Changing the world, one grandmother at a time

I recently reread Stephen Wright’s post ‘On not being able to care’ from March 2010 – and was once again moved by his direct view of things and the original way he thinks about the world.

And then I read a comment below his blog: ‘I think there has to be a direct discourse of kindness unearthed somewhere. Kindness has become a kind of granny-virtue, if I can say that and be understood without offending grannies. It isn’t deemed to have any power or weight to it.’ The use of ‘granny-virtue’ to denote things powerless and weightless got me thinking.

As we continue to discover – with Louis Nowra’s dismissal of Germaine Greer by saying she’s like his demented grandmother, John Birmingham’s dismissal of Greer as a feral hag, AA Gill and Samantha Brick’s dismissal of classics scholar Mary Beard as a tv presenter because of her physical appearance – we don’t respect ageing women. We have way more time for ageing men: Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Cormac McCarthy, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Simon Schama, JM Coetzee. The list is endless.

I first discovered the power of old women from my father’s mother. Not at her knee – there was nothing clichéd about her – but hanging out with her in her flat in Sydney’s Kings Cross when she was in her 90s. I lived around the corner and visited her most weeks. We’d drink sherry and smoke cigarettes. I’d cut her hair and she’d tell me labyrinthine stories, mostly about all the dead people she missed, including her beloved husband and her two lost daughters, one who died aged 10 when they were crossing a London street hand-in-hand, run down by a truck.

I felt my grandmother’s kindness in all its awesome power. There was nothing insipid or weightless about it. Her 90 odd years had taught her that her life was about ‘service, sacrifice and suffering’. When she first gave me those three words I was shocked and appalled – because they seemed so passive and so bleak, and she lived so energetically, joyfully, making friends of strangers, always on the verge of ‘bursting into song’, writing over 100 Christmas cards every year to friends in Asia, Africa, Europe, America, flirting with boys in the bank queue (I know because once one of them was my boyfriend).

There was nothing half-hearted about her life, her passions, her kindness, even at 97. Conveyed physically through her hugs, her kindness was fierce as a vice – as only the hold of a woman will be who has lost a child through not holding enough.

Her kindness was exclusive – like the mother’s love in Mary Gilmore’s poem ‘Nationality’:

I have grown past hate and bitterness
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

And her kindness was powerful. It felt like something that could change the world. Which is what economist Muhammad Yunus has discovered through his microfinance movement: granny power can change the world. Lending small amounts of money to women has improved the material existence of thousands of impoverished families around the world.

The vast majority of successful loans made by microfinance organisations such as Yumus’s Grameen (‘Village’) Bank in Bangladesh and Pro Mujer in Bolivia are to women. It turns out that contrary to conventional financial wisdom these women are better at managing money than their husbands and sons.

Changing the world is also what thirteen grandmothers were called to do in 2004. In that year a Cherokee woman, Jyoti, had a vision of a circle of Indigenous grandmothers and as a result in October 2004 thirteen spiritual leaders from across the planet, grandmothers all, got together to do planetary business.

Their ancestral prophecies had told them they’d be called together at a critical time in history when their ancient knowledge would be needed for the survival of the planet. These thirteen grandmothers are now teaching that urgent change is needed if the next seven generations of human beings are to survive on earth. Here is their Mission Statement:

We, the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light the way through an uncertain future. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.

So as we head to the consumer horror fest that is Mothers Day, I’ll be drinking sherry and saluting the grandmothers of this earth, including my two grandmothers and my own mother, who’s now a grandmother.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. Yo Jane.
    I remember someone taking me, quite rightly, to task about my clumsily-worded expression when the blog was posted. What I was of course trying to say was that women as mothers/grandmothers culture is deemed to have no weight, when of course it is, and could be regarded as, very weighty indeed.
    Aurelien Mondon from Melbourne Free U invited me back to give some more talks at MFU following on one I gave on children and violence in Feb. One of the topics I’ve got in mind is the political status of babies and those who look after them (ie; usually women) and how this potentially radical place is homogenised and neutralised.
    Maybe grandmothers and mothers could Occupy Mother’s Day,

  2. Oh, Jane.

    I once dreamed I was looking in a mirror at my aged-woman’s face, rich with lines and framed by white hair and I said to the face, with a sense of deep relief: ‘I’ve been waiting for you all my life.’ An old woman, Hildegarde Opitz who was an artist and philosopher (and a fierce and eccentric character) once took my hands in her own and spoke to me in German (forgetting I could only speak English) and it didn’t matter because I could feel the blessing through her papery skin. I knew then that one day, I’d like to have old woman hands like that: ones that held wisdom. A friend who overheard said she called me ‘a treasure-box’.

