Life Lessons From a 74-Year-Old Political Activist

Jackie Homan | March 9, 2017

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner proves that activism has no age limit

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When 74-year-old Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner stepped in front of her Syracuse University students on the first day of class, she announced that she had an agenda for them, and she didn’t want it to be hidden. “I want you all to become activists,” she said.

Wagner, originally from Aberdeen, South Dakota, has spent the better part of her life at protests, rallies and marches with a focus on women’s rights issues. She’s also fought for welfare rights, lesbian mothers’ rights, domestic workers’ safety, ecological issues, equality for every race, against wars and for plethora of other causes. With over 50 years of activism under her belt, Wagner has managed to attend more demonstrations than she could possibly count, racking up three arrests for civil disobedience and an FBI file in the early ’70s (the government tracked her addresses and phone numbers, documented the alternative newspaper printing press she ran in her basement and noted her “hippie-type appearance” in official files).

Wagner was raised in a conservative household and got married at age 18 after a pregnancy right out of high school. She says she played the traditional ’50s housewife role for a while before she had an awakening in her early 20s, as some of her peers at Sacramento State College began to question the government’s truth, particularly about the Vietnam War. While raising two children, she began to do everything in her power to stand up for her beliefs. Now a gray-haired grandmother, she’s as powerful as ever.

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Below, a Q&A with Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, women’s studies scholar and seasoned activist:

What is your response to the stereotype that older people are often “stuck in their ways,” while younger people create change?

The second and third times I was arrested were in civil disobedience with a woman who was the founder of Grandmothers for Peace. She was a conservative, Catholic, Republican housewife who got transformed, as we get transformed sometimes, into an activist and ended up doing civil disobedience. Someone who looks conservative today may not be that way tomorrow.

Do any of the protests, marches or rallies you’ve attended stand out to you as the most memorable? Why?

The most memorable for me personally is one that took place in Los Angeles in the ’60s. My sister and I have kids the same ages, and we took the kids, two four-year-olds and two two-year-olds, to this march. The little girls were in the stroller and the little boys were walking beside us carrying signs. Lyndon B. Johnson was in town. It was an anti-war demonstration — one of the chants was, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?” The kids got tired, so we left. We were walking back to the car, and there were these police radios on alarm. I walked up to one of the cops and he said, “Stuff’s going on over there.” We ran back to the car as quickly as we could with girls in strollers and boys who couldn’t walk very fast. We turned on the radio, and it was like a war zone. We had just left. There were court cases afterwards, and it was defined as a police riot. The police just went after the crowd. My sister and I both remember that so strongly…I mean, what would have happened if we had been in the middle of that trying to get little kids out in strollers? We had no idea that the police were going to turn violent.

What was your lifestyle like during that time attending protests with young kids?

It’s hard to even remember all of the issues because it was a multiplicity of issues like it is today, and they were so interrelated. In a way, it was one constant protest. When we were living on campus, usually every day there was some kind of action. And then there were the informal ones. [Once] we were at the state capitol, and they were having a miniskirt contest. The female employees were vying to see who had the shortest miniskirt. (Welcome to the ’60s.) We went berserk. [My daughter] Beth was with us, this little kid with a baseball cap over her face. We just spontaneously started pinching the butts of the men that were standing there watching. They’d turn around, and we’d be gone. We created chaos.

We also never went anywhere without stickers. There were stickers that said, “This exploits women,” and we would go to the record store and put them on Rolling Stone albums and all the albums that exploited women. So there were planned actions, and there were unplanned. My favorite was a little card, like a business card, that we had printed up that said, “You have just insulted a woman. This card has been chemically treated. In 10 days, your prick will fall off.” When someone would say something really offensive, we’d smile and go up to them and say, “My card,” and give it to them and walk away.

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How has the response to activism from the government and police changed since then?

In the ’60s, activism was civil disobedience. It was challenging the government in all of its forms. It was standing up to the pig — that’s how we defined police. The police were really the direct agents and represented the government. We saw a very different thing recently with the Women’s March. There were no tech squads that were coming at us with bayonets or aggression, which was not uncommon in the demonstrations I was in in the ’60s.

I think the surveillance now is more widespread than it ever was. Because of technology, what we know from WikiLeaks, we’re all watched. Although I did have a feeling that the government was not very effective in its surveillance when they approved me to brief Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady. Up until the minute that I met with her, I thought, there is no way this is going to happen — they’re going to check me out. I was kind of insulted that they didn’t see me as dangerous! I was briefing her on the history of the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls. I told a bunch of stories, and one of them was a story of the protest at the centennial of the United States in 1876, when they impeached the government for its treatment of women. I remember leading up to the crescendo of the story in that way, and then thinking, oh shit, I’ve just told the First Lady this story about impeaching the government for its treatment of women. Her entire entourage, her handlers, all stood and applauded. And I thought, this woman’s a feminist. That’s who she’s surrounding herself with.

What was your experience at the Women’s March like?

I spoke at the Women’s March in Seneca Falls [considered the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement]. The organizers initially thought they might have a couple hundred people. By the beginning of the week before, they had gotten responses from two thousand people. Ten thousand people showed up. That’s more than the population of Seneca Falls. It was absolutely peaceful. It was people with a multitude of issues all joining together. And it was organized with very little time — all of these marches were.

