The Old Women's Project

Nuts and Bolts of the Old Women’s Project

by The Old Women’s Project

published in Rain and Thunder, Issue #25, Winter 2004, p. 11.

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Our Mission
The Old Women’s Project works to make visible how old women are directly affected by all issues of social justice, and to combat the ageist attitudes that ignore, trivialize or demean us. We use actions of various kinds to achieve this goal. We welcome women of all ages who wish to join in our actions.

This article is about nuts and bolts. Our hope here is to show how three women, without spending much time or money, can make a political difference even in a fairly conservative city. And of course we want to incite other women to activism.

We began writing this article the day after the elections. Now more than ever we all need to share the work we are doing in our own communities.

Who We Are
We are three San Diego women—all old, all white, two heterosexual, one lesbian, all middle-class—who share progressive feminist politics. We meet together every Tuesday night for two hours, usually in a booth in a Chinese restaurant, and after catching up on our lives, we brainstorm. When we’re not directly planning an action, we think of ourselves as a “political support group.” We try to enlarge our political perspectives by sharing insights and information, often bringing clippings from the paper or printouts from the Internet. We always stay open to the idea of new political actions, ways that we can present our concerns in fresh and timely ways.

Although it isn’t essential, we think it’s very helpful for activists to meet for ongoing political discussions even when we aren’t planning an action. It deepens and enriches our politics and it keeps us on the same page.

In the past three and a half years, The Old Women’s Project has organized seven actions, two that drew almost 400 women. Most have drawn fifty or fewer; one of our favorite actions involved twelve. Carrying our large multi-ethnic, old-woman puppet POWER (Pissed Old Woman Engaged in Revolution), and wearing our OLD WOMEN ARE YOUR FUTURE t-shirts, we often participate in, and are sometimes asked to speak at, actions by other progressive groups such as Living Wage campaigns, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Dyke Marches, an Arab-American protest against forced registration, and many more. We have worked in coalitions with some of these groups, and spoken in their support at City Council or Board of Supervisor meetings.

How and Why We Started
We first came together as a political support group of five women who had done street theater and other actions as part of a larger San Diego group, Women’s Alliance Against the (first) Gulf War. We never settled on a name—sometimes we called ourselves White Women Against Sexual and Racial Privilege, sometimes the D&Cs (Dykes and Commies). We tried to think of actions that five women could do, but felt a bit helpless—we did some bannering, some flyering, some (shhh!) graffiti. It wasn’t very empowering. But after all, what could five women do? Still, the talk kept us sane.

One of us was Barbara Macdonald, Cynthia Rich’s partner. Barbara was twenty years older than Cynthia, and for decades had been writing and lecturing, with passion and powerful analysis, on ageism as a central women’s issue. With Cynthia as contributor, she had published Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism, a blazing indictment of the invisibility of old women in the women’s movement and the patronizing and contemptuous attitudes that she encountered as a white-haired woman. She was the first to claim the word “old” and organized old lesbians around the issue of ageism (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, a national organization, currently addresses homophobia in mainstream aging services and ageism in LGBT communities and services).

After Barbara died at 86 in June of 2000, we wanted to do work to honor her spirit. One of us had just moved away, so there now were only three of us. But sometimes the period after a death can, like falling in love, be an energizing time. Sitting around Cynthia’s kitchen table that November, we devised the Old Women’s Project, the t-shirts, the idea of a puppet, and the central idea of our mission statement above.

But what would our first action be?

Janice had a longtime deep concern for the homeless, especially the old women she saw in her own neighborhood; at the same time, while the cost of housing in San Diego was escalating at a frightening pace, we saw that the City was doing nothing to address it. March 8 was International Women’s Day. So we saw what we have always looked for since: a window of opportunity to address a timely progressive issue, to show how it impacts women, and—what is so often not done—to include old women in the category of Women (not simply in the category of Old).

