a better future for their kids and grandkids. Beth Rodio, 40, is a volunteer with Mothers Out Front in Massachusetts. She told me that her path to becoming a climate activist was gradual, but it was spurred by a feeling of desperation for her son’s future. “I was one of the people who said, I’ll ride my bike, and I won’t buy plastic. I felt like I was doing what I could,” she said. But after a particularly brutal winter storm knocked down power lines in her neighborhood when her son was a toddler, she found herself at a turning point. “That made me start looking and thinking,” she said. “That was the moment where it felt like I was no longer doing enough.” 

Rodio decided to attend the People’s Climate March in New York in 2014. This was her first taste of climate activism. She had always felt uncomfortable with the idea of holding a sign and chanting slogans, so she joined Mothers Out Front’s communications team, doing behind-the-scenes work to coordinate grassroots actions. Gradually, she began to attend climate rallies, even chanting and holding a sign. She even began to speak at rallies. She said, “I saw all these people pouring their heart and soul into this work and so I said to myself, how could I do any less – for them, and for my son and for their kids and grandkids?” 

Lynne Iser, a 69-year-old grandmother in Philadelphia, feels similarly. Her children’s own concern for their future prompted her first steps into climate activism. She then founded elder-activists.org, a website with resources for elder climate activists. Iser joined Fonda’s protest in D.C. this fall, as part of a delegation of faith leaders and elders engaging in civil disobedience. 

“I’m doing this because I’m a grandmother and a mother,” Iser said. 

Iser has been arrested several times before, including with Fonda, and she is willing to be arrested again. “Now is the moment for me to really do this work out in the world,” she said. Now that her own children are grown, she has the time and energy to devote to broader concerns. 

Climate activism is important, Iser said, because it’s tied up with so many other social justice issues that impact marginalized communities and people of color. Older, white, and upper-class climate activists like Fonda and Iser are able to use their privilege when they put their bodies on the line. 

Raging Grannies in Calgary, 2002. Photo by Grant Neufeld.

“I’m not concerned about being arrested,” Iser said. “That’s another piece of privilege I have as a white woman. I don’t fear that I will be mishandled, and I have the money to pay my fines.” 

Supporting young climate activists, she said, as well as people of color, is part of the work of climate activism. Fonda has also addressed this issue on her blog. Referring to her own arrest, she said, “In stepping up this way, we need to understand and respect why some of us will hesitate. Many of us, especially older women, feel more able to take the risk. It has not escaped notice that at least 3/4th of Fire Drill Friday arrestees are older women.”

At the climate strike this past September, Beth Rodio attended a march with her son, and also with her mother – three generations united together to fight for a better future. I hope to attend a march one day soon with both my mother, and my daughter. Once she’s old enough to start asking me about climate change, I want to say that we are already working together on a better way forward. As Rodio said, “Nobody’s pretending that doing this work isn’t hard. Just because things are bad, doesn’t mean that you have no responsibility for making them better.” 

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About the Author

Jennifer Young is a writer, editor, and public historian in New York City. She edits nonfiction at Red Lighthouse Communications, and gives feminist history walking tours of New York City. Her work has appeared in Time.com, the Jerusalem Post, Atlas Obscura, Hazlitt, and Lady Science. She is currently writing a book about radical housewives.  

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