    Yet, as a woman heading out of her forties and allowing myself to stop dying my hair, I have bumped up against the most incredible horror from others at the thought that I might be okay with getting older — and it strikes me as another ‘divide and conquer’ tactic of the all embracing patriarchy we live and breathe — worse because it touches into my own unhealthy relationship with women’s objectification (and subsequent bullshit about self-worth).

    I’ve witnessed my own mother (also a grandmother) be completely ignored by shop-assistants or service staff who answer her question/s to me, standing alongside. (To which one can only reply: ‘why are you telling me?’)

    I love to hear of the International Council of Indigenous Grandmothers.

    • Preach it sistahs

      “I’ve witnessed my own mother (also a grandmother) be completely ignored by shop-assistants or service staff who answer her question/s to me, standing alongside. (To which one can only reply: ‘why are you telling me?’)”

      I so love your comment, Clare. It rode in beautifully on the back of Jane’s well-refilling post. I often think about this sort of thing, and I so hope that I will remember when I am there that anonymity can sometimes work powerfully in your favour.

      Of course, I hope by the time we are both there I would hope that this is a redundant thought 🙂

      • Heh, nice thought Sue, about anonymity sometimes working powerfully in your favour. And even better thought – that when we’re there such thinking might be obsolete! Here’s hoping.

  3. haha – I like that Stephen, Occupy Mothers Day. And interesting your idea of a talk on the political status of babies and those who look after them – very charged territory. Is it Gloria Steinem who says the world will change only when men care for babies?
    And I didn’t mean to haul you into the fray by quoting from a passing comment in two-year old blog, but it’s where my thinking started. These slips of the tongue or keyboard are most revealing, as many before me have found.

    And wow Clare, what a rich dream. And hand-holding experience. Treasure box you are. Outrageous to hear that people are horrified that you might be ok with getting older! And the treatment of your mother in shops. I think somehow my grandmother defied or ignored all such judgements through sheer force of will and personality. So inspiring.

    ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

  4. Yeah, I tend to stay away from the comments threads these days, but having my own slips brought to the party was too intriguing. After all, slips of tongue/pen/keyboard are always where blind spots reveal themselves. And so where the fun is.
    I think I said a couple of posts ago that it’s a common perception that in families women are the moody, unpredictable ones, when the truth is that it’s generally the men. Enjoy your mother’s day. My best to your granny.

  5. Interesting Stephen, your comment about moody unpredictable people in families, will have to hunt down that post because I don’t remember it.

    I don’t actually ‘do’ mothers’ day, don’t go in for mothers’ and fathers’ days. Only mentioned it in post because I was thinking of women and it happened to be mothers’ day this w/e (hard not to notice). But thanks anyway.

  6. Love that quote from Mary Gilmore, Jane. It brought a tear to my eye. And will be interested to see, Stephen, what you come up with about the political power of babies. Shame that the people who are often caring for them are just too exhausted to think about it!

    Bit tangential to your post, Jane, but I was thinking of two other old men today and how much I like their writing – Robert Dessaix and David Marr.

    And I love mothers day! And fathers day – allows us a celebration without having to be an individual birthday.

  7. Love what you say about your grandmother, too, Jane! How to get around being ignored – use every moment to have a good time…

  8. I love this post Jane, thank you.
    A friend told me recently that women are the only mammals who live beyond childbearing age, and he wondered at why this was so. I think you have just answered him!
    As a(youngish)woman who has just been surprised into imminent grandmotherhood, I am so excited about my new trajectory.

  9. Thanks Ro. Yes, Mary Gilmore wrote some feisty poetry in her long life.
    Agree it will be interesting to see what Stephen comes up with about political power of babies. I think immediately of ubiquitous politician-baby photos and Stewie Griffin in Family Guy. I’m sure Stephen’s thinking is far from there.
    I’m interested to hear you like – love – mothers’ day. Have a good one!

  10. Thanks Sarah – you must have been commenting when I was. How wonderful that you’re to become an excited (youngish) grandmother. (Love fact that humans are the only mammals who live beyond childbearing age too.)

  11. Yes, Jane, thanks, you have a good one too, even if it’s just ignoring it. I like the intergenerational thing about it, I think. And the chance to be acknowledged for the often thankless and not-valued role that mothering sometimes is.