The part that was most amazing was that the event started with an opening from an Oneida faithkeeper from the Oneida Nation. A Mohawk man spoke on the influence of the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois) on the women’s rights movement, and the Bear Clan Mother from Mohawk Nation spoke about the authority they have as women and the contrast with the U.S. She asked if I would come forward after she gave her talk. She had two staffs — they’re hand-carved, a symbol of authority — and she asked if I would take one and march with her. That solidarity represented between indigenous women and non-native feminists was historic for me and incredibly moving and powerful. There were African-American speakers; there were Islamic speakers at the rally after the march. The thing that characterized all the marches was extreme diversity of groups, of issues, of demographic. And that is a strength of the movement now. At every attempt to repress, there is somebody stationed to push back, and everybody else has their back.

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How has your view of activism changed over the decades you’ve been involved with it?

I understand activism in more diverse ways now. The biggest change was when I began to understand history as a revolutionary act. The way in which we’re taught history is disempowering. It teaches us that individuals and governments and wars are what change the world. That takes away our integrity. It takes away our ability to change the world. The war in Vietnam was ended by the government because of the anti-war movement. We ended that war, and we brought the U.S. government to the negotiating table. A history that tells us we can change the world is revolutionary. My teaching is about that. It’s about giving students a vision that there are no bystanders in the revolution. We can be part of it, and we can change the world, not as individuals, but collectively.

Do you think that “social media activism,” or advocating for causes online without being present at actual protests or marches, is effective?

I probably sign at least five petitions a day online. I think the movement now is doing everything. Every single bit of activism matters. When the Republicans were going to get rid of the House Ethics Committee [in January], the outcry was largely social media-based, and they backed off in one day. That’s the effectiveness.

How do your kids feel now about the activism-oriented environment they were raised in?

When Beth was a child, she was trying to negotiate those two worlds [of activism and everyday life]. The resentment really came later, I think, on reflection that she had lived an unsafe lifestyle in a number of ways. I took accountability for that. There were times when I questioned, was it worth the price that my kids paid? My son, interestingly, remembers that as the best time of his life, and Beth now is starting to reclaim that part of her past in a positive way. The process of forgiving me began probably when she was about 40. Even when she was so angry at me, she would say, “The one thing I always knew was that you loved me.” Would I have done it differently? Yeah, in hindsight, you’re smarter, and you see things differently. But it’s a different moment now too. We were coming out of an incredibly repressive time, the ’50s, and we were trying to make our way.

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What do you think is the best way for young people like your students to get involved in activism today?

I have no idea. I couldn’t begin to. You live in a different world. You have different skills than I do. You see the world differently. You have more energy. That’s the point at which I sit back, and go, wow, that’s awesome. Because you’re finding ways that we can give you the knowledge that we have from the work that we did, but it cannot define your work.

How do you motivate yourself to keep going when progress is so inconstant?

I ended my speech in Seneca Falls with something that we would say in the ’60s: We’re going to get our asses kicked. Two things you’ve got to remember about the revolution: one is that we’re going to get our asses kicked, and the other is that we’re going to win. When we get pushed back, it’s like, this is the moment we get our asses kicked. But we are ultimately going to win. The other thing that keeps me going is that there’s just a joy in being part of changing the world. Even when times are tough, there’s nothing that raises your spirits like a demonstration, when you’re with a bunch of like-minded people and you get a feeling that this is what community looks like. This is what democracy looks like. This is what we look like in our collective power.

Photos via Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner.

  • kay

    LOVE!!! thank you so much for this!!

  • Molly D

    “…when you’re with a bunch of like-minded people and you get a feeling that this is what community looks like. This is what democracy looks like.”

    NO. Democracy should not be a bunch of like-minded people. It should be a bunch of differently-minded people. Differently-minded people who respect and figure out how to live and work with each other, which is one of the biggest challenges we face.

    The whole “you need to be more like me” attitude is what Trump ran on and it’s the same thing I see here.

    I admire her activism for women’s rights and thank the women of her generation for giving the women of my generation a louder voice today – whatever that voice may be.

    • Aydan

      I totally agree, but I also don’t think “like-minded people” always means people who want the same things, I think it can ultimately also mean people who are interested in accomplishing things in similar ways whatever it may be that they are championing for. The person next to you could be championing rights for immigrants, while the person over there is against abortion. But if you both believe in a democracy and power of humans and are able to come together due to the understanding that compromise and open dialog is the only way to make this society work, then you can be like-minded in that way. (and it makes us all have better civil society as a result)!

      • Molly D

        I like your idea of like-minded much more than I how I interpret her to use it 🙂 This is what I hope we can work towards.

  • Aydan

    this is brilliant and beautiful! Nothing more inspiring than hearing about woman who continue to champion for what was right! Also also love the idea of the stickers and business cards! I so so want to make some!

  • tmm16

    Incredibly inspiring. Sharing with my friends today.

  • Caroline Homan

    This is incredible and empowering! It makes me think of my all-girl high school’s motto- voices, values, vision. She is a wonderful, strong role model!

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      It sure is—being just a regular everyday activist,and having participated in many protests and the volunteer work of organizing them for nearly a decade now, it feels damn good to be part of some actual changes. Especially since I’m from a city where the issues we protest about directly affect us most of the time—such as home foreclosures,unemployment,racism, crime,police shootings–all of that and more. So,yeah,I definitely appreciated this article,plus I know a number of activists her age who are still active after 40 years or so,which is cool.

  • Vivian

    I’d love to get her thoughts on the Pepsi ad.