With my Aunt Sheryl Wampler, it all started with a pair of pants
My Papa was born in a tent in Cloudcroft New Mexico in 1910. I used this fact in his obituary in 1994, and have accepted it (without question) for four decades. Did I ever ask questions like, “Why was Papa born in a tent?” or “Was Papa’s family down on its luck?” He was just born in a tent. Maybe that’s how things rolled back in my grandfather’s time.
It was only this year that I asked my family, “Why?” The answer was simple: My great-grandfather was in construction, and they were housed at the construction site.
There was another story I’d heard without question. My Aunt Sheryl Wampler — my Papa was her Father-in-Law — had left her home in Iowa with a sign tacked to the back of her car, off to California. That sign said: “She has risen.” I took this as finite; my aunt was a rebel. I never bothered to ask more interesting questions about why she slapped that on the back of her car, why she left her hometown, and how this narrative ties into her current activism as part of the Raging Grannies in Portland.
The Raging Grannies began in 1987 in Victoria, British Columbia to first address the environmental threat of US Navy warships in the surrounding waters. Eventually, the movement spread across Canada and to the United States.
“They wore disarming smiles, increasingly colourful clothing as a parody of stereotypes of older women, wrote witty satirical songs, brought a good dose of irreverence and a dynamic imagination for creative protests in their challenges to authorities… they ‘reversed cultural expectations by empowering themselves in a society which belittles their experience and point of view.’ The Granny figure allowed older women to claim a public space.”From “Herstory” on the Raging Granny’s website
The concept and execution of the Raging Grannies includes a key ingredient to effective and sustainable activism: Humor. The Grannies poke fun of the stereotypes of grandmothers, not taking themselves too seriously. Yet they take social and climate justice so seriously that they show up not just in word but in body: To protests, marches, and events. They sing and dance. They write new words to familiar songs.
Many of us do not ask our families the questions that matter; it’s easy to get caught up in the politics of the moment rather than lasting themes of our shared humanity. It is in that spirit that I asked my Aunt Sheryl about her own trajectory and how that speaks to one topical message:
Vote for Biden and Harris like your life, and the lives of those you care about, depend on it. Because they do.
When I was 18, I went vegetarian — pescatarian more accurately — and Aunt Sheryl gave me my first vegetarian cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure. She knew me since I was a toddler, and our family gatherings were often at her home. She knew a lot about cooking vegetables, as she was a “California Vegetarian” (appropriate since she lived there for years) which means vegetable-heavy, omit pig and cow flesh, but still eat poultry and seafood.
After meeting her in 1975, my father warned her husband at the time, my Uncle Rick: “You’d better keep her under your thumb!” She never forgot this stark warning, which Rick smartly had conveyed; though she and Dad grew closer down the road and he respected her. But Dad sensed a fortification of character, his Greek macho antennae discerning the slightest of feminine rebellions, which, that is to say, an independent mind and will separate from the male partner’s influence.
Indeed, Aunt Sheryl had risen, and it all started with putting on a pair of pants.
How would you describe your childhood?
My neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa was cocooned. There was only one Black person in my graduating class of high school.
I was pretty happy, but it was real “Leave it to Beaver” kind of stuff. As a middle child, I was in the ether. My attitude was: Don’t bother me; I’m just grateful to be here. I did not have self esteem until after high school. I was a traditional “good girl.” until high school.
In high school, I tried out for everything, but no one wanted me: Flag, drill, even timer for the swim team. I didn’t make it, so I just rebelled. I started smoking pot and hanging with questionable people.
Sophomore year, the school decided jeans were acceptable for women instead of just dresses. The next day, I showed up in jeans and no one would eat lunch with me.
Did you stay in touch with your classmates?
Eventually. I graduated early, I couldn’t wait to leave. At my 20th reunion a few people were amazed I was still alive.
Sophomore year, the school decided jeans were acceptable for women instead of just dresses. The next day, I showed up in jeans and no one would eat lunch with me.Sheryl
There is an interesting story from my 40th reunion. When I was a kid, I was playing in the snow too long and my feet hurt to the point I was crying. I had a vivid memory of a woman taking my bare feet and putting them on her belly to warm them. It was the nicest thing anyone could ever do, but I had no idea who this woman was. I remembered her every time I was really cold.
At the 40th reunion, a classmate said: Do you remember when we were sledding, and my Mom put your feet on her belly? I couldn’t believe it — I got pale and teary.
Do you see any aspects of your father/mother in your desire to go beyond yourself and be an activist?
Never. They were very conservative, and my father was Republican up until the last 15 or so years of his life. They were racist. I was told if I brought a Black man home I would no longer be welcome. They also were racist about Japanese people, most likely due to WWII. I rebelled.
What were some of your earliest memories of things that led you to becoming a feminist? Where did that phrase “She has risen” come from?
My first activist action was in 1970 on the very first Earth Day. A friend of mine and I decided to ride a tandem bike to school. We had signs that said “save the earth” and we dressed the same. At lunch time we went outside with our signs. We were on the television news that day.
