Looking at Jan Harwood’s silver-and-white-streaked hair, kind eyes and wrinkles (some of them from decades of smiling), an unsuspecting passerby might take the 85-year-old for a typical grandmother type.
She is a grandmother, but she’s anything but typical.
“I think I’ve been arrested 11 times,” says Harwood, with a hearty laugh. A majority of those arrests were at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she and others annually protest on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
For more than 50 years, Harwood has been a vocal activist in the fight for nuclear abolition and peace—a history that will be recognized Sunday, Feb. 5, when the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) celebrates her larger-than-life story, in an event entitled “Hats On to Jan Harwood: A Celebratory Tribute to an Unconventional Activist.”
Harwood is also a founding member of the Santa Cruz Raging Grannies, a self-described “gaggle” of women dressed in long skirts and flowery hats, who satirize popular songs to reflect progressive issues, local and nationwide.
“We started singing when life was so grim under George W. Bush,” she reminisces. “So we started singing songs with a humor in them to cheer people, and ourselves, up.”
The Grannies still perform as needed, at protests and gatherings, or sometimes on a whim, singing at the farmers market or throughout downtown. The songs pack a powerful message, but not all of them are humorous—such as the Grannie’s somber tune, “Bring ‘Em Home.”
“That one is set to the tune of ‘Country Roads,’” Harwood explains with a heavy-hearted sigh. “We sang that one a lot during the Iraq War.”
Others know Harwood for her work with the local chapter of WILPF, which is throwing Sunday’s celebration. For the past two decades she has been an active member of the century-old organization, spending the past seven years as the local chapter’s newsletter editor.
For a sliding scale of a minimum $15, attendees get a seat at the De Anza Park Clubhouse party, which has sing-a-longs, tribute speeches, and even a comedic roast of the always-laughing activist—plus a copy of WILPF’s tribute book to Harwood.
“You’ve gotta keep on singing and dancing if you want a revolution,” exclaims longtime WILPF member, local activist and friend of Harwood’s, Patricia Schroeder. “And that’s our Jan! She’s always singing and will even do a two-step for you.”
For her part, Harwood says she’s “grateful to have been singled out.”
“There are so many people working forever on these important issues, trying to make the world a little better,” she says.
Harwood still maintains her blog, grannyjansantacruzblog.com, where she has already posted two songs about President Donald Trump. And she showed up in full force for the Santa Cruz installment of the Women’s March on Washington. “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in Santa Cruz,” she says.
Born in 1931, Harwood began her life of activism at the age of 30. At the time, she was living with her then-husband, a sculptor, along with their three children on an isolated farm in New Jersey. To pass the time, she would read progressive magazines such as The Nation and I.F. Stone Weekly, which regularly featured articles on the growing threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, something that weighed heavily on her conscience as she thought about her growing children.
She soon contacted the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and began her own committee chapter. A year later, Harwood went to Washington D.C. to picket the White House, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I still tense up when I think about it,” she says with a pained sigh. “The congressmen and senators we talked to in Washington were feeling just as hopeless and scared as we were.”
After she and her husband moved to California and later divorced, Harwood decided on a career in social work. In 1969, at the age of 38, Harwood graduated from UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in social welfare and began a 30-year career in mental health care, spending 17 of those years with Santa Clara County and continuing her life of anti-nuclear activism along the way.
In 1995 she retired and moved to Santa Cruz the following year. “After retirement I’ve been able to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do,” says Harwood. “And it’s been just marvelous.”
That includes joining WILPF—which has a rich history dating back to the Women’s Suffrage Movement—as well as tabling with the Santa Cruz chapter and, of course, penning political parody songs.
A few years into the President Bush administration, Harwood joined other WILPF members in founding the Santa Cruz chapter of the Raging Grannies, which has Canadian origins dating back to the 1980s. To date, the Santa Cruz Raging Grannies have sung more than 500 politically charged, satirized songs, with Harwood as the main lyricist.
“It turns out I’m pretty good at writing them!” she laughs. “And it’s so much fun to go out and educate with our songs while bringing humor into gloomy subjects.”
Her active lifestyle and constant involvement led Harwood to write a novel in 2011, for her 80th birthday, of fictionalized mysteries involving the Raging Grannies, titled Dangerous Women: A Raging Granny Mystery with an accompanying CD of a handful of the Grannies songs. Three years later, she released the sequel, An Unconventional Murder: A Raging Granny Mystery.
But even with all of the important issues of today’s world, such as global warming, facing humanity, Harwood still sees nuclear annihilation as the greatest hazard.
“The nearest [issue] to my heart is still getting rid of these damned nuclear weapons,” she says, emphatically. “They could wipe us out in a half an hour and then there’s no need to worry about the other stuff.”
Even though the Cold War has ended and there hasn’t been a major threat of nuclear war in years, Harwood warns the peril is still very real. During President Barack Obama’s administration, he announced $1 trillion in new spending to modernize and increase America’s nuclear arsenal over the next three decades.
“There’s a lot of old, rusting missiles around, with new ones being built,” she says. “And anyone of them can have an accident at anytime.”
‘Hats On to Jan Harwood’ is from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 5 at the De Anza Clubhouse at 2395 Delaware Ave., Santa Cruz. People are encouraged to wear hats.