Book review: ‘Grandmothers on Guard’ by Jennifer L. Johnson

Making coffee, and the right to bear arms. An ethnographer studied the role older women played in the far right Minutemen militia group.


The photo was meant to lure media attention, attract new recruits, and, in a sense, refashion the image of the Minutemen as ignorant gun-happy beer-belly types by introducing a dozen grandmas, wearing in pink camo T-shirts and tennis shoes, positioning themselves, all smiles, in chorus-girl line.

This is the framed photo Jennifer L. Johnson came across while she was doing field work for her book “Grandmothers on Guard: Gender, Aging, and the Minutemen at the US-Mexico Border” (University of Texas Press). It was 2007, and the Minutemen were perhaps stung that President George W. Bush wasn’t praising their efforts to defend the border. An internet discussion board member wrote: “Hey Mr. Bush, even our grannies can do it, why can’t you?”

Johnson states that the Minutemen were active from 2004 to 2014, performing armed citizen patrols. Founders Jim Gilchrist, a former marine, a Chris Simcox, a convicted sex offender, currently in prison, called for armed volunteers to gather at the US-Mexico border for “musters” or militarized inspections in an effort to “shame the federal government into action.” Known for their manipulative tactics and extralegal actions to detain people trying to cross the border, the Southern Poverty Law Center defines the Minutemen movement “as a group of armed vigilantes.”

Firmly placed in the sociology subject area, lay readers will likely feel adrift amidst Johnson’s ethnographic research and her distanced, inconsistent tone. That said, there’s still plenty of interesting material to latch onto and grapple with. Tied to anthropology, enthnography — the study of human culture (ethno = people; graphy = writing) — has a troubled history. Early White anthropologists trained a supposedly objective lens on cultures considered “other.” On the faculty of Kenyon College and with her project affiliated with the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Johnson positions herself as a left-leaning White woman studying far-right White women. In telling their stories, she “hoped to help humanize Minutewomen without endorsing their politics.”

At a location Johnson refers to as Camp Patriot, located on private land in California at the US-Mexico Border, she conducted 900 hours of fieldwork with the Minutemen (Minutewomen refer to themselves as Minutemen) between July 2010 and February 2013. She wanted to understand what role age and gender played in the tireless efforts of women, who took it upon themselves “to oppose immigration and to do so by literally and figuratively policing the border.”  In a culture where aging women often feel invisible and undervalued, Johnson’s research explores how the women she interviewed found both a like-minded community and a renewed sense of purpose in life. The story she gleaned “is the story of a small group of white working- and middle-class women growing old and seeking relevance in a society that makes old women irrelevant.” Championing “family values” and grandmotherly love, these women, ages 49 to 75 devoted their retirement years into stocking piling weapons, donning night-vision goggles, target shooting, and driving four-wheelers along the US-Mexico border.  

Johnson introduces readers to women who go out of their way to contribute to Camp Patriot. A woman named Liz (a pseudonym) drives eleven hours to the border with an SUV packed to the gills with food to cook for the men, and to keep things running like a well-oiled military machine. Liz handles the administrative duties, collects membership fees, writes the monthly newsletter, and always makes sure coffee is fresh — “sometimes with only Fox News blaring on the TV” to keep her company.

Another woman named Marge compared the Minutemen to the original freedom fighters “such as Paul Revere, who had watched the coast to alert the population that the British were coming.” At a gun show, where the Minutemen set up a table to gain recruits, Marge buys a Smith & Wesson .32. Afterward she looked around for the vendor who sold bibles disguised as gun cases. Nearsighted and gripping a walker, the question of how much Marge really needed the gun was up for debate. Johnson speculated that: “Marge bought a gun she would likely never discharge, or even load, because in this small act, she publicly exercised her Second Amendment right and…marked herself as a patriot and metaphorical protector of a family and a nation in crisis.”

Both Liz and Marge thought of themselves as activists, mobilizing to prevent what Sarah Palin called “generational theft” an unproven concept that spoke to Whites who were growing anxious “over their declining class status and racial privilege” and did not want their hard-earned tax dollars to go to “the underserving poor.”  Johnson cites journalist Molly Ball, whose article in The Atlantic, “How Sarah Palin Created Donald Trump,” spoke of how White women weren’t just baking cookies, they were organizing, and becoming more politically active. Liz and Marge embodied Palin’s notions of “family values.” Johnson reminds readers that 53% of White women voted for Trump in 2016, and that — despite signs running decades deep — liberals did not see the red wave about to land.

While Johnson is at Camp Patriot, she asks to go on musters along the border. For the most part, she sits in the passenger seat, trying on the night-vision goggles, watching rabbits scampering in the desert. It’s on these outings that she gets to know the women of Camp Patriot well — their stories of bad marriages, abusive childhoods, financial concerns, family conflicts with their grown children, and their deep desire to feel needed and appreciated.

There’s a lingering feeling of unease throughout the book that perhaps Johnson is getting too close. She writes: “I had braced myself to come face-to-face with hard-core nativists, unabashed bigots prone to shocking displays of racial hatred, but what shocked me most was the aura of normality enveloping it all.”

This statement neglects a critical thread all the grandmothers share — a fierce and vocalized hatred of undocumented immigrants. The most interesting section of the book is the Appendix also titled “Walking the Line,” in which Johnson speaks candidly about the mistakes she made while conducting research. After scrubbing her personal info from the internet, she mistakenly outed herself as a professor early on under the rapid-fire questioning of a Minutemen member. “I knew that ethnographers of the Far Right have to overcome a deep-seated distrust of academics,” Johnson writes but adds that her status as a professor didn’t seem to be a “deal breaker.”

Jennifer L. Johnson
Jennifer L. Johnson

In another admission to readers she writes that she allowed herself to be photographed at a site where she “watched Minutemen slash water jugs that humanitarian organizations had placed in the desert for migrants.” The photo, much to Johnson’s unease, wound up in the Liz’s monthly newsletter. By that point Liz had become determined to make Johnson a member. It raises the concern: what would Johnson have done had she been present in an instance where the Minutemen forcibly detained a person? She writes that she decided if she witnessed such an instance of physical or verbal mistreatment, she would intervene, but would not if the action “did not rise to the level of harm.”

It would be difficult to predict how much the Minutemen withheld from Johnson’s view not only because of her gender but because of her ties to academia. She frequently points out the group’s hospitality: she was dependent on them for rides to and from the airport and other locations because she couldn’t drive. The women welcomed her into their homes, opened up about their personal lives.

A note left by one early reader left Johnson paralyzed. The individual wrote: “Throughout, the author seems to be defending the participants from claims of racism.” A valid point. Johnson claims that she let her interviewees speak for themselves, allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions. She writes: “[a]ll ethnographic research requires finding ways to gain an insider’s perspective without losing critical distance.”

For journalists, scholars, researchers attempting to study hate groups the Appendix to Johnson’s book presents invaluable insights — what to do, what not to do. When crossing the invisible line between those who share our beliefs and those who do not, the stakes could not be higher.

“Grandmothers on Guard: Gender, Aging, and the Minutemen at the U.S.-Mexico Border”

Julie Poole
Julie Poole
Julie Poole is an Austin-based writer. She received a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. Her debut book of poems, Bright Specimen, was published in 2021. Her second book of poems Gorgeous Freak (Deep Vellum) is forthcoming in 2023. Her articles and essays have appeared in Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Scalawag, and Bon Appétit.

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