The INSIDER Summary:
- In Maine, a group of activist grandmas have banded together to protect the next generation’s reproductive rights.
- They call themselves Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR!
- For the past four years, they’ve focused their efforts locally.
- They’re now on the verge of expanding across the country.
If you see Judy Kahrl and her gaggle of fellow grandmas from a distance, the first thing you’ll notice is their matching, bright yellow t-shirts.
Get a little closer and you’ll notice words printed on those t-shirts in bold block letters: “Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights.” That’s GRR for short — and yes, it’s supposed to sound like a growl.
Kahrl, of Arrowsic, Maine, founded the organization just over four years ago with a small group of local women. From the start, their mission was simple: To protect access to reproductive health services across the state using both education and advocacy.
But these days — after causing a stir at home and on social media — GRR has been inundated with interest from like-minded grandmas all over the country. The group is on the verge of going national, and Kahrl, at age 82, is prepping it for a major expansion.
GRR might seem like a contradiction at first. Why fight for reproductive rights when you can no longer reproduce?
The answer is that the GRRs (as members call themselves) want to preserve these rights for the next generation.
“We don’t need access anymore, but our daughters and our granddaughters do, and our grandsons do, too,” Kahrl told INSIDER. “That’s what keeps us together and keeps us going.”
Plus, most members recall a time when abortions were illegal — sometimes deadly — and contraception was difficult to access. Before 1972, for example, it was illegal for unmarried American women to possess birth control.
“I think that age has something to do with the impact that we have,” she said. “Because we’ve lived through it — we’ve seen what happened in the past.”
Whether or not you agree with their stance on certain issues, the GRRs are upending the public’s expectations about women of a certain age. Though we’re primed to think of grandmas as soft-spoken sweater knitters and cookie bakers, these grandmas also happen to march in protests, meet with legislators, and advocate fiercely for their beliefs.
“When older women do advocate and become activists it is surprising,” Kahrl admitted. “Grandmothers are usually supposed to be more polite.”
Judy Kahrl was born into the fight for reproductive rights.
Her father, Dr. Clarence Gamble, was leading the crusade for reproductive rights before that term even existed. Though he’s a controversial figure (he was involved the once widely accepted eugenics movement), he is best known for setting up birth control clinics in US cities — many of which became Planned Parenthood clinics — and for founding Pathfinder International, an organization that expands access to contraception in developing countries.
“I just kind of grew up with it. It was daddy’s great cause and it was just part of my household, so to speak,” she recalled. “He was eager to spread the word […] because he was very aware that access to family planning was critical to the health of a woman and her family.”
As an adult, Kahrl earned her masters in cinema and photography and has a PhD in adult education. She married, raised four children, and held jobs in counseling and education. She also served as a Pathfinder board member for more than 40 years and is still listed as Emeritus Advisor today.
The idea for GRR! First struck her as a joke.
“[I was] thinking about reproductive rights, and then I was thinking about grandmothers. And I suddenly came up with GRR,” she said. ” I told people and they laughed and I laughed and that was it.”
But on a Pathfinder trip to Mozambique, she realized the concept could be more than a joke.
“I saw the influence of the older women telling the younger women about contraception, and I began to realize that older women have power in a community,” she said. “I had also noticed, back in this country, the number of people in my generation angry at the restrictions being put on access to abortion and family planning.”
It’s true: More than a quarter of abortion-restricting laws signed since Roe v. Wade were enacted in the last five years alone, according a report from the Guttmacher Institute. Lawmakers have also made repeated pushes to “defund” Planned Parenthood because its clinics provide abortions — despite the fact these procedures account for just 3% of annual services. (Most patients visit the clinics for STD testing and treatment and contraception.)
“I thought, well, let’s transform that anger into something positive, and not just talk to each other and complain,” Kahrl said.
In February 2013, she sent an email to 40 local women and invited them to a meeting.
About 17 showed up the first time. Two months later, 14 GRRs made a trip to the state house in Augusta to lobby against newly proposed anti-choice legislation. They’d been invited by the local Planned Parenthood chapter.
“It was a huge hit,” GRR member Jay McCreight told INSIDER. “Legislators couldn’t wait to be photographed with us in our t shirts,”
The GRRs had made their big debut.
They haven’t slowed down in the four years since.
GRR members have testified before city councils, marched and rallied, hosted forums, and met with senators in Maine and Washington, D.C. In one of their hallmark projects, they sent more than 4,000 thank you postcards to Maine lawmakers who’d voted in their favor on certain bills.
“We’ve been a very flexible group because grandmothers have other concerns, like taking care of grandchildren, or a spouse [who’s] aging and needs support. And so we try to find a variety of ways in which we can advocate,” Kahrl said.
They’ve also started to include students from nearby Bowdoin College in their efforts.
“We both learn a lot,” Kahrl said of these inter-generational get-togethers. “We feel glad that the younger generation is taking up the cause that we fought for. They feel glad to be supported by the older generation.”
One GRR member even ran for office.
McCreight, an original GRR member, is now serving her second term in Maine’s house of representatives — a late-stage career shift partially inspired by her early days with the organization.
“I remember walking out of the [state house] with Judy and a couple other people and saying, this is what I should’ve done,” McCreight, 65, told INSIDER. “I was just retiring from a career in social work and kind of thinking about how I should have spent my life and what I was going to do next.”
So when McCreight’s own state rep decided not to seek re-election in 2014, she made her own bid for the vacant seat. She campaigned hard, knocking on some 3,000 doors to introduce herself to citizens of her district. Eventually her opponent dropped out of the race — she’d won.
McCreight got right to work. In her first session she introduced a bill to give Maine’s low-income citizens access to free reproductive health care, like contraception. The GRRs went to Augusta to testify on the bill’s behalf, arguing it would save the state up to $3 million a year by lowering the rate of unintended pregnancies. In July 2015 it became law, and November 2016, McCreight won re-election.
“She’s our link to what goes on in the state house,” Kahrl said. “It’s really neat.”
Now, the group is poised to go national.
These days, GRR’s core membership continues to grow. They’re also enjoying hard-fought name recognition in their home state.
“If we mention GRR at a dinner party, [people say,] ‘Oh yeah, I heard about them,'” Kahrl said. “And that, I think, is a major accomplishment.”
But Kahrl has big plans for expansion.
Back in January, she shared a photo of herself and her two granddaughters — all wearing GRR shirts — to the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. The post racked up roughly 16,000 likes, and ever since, Kahrl’s been inundated with inquiries about joining the group.
In response, she’s led the group to organize officially as a 501(c)(4) organization. They’re currently seeking funding that will help them set up chapters in more states. Kahrl hopes to execute that expansion sometime this year.
Not everyone will agree with GRR’s stance on controversial issues like abortion.
But it’s hard not to admire the group’s willingness participate fully in their democracy. Rather than retreating into complacency, the GRRs are suiting up for battle.
Kahrl stressed that you don’t need to be a grandmother if you want to join the movement.
“Everybody has to be either a granddaughter or a grandson of someone or they wouldn’t be here,” she said. “Well, that starts with a G, so you can GRR along with us.”
Of course, grandmothers are especially welcome — no matter their physical limitations.
“There’s no minimum requirement of what you have to do,” McCreight said. “If it’s signing ten postcards, great. If it’s making a phone call if you prefer to do that, great.”
“I think there are a lot of older women who wondered if they had something special to offer, and indeed they do,” Kahrl added. “We’ll help them figure it out.”
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