After high school I got involved with a women’s group. We met on a regular basis and talked about women’s issues. It was all ages, very diverse. It was a consciousness-raising group, and it felt empowering to be part of that group.
One of my friends got married. A couple months later, her husband was killed. She bought a station wagon. We looked at each other and said: Let’s travel. We made the sign “She has Risen” and tied it to the back of the station wagon. We took off in late June of 1973. At the time, I was still with my boyfriend of five years, and we had issues.
On the trip, we camped. We visited relatives, and traveled from Iowa to Colorado, Arizona, up California on the coast to Seattle, Washington. We stayed in San Francisco a couple weeks with a friend. We visited my great aunt and uncle in Seattle.
There, we pulled into the ferry station to go to Victoria, Canada. Unexpectedly, a man approached to say my uncle had called to ensure we got there okay. We pulled over and left our car so it could be placed in the ferry, and took the call. Four hours later, we arrived in Victoria and looked for our vehicle, which included my friend’s dog. It was nowhere. We assumed the car would be put on the boat. We had very little money, and our car could not arrive in Victoria until the next day as there was only one ferry per day.
We were not old enough to drink. We wandered around and talked to some people who told us about a hostel that was miles away. We walked there, but had to pay so we left. We started hitching, and this guy picked us up. He set up a tent for us in his backyard. His wife came home, and she kicked us all out (including her husband), so we slept in his van and the cops came in the middle of the night.
The next day we went to the ferry terminal, arriving a while after the ferry had docked. Our car was the only one in the parking lot. Someone had taken my friend’s dog home and fed it. Border control thought we were drug runners and were suspicious. They tore the car apart. Hub caps, air filters.
Afterward, they just watched and laughed at us putting everything back together. We put on the song I Am Woman by Helen Reddy.
We cranked it up so loud and let those guys listen to that and gave them the finger as we drove away.
What exactly did you mean by “She has risen”?
That our consciousness had risen. There was no religious implication. There were possibilities that I didn’t realize before, things that needed to change.
I could not get a credit card as a single woman.
My first new car purchase was blocked. I knew what kind of car I wanted down to the color, and arrived to buy it. The salesperson told me to bring my husband with me. I went home and called another dealership and told him what I wanted. Do you have it? Yes. I said I will come and get it, and did.
Then, I told the first salesman that I just bought my car and didn’t have to bring my husband.
Do you think we’ve made a lot of progress?
We’ve made baby steps, especially in the workplace. Don’t call women girls: women are women. I’ve drilled that into my sons since they were little. Never use the word girls for adults. On a business trip, a woman colleague was talking about her staff and called them “My girls”. I said “What? Girls?” We had a big discussion. I explained I had seen the fight for the pill and the right to choose. She was younger than I and didn’t appreciate how far we had come. To be women, not girls. This woman became one of my best friends.
Later, during the Anita Hill time period, a senior executive at my company sexually harassed me during a business trip. I threw up on him. I felt so alone. I did not go to HR at the time. He threatened my job. It paralyzed me at work for a few months. In response, my boss made sure someone was with me every breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I traveled to our home office. I always said I would be his Anita Hill if he ever ran for office. Harassment was rampant in my company then, and I went through a lot of it.
What made you choose to move to California?
After my two-and-a-half month trip with my friend, I returned to Iowa and my boyfriend. I decided to leave. It was not working. I knew I had to go far enough away that it would not be a day’s drive. Somewhere exotic: San Francisco.
I put up a sign in a Des Moines deli: Anybody want to ride to California with me? This woman responded and said “Yeah, I’ll ride with you.” I asked if she’d ever been there and she said no, but I’m ready to move there. I had $200 and a friend in Alameda in the Navy who lived in the house with people in East Oakland. I lived there for my first year.
What was the living situation like? Was it a commune?
A disorganized commune at best. More like a flop house. At one point 11 people lived in a two-bedroom house. We took shifts sleeping.
It was quite a change from Iowa to East Oakland. I was trying to figure out who was who in the house and who I could trust. There were a lot of drugs. Once they told us to leave the house because a drug deal that might be dangerous was going down.
I got down to 50 cents, but was too proud to call my parents. We were hungry. I would go to the grocery store and buy a single artichoke and try to figure out how to eat it. I could not believe so many vegetables existed. That’s when I stopped eating meat because I could not afford it. For years I didn’t eat any meat. In the mid-80s I started eating poultry.
Is this around the time you met Uncle Rick?
The guy I was involved with in the house kicked me out, he was mad at me. He called me at work and said my stuff was in the front yard. I loaded it all up and didn’t know where to go. I knew a woman who lived in Alameda so I went there. She let me stay. Her neighbor was visiting, and she introduced him: Rick Davis. We became friends. He lived right across the driveway.
We hung out — not dated — on Saturday and Sunday nights after his shows. We had Wednesday dinners. Finally I went to hear his band for the first time with a few friends, and the scene was pathetic. We were the only people in the bar.
The lead singer was yawning on stage. Rick played keyboards, but the one song Rick sang was “Let Me In Your Life.”