    Don’t know, Stephen, if you’ll be thinking about that aspect of babies and their carers in your thinking about the political power of babies – but it never ceases to amaze me (in a bad way) that the caring and rearing of children, a most important thing, is completely disregarded, completely unvalued, in the way society is set up, which is all about chasing the money. Follow the money, and there’s the political power. I’m sure there are more articulate and explicit ways to follow these connections and disconnections…

  12. I guess Ro I see mothers’ day (+ fathers’ day) as token commercialised consumer non-events, especially in the context of your important point below, that the caring for and rearing of children is completely unvalued in the way we’ve set up our society and economy. Really interesting in this context is the construction of first national accounts in USA in 1930s and 40s, the guy who oversaw their construction – Simon Kuznets – argued that unpaid domestic work was part of a nation’s wealth and therefore should be included in a nation’s accounts. Needless to say, it never was and still isn’t.
    (‘Follow the money, and there’s the political power’ – pretty much what ‘Double Entry’ is about, btw.)

  13. Rowena and Jane
    As far as babies go and their politics, I’m interested in the politics of gaze. In the field of Infant mental health, gaze is a powerful tool. It’s how a mind has ‘grown’ if you like. But gaze isn’t just the responsibility of the mother. There’s a whole social context that the mother is dependent on to support her. If the social context doesn’t prioritise that gaze, or substitutes certain kinds of gaze, weird things happen – depressed babies, depressed mothers. etc.
    I think the comment about unpredictable fathers was in the bog called The embalmers art.

  14. Thanks Stephen, very interesting. So, by ‘gaze’ you mean ‘how a mind has “grown”‘? I know ‘gaze’ is a big and rich intellectual category but can you say more about this? Or perhaps we can wait for your talk and I hope blog about the politics of babies.

    And yes, agree that gaze is not just the responsibility of the mother – and in fact, even the idea it might be is surely very recent? Post-nuclear family? Surely it’s not just a matter of the mother being supported in her gaze, but of the baby being supported by the gaze of other parent(s) (eg I’m thinking of friends who raise children with two fathers, two mothers), extended family and community?

    And thanks for letting me know where your father comment was, will check it out.

  15. The baby/mother interaction is the template on which all our other interactions get patched onto. For a baby, gaze is a massive thing. The carer’s gaze is what the baby fixes on, uses to feed itself , so to speak.
    Mothering really needs a terror-free zone. How is it possible to hold a baby with a gaze if you’re depressed and feel like you’re on the edge of a precipice? What does that do for the baby? What is a gase like that is situated inside late neoliberal capitalism?
    The baby-mother gaze is where a lot of fraught political dynamics are played out. It’s not a space of frills and teddy bears.

  16. I’m suspicious of such generalisations, Stephen, as ‘The baby/mother interaction is the template which all our other interactions get patched onto’, no matter how illustrious their origins in psychoanalytic theory/practice. Especially when they derive from the late 19th and 20th centuries, which saw the incarceration of women in the domestic sphere and the gulags of suburbia (and the rise of neoliberal capitalism). In other words, I wonder if what you say above might be true of a particular historical moment that may be passing now women are no longer confined to the domestic sphere in many parts of the world.
    Although obviously the mother-child relationship is important, especially during the charged time of gestation and of breastfeeding if that happens. (Who said it was a space of frills and teddy bears?)

  17. I think if we look at the dynamics of post-natal depression and the conditions that produce it, we can see that the effects can be quite profound. Newborns with depressed mothers show lower muscle-tone within 24 hours. I’m not in the slightest arguing for 19th models of human psychology. I’m not a psychoanalyst. Those I know are keenly interested in the politics of psychology. Psychoanalysis has a long feminist history that contributes to that I think.
    The commonplace descriptions of babies and mothers together are usually shorn of any political context. The latest text of infant mental health and clinical practice I have, which i bought last week, is very light on social contexts for definitions of motherhood and babyhood. Attachment theory which looks at how our relationship styles are created is pretty clear that the patterns we get in childhood can be very predictive. The avoidance of setting young children and infants in the context of a politicised gaze, seems to me to be another way in which women”s experience can be sanitised.

  18. I was just thinking this morning of Julia Ward Howe, and how Mother’s Day wasn’t always a consumerist horror fest:

    Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!

    Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

    From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”

    The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.

    In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

  19. Hi Stephen – yes, I agree that the mother-chid relationship is vitally important, as is its rarely mentioned political context, and that post-natal depression is serious and damaging to the child as well as mother. I’m also very interested in your thinking on the political status of babies.

