Campbell Raging Grannies resident uses song to fight for change
84-year-old wants government to focus on children and social services, not war
By Michelle Sklar
Joan Wilderman has lived in downtown Campbell for 50 years. She is a mother, a grandmother, even a great-grandmother, but Wilderman is not a "typical" granny; she is a Raging Granny.
The Raging Grannies are an international group of mostly women who strive to make a difference in their communities, countries and the world by publicly proclaiming their views on important matters through song.
The Grannies are organized geographically by groups, or gaggles, as they prefer to be called.
"What I love about the Grannies," says Wilderman, "is that we aren't just standing on a corner waving a sign, which I have done in the past; we are bringing attention to important matters with songs. We think it is a different way to reach people, maybe less threatening than shouting, and maybe more memorable."
The Raging Grannies borrow tunes from well-known songs and change the words to express how they feel about pivotal topics such as immigration issues, health care and war. Right now, one of the most pressing issues for the San Jose gaggle is the war in Iraq. One of the anti-war songs the Grannies sing is sung to the tune of "God Bless America." The words are simple but clear:
"Please tell America, war can't succeed. Stand beside her, and guide her, from this fight with the wisdom she needs. Stop the bombing, stop the missiles, tell the soldiers not to roam. Please tell America, bring the troops home."
Wilderman's journey to becoming part of the
Raging Grannies began more than half a century ago, on the other side of the country.
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 27, 1923, Wilderman decided to study nursing at John Hopkins University. The impetus for her decision came after she was turned away as a blood donor during World War II because she was anemic.
Her father was a conservative man who had been a private in World War I, and her mother "left politics to the men," Wilderman says.
Near the end of her nurse's training program, Wilderman learned about a government Cadet Nurses Corps program. The government implemented the program because there was a shortage of nurses during the war, Wilderman says.
"The program offered specific military training to nurses, and a stipend," the 84-year-old granny says. "The only requirement was that you had to promise to serve the country as a nurse upon graduation if they needed you."
The last six months of Wilderman's training took her to a military hospital in West Virginia. There, she came face to face with many young soldiers returning straight from battle.
"I saw horrible things," Wilderman remembers, "people who were terribly burned and permanently injured, along with those plagued by nightmares and simply traumatized by war. And even though, in my opinion, World War II was a just war, the images of those men and what they went through never left me."
By the time she graduated from nursing school, the war was ending and she was not required to serve as a military nurse. Instead, she married and began a long career as a civilian nurse.
Eventually, Joan and her husband, Ralph, moved west to California after a man from Berkeley came through Michigan looking for teachers. Wilderman's husband taught economics at San Jose City College and Joan worked at a number of local hospitals, including Valley Medical Center. For a time, she was the head nurse of the head injury unit.
Wilderman and her husband raised their three children in Campbell, and though busy with work and raising a family, Wilderman knew she would someday speak out against war.
"I started getting involved in the anti-war movement after I retired," she says, "when I had more time - or more control of my time, anyway."
Wilderman's anti-war efforts have taken her to San Francisco, Lawrence Livermore Labs and nuclear testing sites in Nevada.
"Even though it was more than 65 years ago," Wilderman says, "I cannot get those young injured soldiers out of my mind."
In a move to connect with others who felt the way she did, Wilderman got involved with the San Jose Center for Peace and the San Jose Women's Independence League for Peace and Freedom. In the league, Wilderman found an outlet for her boundless energy and desire to make a difference. She also met like-minded women, including Shirley Kinoshita, a fellow WILPF member and founder of the San Jose gaggle of Raging Grannies.
"We started the San Jose Grannies in the summer of 2005," Kinoshita says. "We had been going to a number of events around the Bay Area and had been seeing and hearing these great women performing songs of protest. They were the Palo Alto Grannies." After doing a few events with the Palo Alto group, Kinoshita recognized that it was difficult for some of the members to always travel up the peninsula so she decided to start her own gaggle closer to home.
Wilderman was one of the first members.
"We have a special name for Grannie Wilderman," Kinoshita says. "We refer to her as Granny Goose, because she likes to dress up like Mother Goose."
Kinoshita met Wilderman more than 15 years ago at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom event, but it was their mutual involvement with the Grannies that cemented their relationship.
"Joan is one of a core group of about eight who can always be counted on," Kinoshita says. "She has so many places where she gives her time, but she always tries to make our events a priority. Two weeks ago she came out and participated in the electric car rally. She keeps everyone motivated by her enthusiasm."
Both Wilderman and Kinoshita say that the requirements of being a Grannie are few, "You don't actually have to be a granny," Wilderman says, "and you don't even have to be a good singer."
Wilderman also says you don't have to be a woman, though there are no male grannies in her gaggle.
"We would like to recruit one or two people who play an instrument," she adds, "because it is hard to sing without an accompaniment."
Grannie Lois Fiedler said, "Joan has been gracious enough to open up her home for our monthly practices."
Fiedler, a Willow Glen resident and retired psychologist, attended an international convention of the gaggles in Windsor, Canada last summer. "It was really an un-convention," Fiedler says. "We did a lot of singing and a lot of sharing of songs."
Fiedler even helped lead a workshop on the history of the Grannies. "The group is an appealing group," she says. "Generally, the audience warmly receives us, which makes it fun. It's interesting how people will listen, hear the songs and appreciate the message. With other forms of protest people will stay away from you, but the Grannies win people over, at least temporarily."
Funny outfits also add a sense of street performance to the demonstrations, she says.
The San Jose Raging Grannies, however, are doing more than just entertaining; they are gaining attention. The Grannies, and the San Jose chapter of WILPF, were recently honored by the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women at their "Women of Spirit, Women of Strength" awards event. The Grannies were honored for being "a group of passionate older women who do not assume a "ladylike" demeanor when they show up in outrageous costumes and advocate loudly for what they believe in."
Wilderman certainly does advocate for things that she believes in.
In addition to her work with the Grannies, WILPF and the San Jose Peace Center, she also heads up the local arm of an international domestic violence awareness effort, "The Clothesline Project."
"Joan has been the local lead on The Clothesline Project for quite awhile now," Fiedler says. "We interact with local community colleges and other community groups to call attention to domestic violence and help provide some sense of healing for survivors."
Wilderman's passion for protest has ruffled some feathers over the years.
"Whenever my children talk to relatives back in Michigan. they always get asked, "What crazy thing is your mother up to now?' " says Wilderman.
Growing up in a conservative home, Wilderman says she was never able to tell her mother or father about her pacifist views. But times have changed. Wilderman's own children are proud of her. Both of her daughters have gone to protests with her in the past.
"But they aren't as active as I am," she says.
Wilderman says that she won't stop protesting war anytime soon. "Standing up for what I believe in helps me feel less depressed and powerless about what is going on," she says. "It makes me feel better to be doing something with people who feel the same way that I do."
And even though her friends and family back in the Midwest think she has gone "kooky" or "California" as they say, she views such comments as compliments.
"I think the whole country needs to 'go California,' " Wilderman says. "Maybe then, war will end."
For more information about the San Jose Raging Grannies, e-mail Shirley Lin at email@example.com or visit www.wilpfsanjose.org.