I was active when I was young. Then, my life and career took over and I was active no longer. I raised two sons, divorced, remarried.
Then boom, when I retired, I became active again.
I am tired of raging at the TV. I need to rage somewhere else.Sheryl
When you’re retired, you don’t have to be politically correct all the time like at work. I was closed up before, especially working for the government. I found it very freeing to be retired. You can’t bother me, I’m retired. I started talking to people randomly in grocery stores, becoming more outgoing.
How did you discover the Raging Grannies?
Everything had bubbled to the top: Social inequities, health care, and the 2016 election. I went to the Women’s March in Portland in 2017. It was pouring rain. I walked by this group of women who were the Raging Grannies, then walked into their meeting one day. They asked: Why are you here? Why are you interested in joining us? I said I am tired of raging at the TV. I need to rage somewhere else.
Most of the Grannies have been activists all of their lives, amazingly active. Very passionate, knowledgeable, and open women. Most were hippies back in the day – the stories they tell! There was an early group of grannies arrested in New York City. A few Grannies from my gaggle were arrested last year protesting oil trains. One grannie in her 80’s had her cane taken by the police. She had to return to the police station after a day without it to get it back.
There were similar protests in Seattle.
What are some of the activities you do with the Raging Grannies?
Before COVID-19 we attended a lot of actions and often sang and danced. We perform in the Pride Parade, neighborhood festivals, and we protest climate perils, social and racial injustice, and gender inequity.
We did the March of Mourning in Portland two weeks after George Floyd was killed. We dressed in mourning and went to the Justice Center where all the protests took place. We walked to all the courthouses downtown, slowly, as in a funeral, and stopped traffic throughout downtown. We had a black cardboard coffin and black roses, and were in the news. We wore masks.
One of the grannies read all the names of people killed by Portland police since 1986. Halfway through the march, I looked back and there were a whole block of people who had joined us. After, we were on the news we had 23 women contact us and want to join the Grannies.
One of the other things we do is go on a busy street corner with Black Lives Matter signs. We also do “Get out the vote” activities and give out bumper stickers, and we have conversations. Once a Granny had a man stopped to call his mom. He gave the Granny the phone and she talked to his mom then mailed her some stickers.
I have a sign and button made by the group “Nasty women get shit done.”
Most grannies have been activists throughout their lives. I felt guilty that I stopped being active. I am mentoring someone who did the same thing. As a new Granny you are assigned a mentor. You attend two regular meetings plus an action and to become a full Granny. Mentees read a lot of materials and the code of conduct, what we’re about, and how we act. They select a team. After completing the prerequisite meetings and actions the mentees become Grannies. Then they can wear the Granny gear.
We wear sashes in the winter time, aprons, and colorful hats (often adorned with buttons and silk flowers). I love my hats.
We wear white gloves for some performances. We have a buddy system, and keep a file of emergency contacts. We are up to 65 Grannies right now.
I spent a year as the “Grand Granny.” We partner up two at a time. We put together the agendas, facilitate the meetings and communicate with the other grannies. My Grand Granny partner is a true hippy. She lived in an off-the-grid commune right down the street from The Farm [ed. note: The Farm is an intentional community that has existed since 1971 in the mountains of Tennessee.]. She is the queen of tie-dye. She is a special friend.
Each Granny participates on a team that focuses on either environment, gender, racial/immigration or social equity issues. Those teams determine if there is an action and they focus on watching what is happening.
I am on the gender equity team, including LGBTQ issues. One Granny works with victims of sex trafficking. Several of us have helped make weighted blankets for them.
The most fun is the Pride parade. Everyone supports us and we really feel the love. One of the best interactions I had at a Pride march. A young woman told me she wished I was her Grandma and we cried and hugged.
What are the Grannies in the Portland Gaggle doing now?
We are writing postcards and making phone calls to states where we need to flip the Senators. We share: This is why I vote. We had a march/vigil with a cardboard coffin (and masks) with the message “Don’t Let Democracy Die – Vote!”. We are socially distancing on street corners getting people information about voting.
There are Gaggles — not chapters — throughout the country, in Canada (where it began) and globally.
What resonates with you the most with the Grannies?
Two things. I have found sisters. It’s all about granny love actually. There is so much passion, respect, and support from this group of women that’s so powerful.
As we get older sometimes it feels like we aren’t seen or heard. Being a Granny I don’t feel that way now. Just knowing you have a voice and you’re trying to make some sort of difference is huge. And we’re fighting for our grandkids: For their future and their children’s future. What can be more important?
Why do you vote?
I always vote. But this election means more than any I’ve ever seen. It means our future, our planet, our democracy, our rights. If Trump is reelected we can see the end coming for all those things.
Joe Biden may not be perfect but he is a step in the right direction to restoring us and starting to make things sane again. We can focus on getting things done instead of reacting to the tweets and the things that divide us. I also believe Kamala will be a strong influence for us all. We are voting for the future, for our children and theirs and theirs. Voting is our voice and we need to be heard.