But there were only three of us, and in early 2001 you couldn’t get a crowd out to a demo in San Diego, especially midweek. We hit on the idea of a press conference, of inviting women from the widest spectrum of organizations—that included homeless and Hispanic low-income housing groups, but also SEIU, the Older Women’s League, Welfare Warriors, and a low-income single parents’ group—to speak about how the women in their groups were affected by the escalating rents in San Diego. It was the first housing demonstration in San Diego, a decent crowd did show up, it was widely covered in the media, and it launched the affordable housing movement here. It was unashamedly feminist: Our flyers read “Why is the housing crisis a women’s issue? Because most women’s work is unpaid or low paid,” with facts and statistics. The Old Women’s Project was launched.

Some Thoughts on Size

If you call yourself an organization, even if you are only three people, you will be respected as an organization. As representatives of the Old Women’s Project, we’re asked to speak at rallies and council meetings, endorse statements, join coalitions. People know we’re three women, but they like our politics and know we care about their issues because we see them as ours.

We used to feel qualms about being a tiny, closed group of white middle-class women. Lasting social change is, of course, created by grassroots work involving many diverse people. But since an important part of our mission is to support those efforts (and make visible old women’s stake in those issues), we’ve come to see that there are many different valuable ways of working across color and class. Meanwhile, a small dedicated group has some great advantages: it’s efficient (you don’t have to process everything endlessly); it’s more flexible (you can move rapidly as things change—and things will change); and it can be more inspiring, because the message doesn’t have to be set by committee.

We’ve developed a guideline for any action we do: We must come up with something that we will feel is worth doing even if no media shows up and/or if it is just the three of us. So if 400 women show up, it’s a demonstration. If it’s just us, it’s street theater. For example, our most recent, pre-election action was: Get Bush’s Empire Off Women’s Backs. Women came dressed in red, we pinned signs to our backs of Bush’s face with a slash through it and on our chests OFF OUR BACKS, we carried a large banner, and Cynthia carried a Bush puppet (a thrift store suit stuffed with newspaper and a Bush mask with a crown) on her back; we chanted “Off Women’s Backs in Afghanistan! Off Women’s Backs in Iraq! Off Women’s Backs in Africa! Off Women’s Backs at Home!” Almost a hundred women showed up, and two news channels, but if it had been just us, and maybe three of our friends, with no news coverage, we could have handed out our flyers and raised some eyebrows and some consciousness among the downtown crowds.

Of course we want 400 women, and all the news channels, to show up every time, but not being sizeist takes a lot of pressure off us, and we don’t have that humiliation of feeling dependent on the media.

Doing no-fail actions is very freeing.

Also: we’ve come to view a lot of what we do that seems like routine preparation—flyers, e-mails, phone calls, media alerts—as maybe just as important as how many women actually come. It’s educating people. It’s raising consciousness. (So we give extra attention to making our publicity as original and interesting as possible.)

Some reusable but exciting props—for us it’s our old woman puppet and startling t-shirts—can pull attention to the smallest action.

What is Effective?
We try not to get hung up on measuring the effectiveness of our actions—by numbers or any other means. After our antiwar protests, we were contacted with preliminary inquiries by the Oprah Winfrey Show and People Magazine. It didn’t stop the war. Our housing action was considered a huge success and it started a process that forced the City Council to declare a housing emergency in San Diego. There’s still a housing emergency. So it’s probably true that change is one person at a time—but since we never know where that one person will be, we need to be there to change them.
Our big expense has been our web site. When we expanded it we had to hire a web master, and though she’s a friend who gave us a “family” rate, it’s cost us almost $1000. The web site is important to us, because it’s an educational tool, but we were effective long before we had it—for most groups it’s not necessary. Otherwise, our costs are flyers, t-shirts and posterboard. We’ve splurged on flyers, using colored paper and handing out a great many before the events, because we believe that’s an important part of what we do, whether women who see them come to our actions or not. We try to make our flyers educational, brazenly feminist and at least a little unconventional, both visually and in the text. (two examples: “WAR IS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN” or “GET BUSH’S EMPIRE OFF WOMEN’S BACKS.”)
Skills or Lack of

It’s not necessary, but the more pleasing or interesting to the eye your posters and flyers or banners are, the better. People will just pay more attention. So if you’re artistically challenged, it’s great if you can make friends with somebody who isn’t.

