Wisconsin’s Raging Grannies set their sights on reproductive rights

Raging Grannies

A small group of mostly retired older people, the Raging Grannies of Madison, Wisconsin, are social activists who have been fighting for progressive causes since 2003, using original protest songs and humor.

Raging Grannies International was founded in 1947 with a chapter in Victoria, British Columbia. As they still do today, they dressed up in stereotypical “old lady” costumes, wearing funny hats and often donning aprons covered in political pins.

The Madison Grannies, which began as a project of the Madison chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, can be heard singing around the state at rallies, protests, and at the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

The two Grannies who spoke with the American Independent Foundation said they are keenly focused on reproductive rights.

Marjorie Matthews, 72, is a retired medical social worker. She worked as a civilian for the Army for several years until she returned to the United States from Germany and worked as a secretary at the University of Wisconsin.

Matthews has been a Granny since 2011, when she began protesting, along with tens of thousands of others, after Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law Act 10, which stripped public sector employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. The law remains in effect.

Today, Matthews says, the Grannies are focusing on the state’s 1849 abortion ban, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

Marjorie Matthews
Marjorie Matthews (photo provided)

Linda Roberson, 76, tells the American Independent Foundation she cried when the court overturned Roe.

“It makes no difference to my life personally. But I have daughters, I have a granddaughter, and their lives are just going to be much more difficult,” Roberson says.

She tells the story of a woman she knows who had a difficult pregnancy with her first child and then a pregnancy she had to terminate because the fetus was severely deformed. Because of Wisconsin’s abortion laws, she’s afraid to try to have another child.

“She and her husband are looking at adoption because the ability to make a difficult decision and have all the resources available to do it, simply, that’s an opportunity that has now foreclosed for her in Wisconsin,” Roberson says.

Lisa Roberson (photo provided)

After Roe was overturned, abortion care in Wisconsin was banned at any point in pregnancy, including in cases of rape and incest. The law does allow abortion if the pregnant person’s life is at risk, as determined by a physician.

The Grannies have nearly 200 songs in their repertoire. Of the newest reproductive rights songs, one is titled “Abortion Rights.” It’s sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and its lyrics include the lines “We’re the Raging Grannies, and it’s turning our hair gray./ These legislative plots to take abortion rights away./ Our mothers fought these battles, now we fight again today!/ Not one step back! No way!”

Another song is titled “Mifepristone Song.” Sung to the tune of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” one of its lyrics reads: “It’s safer than Tylenol./ You can’t stop it now./ It’s safer than pregnancy./ You can’t stop it now./ It’s been around and safe for over 20 years./ You can’t stop it now!”

Matthews says that many of the songs address the hypocrisy of those who call themselves “pro-life.”

“It’s not pro-life to not support mothers and not support poor children. … If you’re pro-life, how can you tolerate all these people getting shot?” Matthews asked. “There’s just a lot of, kind of, hypocrisy about it. If you’re pro-life, you want to support and help people thrive.”

Roberson, a member of the Raging Grannies since 2011, says that the Grannies are “pro-life” because “as a group, we have a profound and an enduring and a fierce love for and commitment to the generations that are after our own.” She says:

I always say that Grannies are pro-life, you know, we’re mothers or grandmothers. Those of us who don’t have children of our own are aunties, either by choice or by blood; most of us have devoted our working lives to professions that allow us to nurture generations of children. … I reject the idea that people who want to restrict women’s autonomy and deny women control over their bodies get to say that they’re pro-life. I don’t think they are. Pro-life means much more than pro-birth.

Roberson says that before Roe was the law of the land, it was common for pregnant teens to be sent off to “homes for unwed mothers that really operated more like jails” and for women to have back-alley abortions. She says her response during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s was to compile lists of reputable abortion providers and give them to pregnant people who needed them.

The Raging Grannies were deeply involved in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election in 2023. Roberson says they were thrilled when Janet Protasiewicz was elected in the special election in April but remain concerned about the future of reproductive rights in the state. Roberson says:

I’m looking for a positive change with the abortion law. However, I know we have a Wisconsin Legislature that can pass a law that would be even more draconian than the one we have on the books. And for all I know, they are trying to do that. … If you look down the road 10 years, I feel hopeful. If you look down the road 10 months, I feel like I’d better have my list so I can help people get to someplace where they can get the kind of care they need.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.