    I also agree that ‘the patterns we get in childhood are very predictive’ of our relationship style. But I’m just not sure that they’re formed exclusively by the mother and her gaze, as I thought you were implying. Doesn’t it take a village to raise a child?

    I really like your last sentence: ‘The avoidance of setting young children and infants in the context of a politicised gaze, seems to me to be another way in which women”s experience can be sanitised.’ And not only sanitised, wiped off the political map. It’s given me much food for thought. So thanks.

    And thanks Jacinda for the reminder of the origins of mother’s day thinking in the US (I see Anna Jarvis who eventually did found ‘Mother’s Day’ in the US in 1908 was very particular about the singular apostrophe s), with its roots in women’s peace groups.

    It’s also interesting to note that a mere nine years after she founded mother’s day Anna Jarvis began protesting against it and spent most of her subsequent life and all her inheritance opposing its commercialisation. She especially opposed the practice of buying greeting cards, which she saw as a sign of being too lazy to write a personal letter. (I am SO with her on that.) She was arrested in 1948 for disturbing the peace while protesting against the commercialisation of Mother’s Day and said she wished she’d never started it.

    But it’s inspiring to reconsider mother’s day in light of your quote from Julia Ward Howe, Jacinda. Perhaps we can reconfigure mother’s day in that spirit next May.

    • Yes, Occupy Mothers Day!
      That’s right Jane, I AM arguing that it takes a village etc etc. A mother and baby find it very difficult to get it together without a political context that prioritises their interaction, and has significantly thought about the violence in which women and children have to try and function.

  20. hah! I think you all might just have brought me around to the idea of Occupy Mothers Day (2013), your original proposition Stephen.

    And Stephen you’re making me loosen my resistance to the idea that mothers have such massive influence on shaping babies – and by extension on human beings and human life on this planet. Such a big responsibility! But if we assume the role of mothers is crucial and primary – as I’m sure most people do even when it’s not mother’s day – then we must demand that their work is given the respect, value and support that it requires … and then perhaps villages might appear to help. Doh!

  21. It’s gender issues generally and especially what constitutes gendered violence. ‘Mothers’ is a role that some women choose to occupy (so to speak) but it’s still a role set within the context of misogyny and women’s struggles generally. One can’t address ‘motherhood’ as a political issue in isolation.

  22. Love this discussion, Jane, Stephen and Jacinda. Them’s rousing words, eh, from Julia Ward Howe. Why don’t people write like that anymore!? What I baulk at about discussion of the mother-baby gaze – and I do believe it is vitally important – is the sense of isolation it implies. Mothers are so isolated and so harshly judged, the burden to put all the right things into your gaze for a baby can be too much. But, Stephen, as politics is the study of the power relationships between players, surely you won’t be isolating and judging mothers in your study?

  23. Hi
    As I said to Jane, the problem is exactly that mothers and babies are isolated and left to carry the weight of finding each other, as well as the burden of being the idealised mother and baby. I suspect the pressures on babies and their mothers are now greater than ever; the mother has to get back to a Miranda Kerr clothing size, the baby has to be a genius, and be quickly prepared to enter one of our nations appalling child care services etc etc. It’s part of the saturated practice of misogyny really. It’s the new ideal woman. I saw a magazine cover today while waiting in the supermarket; some celebrity mother in a bikini holding a baby I’d say about 6 months old. That’s the ideal now – you will produce perfect babies and be a sex goddess at the same time.

  24. Yes this is a great discussion. And yes, agree totally Ro and Stephen: ‘the problem is exactly that mothers and babies are isolated’ in the way we currently construct our society (in the west, anyway), which is why I brought up that ‘takes a village’ line. I probably should have said, it SHOULD take a village, but the way we live in atomised suburbia is isolating and crazy making, especially I think for mothers.

    And GROAN to those images of new ‘ideal woman’ Stephen. You are sickeningly right. And GROAN to the fact some women now feel pressured to get genital surgery for aesthetic reasons. Blows my mind. And my temper. That they should be given the weird message that it’s necessary. That the surgery is even available on aesthetic grounds. WTF?!

    According to Germaine Greer at her recent talk in Sydney on feminism (if we can trust her utterances these days), there’s as much (elective) female genital surgery/mutilation in the US as there is genital mutilation in Africa and Middle East.

    Interestingly she also said: ‘the houses we live in are sentences for solitary confinement of the nuclear family and the nuclear family is a poisonous institution’. I couldn’t agree with her more.

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