The same goes for how flyers are written.

The three of us, like many people, detested the idea of public speaking, but we worked up to it and even find we love it. Our biggest discovery was that we can read a prepared script (even if we’re speaking for only two minutes to a city council meeting) and still pass as great public speakers. Brevity, conviction and a minimum number of facts count for a lot. Before we have to talk to the media without our notes, we review talking points. Like politicians, we’ve learned not to get suckered into answering their questions and instead to just keep repeating what we want to say. Sometimes we’re great at it, sometimes not, but we survive, knowing if we really messed up, they wouldn’t put it on the air.


We did put a lot of time into our first Low-cost Housing action, but that was ambitious and even though we did all of the organizing, it took time to involve other people as principals in the action. One of our actions—women at a mall wearing black with shopping bags that read Women Don’t Buy This War—we put together in twelve very part-time days. It drew 382 women.

One very effective quick-and-dirty action, which also requires only one or two people, is to find a cultural event that meshes with a concern you have—maybe housing for a performance of Raisin in the Sun—and make up a good flyer that helps people to see your concern in a somewhat new light. When the Vagina Monologues played in San Diego during the buildup to the Iraq War, we handed out flyers that said, “War Is Violence Against Women,” with the U.N. report that “modern warfare has a woman’s face” and statistics on the budget for war vs. domestic needs. The beauty is that people waiting for a curtain to go up have nothing to do but read your flyer.

Different Kinds of Actions

There’s more than one kind of valuable action, and it’s probably helpful to know which one we’re doing. Most actions are by formula, and these are necessary and effective when we have a short-term goal—you just found out that Bush is coming to town right after he nominated a fundamentalist justice to the Supreme Court. O.K.—organize sign-making and chants, use phone and e-mail to get out protesters, pick a couple of speakers, arrange a sound system, recruit peacekeepers, send out a media release, make up talking points, call or fax media the day of the event.

As individuals we engage in formula actions, because we know their importance. As The Old Women’s Project, we’ve chosen to emphasize longer-term goals. That is, not simply to express our protest or alert people to an immediate issue, but to change, even a little, how people see things. Somebody (we wish we could credit them) said: “The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creativity.” And maybe the opposite of systemic injustice isn’t simple protest—it’s creativity.

Of course, just being The Old Women’s Project helps people see things in a fresh way, as do our Old Women Are Your Future t-shirts. These days women-only actions are rare enough to seem fresh again. When we needed to protest the Israeli occupation, we marched and vigiled in support of an 82-year-old Israeli woman, Yaffa Yarkoni, a “national hero” who had been harshly sanctioned for speaking out against the invasion. OWP’s protests against the Iraq War focus on the war’s impact on women. As much as we value the formula, we’re always looking for the moment and the way to go beyond it. That may also help us avoid burnout.

The years ahead will surely be challenging ones for activists. We become activists because we want to do what we can to change violence and injustice and indifference, and we will have days when we feel it is just too late, too overwhelming. On those days, we can remember that activism is also a way to make sure that the violence, the injustice, the indifference don’t change us. For The Old Women’s Project, our actions create a little world in which our values are projected not only for others but for ourselves. They keep us clear.

But whether you choose the formula or something more adventurous, we need your activism. We need it now.

The Old Women’s Project is Mannie Garza, Janice Keaffaber and Cynthia Rich. Please visit our web site to find out more about us, to see pictures of some of our actions, and for consciousness raising about ageism as a central feminist issue. We welcome any comments or questions. Send them to

The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California

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