The first time I saw Omas gegen Rechts (Grannies Against the Right) in action at a demonstration in Berlin, I was startled, then thrilled. Here was a group of older women bringing attention to the fact that they were older women, distinct from yet allied with other protesters on the street. Simply by being there, by carrying signs that said Omas gegen Rechts, they seemed to be confronting the dismissal of older women while also drawing on the mythologies of grandmothers who sort things out. And they explicitly identified which side they were on: countering the far right.
Omas gegen Rechts was founded in November 2017 in Vienna. The conservative People’s Party had just formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party and would soon be governing Austria. “Everybody was very worried about this,” recalls Jenny Simanowitz, “because it was really an extreme-right party that had a lot of power.” Monika Salzer, who is one of the founders of Omas gegen Rechts, phoned Simanowitz to invite her to a meeting. Six of them sat around a table discussing their strategy and aims.
“We talked about the name: Omas gegen Rechts—if this was a good name?—and we were also thinking: Should we really call ourselves Omas? Isn’t that kind of a bit derogatory? But we said, No, we are Omas.” While Oma literally translates to “granny” in English, the word is used more generally in the German-speaking world to refer to old women. They were determined to take back the word Oma, to subvert it, to redefine it, says Simanowitz.
“The elderly woman as a public political force does not exist in our collective consciousness. That’s why we women have to appear in public, not as individuals and exceptional figures, not as stars, but as a group that stands out,” reads the statement on the Omas gegen Rechts website.
Within weeks the group had over 3,000 followers on Facebook, Simanowitz recalls. Today there are more than 70 Omas gegen Rechts groups active across Austria, and more than 100 groups in Germany. Omas gegen Rechts groups are present at almost every major protest in these countries. In Austria, they hold weekly Thursday protests, perform in street theater, and have daily vigils outside the chancellor’s office calling for the admission of refugees stuck in camps on Lesbos. In Germany, they protest against the far-right AfD party, participate in rallies to counter racism, and join climate justice protests. Their policy program for Europe calls for “a fair social balance between rich and poor countries” and “the rejection of racism and anti-Semitism on all fronts.”
With over 30,000 Twitter followers and almost 20,000 on Facebook followers, they also have a strong presence on social media. They are generally greeted with warmth and support by the younger protesters, have been the subject of news features across Germany and Austria, and were awarded the 2020 Paul Spiegel Prize for Civil Courage by the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
A “goal for any activist group is that they get attention,” Austrian author and digital expert Ingrid Brodnig told BBC Trending. “And they are kind of hijacking a part of the debate. And I think that in itself is a success.”
The Omas are not the only activist organization led by older people: the Gray Panthers launched in 1970 in the United States, and the Raging Grannies were founded in Canada in 1986. All of these groups have roots in the protest movements of the late 20th century. The Omas, however, came of age in countries that historically and politically are very different places than the United States or Canada. Germany and Austria were just emerging from fascism when the Omas were younger, and the youth rebellions of the 1960s in those countries repudiated the politics and structures of an older generation that participated in fascism. Some of the Omas, too, had parents who went into exile then returned after the war because of that fascism.
“These memories are specific to our generation,” Betina Kern, a member of Omas gegen Recht’s Berlin group, told Women’s Media Center. “So, maybe we know better about the dangers fascism brings about and are more alarmed when we see it spread in Germany. Consequently, we feel the responsibility to act.”
Some of the Omas gegen Rechts activists are veteran political activists, while others are protesting for the first time. “We welcome all interested and supportive people, grandmas, grandpas, children, grandchildren and friends. Everyone can take part at any time.” Sometimes they’re asked why they haven’t organized Opas gegen Rechts (Grandpas Against the Right). “Well, why don’t you start it?” Simanowitz has answered.
Older men, however, are not invisible at public level: They’re everywhere, and have always been invited to speak about their experiences and voice their opinions. Omas gegen Rechts, on the other hand, is repeatedly addressing and subverting what it means to be an older woman in public space: taking the stage at large protests to talk about the long fight for social justice, confronting Covid denialists at right-wing rallies, and, when they sense violence might break out between police and other protesters, trying to avert it by emphasizing that there are old ladies nearby. They wear brightly colored hand-knit hats and Omas gegen Rechts buttons. They also have an Omas gegen Rechts song they sometimes sing together. Their activism combines fun with fierceness, audacity with outrage. At a far-right rally in Halle, Germany they appeared as a flash mob with white Omas gegen Rechts umbrellas and whistles that they blew to drown out a right-wing extremist who had threatened an Oma.
Grandmothers are often depicted as having no identity beyond being a grandmother: they’re shown only in relationship to their children and grandchildren. But many of the activists who have chosen to call themselves Omas have been highly visible for many years. Susanne Scholl, a cofounder of Omas gegen Rechts, is an acclaimed author and journalist who has written about her Austrian-Jewish family (her parents met as refugees in England and returned to Austria after the war). Monika Salzer is a well-known columnist, psychologist, and pastor. Betina Kern, from the Berlin group, is a former German diplomat. Gertrud Graf, a longtime educator and activist who organized the first meeting in Berlin, spent a month driving around the country to visit and forge links with other Omas gegen Rechts groups. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, one of the Berlin Omas, has been celebrated in Germany for years because of her work removing Nazi stickers on lampposts.
The Omas also deal with backlash online and in real life. Some have received death threats or found themselves on far-right “enemy lists.” In Halle, Germany a group of Omas were surrounded by far-right extremists who physically attacked one of the women. The Omas, when they returned to a rally by the same extremists at a later date, chanted: “Alerta, Alerta, Omas sind härter!” (Warning, warning, grandmas are tougher!”)
“We are the postwar generation—we know firsthand that societies can change and that there is power in speaking up,” Salzer and Scholl wrote. “We want to be a megaphone for others. By going out into the streets and opening our mouths, we are challenging the cliché of the old, defenseless granny. No one reckoned on assertive old women like us.”