Grandmother: The Power of a Title and the Significance of a Social Role

Grandmother Collective
The Power of Grandmothers
4 min readApr 14, 2024

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A mural in West Philadelphia titled “Holding Grandmother’s Quilt” resides between two residential homes, facing each other across a community park. One side portrays a grandmother sewing a quilt, while the other side shows three children holding it. This artwork, created by Mural Arts, a Philadelphia institution partnering with community groups citywide, pays tribute to community leader Miss Jones and underscores the power of intergenerational learning and connection.

Holding Grandmother’s Quilt (West Wall) and Holding Grandmother’s Quilt (East Wall) by Don Gensler. Photos by Jack Ramsdale.

This image resonates deeply with us at the Grandmother Collective. “Grandmothers” embody a unique blend of empathy, determination, approachability, and undaunted strength. Throughout history and across geographies, grandmothers have played vital roles in fostering community cohesion, growth, connection, and love. They embody wisdom, experience, and social responsibility, holding culture and community together.

In our work, we’ve found organizations worldwide that recognize grandmothers and older women as incredible assets and key leaders. They work with older women because of the qualities many of these women have developed throughout their lives and experiences.

Grandmothers:
- Possess unique pattern recognition of family life cycles
- Act as knowledge and culture keepers
- Share the long view
- Are often stable and trusted
- Are community-focused
- Are proficient doers and learners

They also possess great leadership qualities: they’re savvy, brave, excellent listeners, teachers, advocates, healers, and storytellers. Most importantly, they almost universally strive to make the world a better place for their grandchildren, and ultimately all children. These attributes are true for older women generally but even more so for grandmothers.

Despite the powerful role grandmothers play in society, the term “grandmother” does not always align with the self-image older women have, for various reasons. Some may not have children, their children may not have become parents, or they may have suffered loss. Some resist the term because of outdated notions of grandmothers as frail or backward-looking.

Globally, older women are already coming together to engage in social change work, building movements around a variety of issues and using “grandmother” and reclaiming the category as a position of influence and power, in addition to the familial presence. A powerful example of this reframing is the Passageways to Elderhood Alliance. It’s movement aims to revalue the term “grandmother” as a contributor to society and envisions a culture that honors elders, initiating them into roles of elderhood and valuing their contributions to a thriving future for all. The alliance envisions readily available, regenerative, multicultural, and multi-generational programs and community rituals that honor, celebrate, and support elders as they journey toward elderhood.

For many older women, this life stage represents a time when they feel empowered to advocate for changes they believe matter. The term “grandmother” can transcend individual familial associations; some have adopted the term “GrandOther” to describe their grandmotherly relationships to individuals, families, or communities. Although societal changes, such as increased mobility and suburbanization, have, in some contexts, diminished the presence of community grandmothers, organizations like Hey Auntie draw on the long history of aunties in the black community to provide wise guidance and reciprocal support.

There are certainly diverse perspectives amongst older women the world over about the mantle ‘grandmother’. We have heard from grandmothers who feel that it is a personal, familial designation and not their ‘public persona’, and others who feel that the term embodies relationships, connections, responsibility, endearment, and love, and prefer it to crone or senior.

Reclaiming, or giving a broader meaning to the title “grandmother” is more than a linguistic preference; it’s a deliberate choice to shape a world founded on core values, connections and relationships. The “grandmother” movement challenges prevailing structures of external power, privilege, and politics, advocating for a society grounded in support,authenticity, and community. Beyond familial ties, grandmothers are older women in the community who are a formidable force for positive change. Their qualities are invaluable assets in the ongoing battles for equality, inclusion, and the construction of a better world, led in part by women with the experience, wisdom, and the authority that comes with age.

Grandmother Collective seeks to highlight the unique qualities and gifts of grandmothers and grandmother’s socially-minded work, celebrating and fostering them in ways that benefit society. Recognizing this impact, we hope to inspire the acknowledgment of “grandmother” as a valuable title in our societies, reigniting community grandmotherhood. We invite older women from all walks of life to reclaim the title, not as a relic of the past, but as a beacon of hope for the future. By embracing the roles that grandmothers have the potential to play, we aim to cultivate communities where every voice is heard, every person is valued, and every heart is uplifted.

The Grandmother Collective (GMC) is a global, member-based organization focused on raising the profile of grandmothers as essential contributors to social change. Our aim is to create a community of practice where grandmothers, scholars, practitioners, policy makers and others can work together to ensure that the wisdom and energy of grandmothers, is not just celebrated but incorporated into policy, research and international development agendas. We also support organizations to incorporate grandmother-powered initiatives into their current work and build the capacity of older women everywhere to recognize their power to drive positive change. Learn more about the Grandmother Collective at http://www.grandmothercollective.org.

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