Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995) became one of the most radical social activists of the last three decades of the 20th century. The Gray Panthers, an organization she helped to found, was instrumental in bringing about significant national reforms, including nursing home reform, the prohibition of forced retirement, and fighting health care fraud.
Maggie Kuhn was born on August 3, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. Her family was conservative and middle class. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Kuhn lived from 1916 until 1930. She attended the Western Reserve University's College for Women in Cleveland. Kuhn noted in a 1993 interview with Sandra Erlanger published in CWRU Magazine, that her activism had its beginnings in college. "I think it began with my sociology courses. … " said Kuhn. "Sociology, for me, related the community to the individual, and showed us a way to act responsibly in groups." With her sociology class, Kuhn visited jails, sweatshops, and slums. Kuhn described what she saw as "illuminating and shocking." She felt that her college career had a profound effect on who she became. "I'm eternally grateful for the education I got.… I was inspired by some very gifted women who were indeed part of the women's movement. And the memory lingers," Kuhn told Erlanger.
Kuhn majored in English with minors in sociology and French, graduating with honors. She accepted a job with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), which was at the time, as Kuhn recalled, "the foremost advocate for working women. The women in the Y in those days were wonderfully radical. They were all socialists. They influenced me profoundly," Kuhn told Erlanger. Kuhn worked with the YWCA in Cleveland until 1930. When her father was transferred to Philadelphia, she continued working with the organization there. In 1941, she transferred to the New York City YWCA. This was the first time she lived away from her family.
Forced Retirement Prompted Action
In New York, Kuhn studied social work and theology at Columbia University's Teachers' College and Union Theological Seminary. At the YWCA, Kuhn organized educational and social activities for young working-class women. During World War II, women replaced men in factories. Kuhn worked with the YWCA's USO division to improve working conditions for those women. In 1948, the USO division was phased out, so Kuhn took a job with the General Alliance for Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women, in Boston. Eager to rejoin her ailing parents in Philadelphia, Kuhn took an executive position with the Presbyterian Church of the USA in 1950. She became assistant secretary of the Social Education and Action Department. During her years with the church, she edited the journal Social Progress. It encouraged Presbyterians to become involved with social issues, such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, nuclear arms, equality for women, and problems of the elderly.
In 1970, after 20 years on the job and seven months before her 65th birthday, Kuhn was asked to retire. "Truthfully, in those years I didn't think of myself as about to enter the ranks of the nation's old. … I was just me-neither young, old, nor middle-aged," she wrote in her autobiography, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. "I had never given retirement much thought." Kuhn tried to talk her supervisors out of the forced retirement, but they would not listen to her. "I felt dazed and suspended," she wrote. "I was hurt and then, as time passed, outraged. … Something clicked in my mind and I saw that my problem was not mine alone. … Instead of sinking into despair, I did what came most naturally to me: I telephoned some friends and called a meeting." Each of the six friends was also being forced into retirement. At the meeting, "we discovered we had new freedom as a result of retiring," Kuhn noted. "We had no responsibility to a corporation or organization. We could take risks, speak out. We said, 'With this new freedom we have, let's see what we can do to change the world."'
Founding of the Gray Panthers
Kuhn and her friends wondered how to participate actively with young people in protests against the Vietnam War and how to resist forced retirement. In dealing with the issues of political commitment and aging, Kuhn and her friends created a new movement, which fought against ageism, racism, sexism, and militarism. One hundred people attended the group's first public meeting. From its beginning, the group included members of all ages, brought together by their interest in liberal political and social causes. "We established ourselves firmly for justice and peace, and not as an isolated group by chronological age," said Kuhn in her interview with Erlanger. "This gave us an immediate intergenerational emphasis and point of view, which we've never lost."
At first called the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change, the group was dubbed the Gray Panthers by a talk show host after the radical African American organization, the Black Panthers. The new name caught on. The group's motto was: "Age and Youth in Action." Kuhn held the title of national convener.
The Gray Panthers got its first national recognition in 1971, by organizing a "Black House Conference" to protest the lack of African American representatives at the first White House Conference on Aging. In 1972, Kuhn spoke at a press conference at the United Presbyterian Church general assembly. She caught the attention of reporters with her knowledgeable comments on retirement, nursing homes, sex at age 75, and social justice. Stories about her appeared in major newspapers and on television and radio stations across the United States. The popularity of the Gray Panthers rose rapidly as a result.
The organization under Kuhn's leadership peaked at 120 local networks in 38 states by 1979. Chapters, or networks as they are called, also exist in Tokyo, Dublin, Paris, Stuttgart, Sydney, and Basel. While most of the organization's work is done at the grassroots level, the Panthers have brought about national changes. They persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to amend the Television Code of Ethics to include age, along with race and sex, to encourage media sensitivity. The Gray Panthers also helped found the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. Kuhn told Erlanger, "Our thrust has broadened over the years. It now recognizes our international impact and responsibility. We have not only observer status but also consultative status with the United Nations. We have direct access to all the specialized agencies of the Economic and Social Council." The group regularly advised the World Health Organization. In 1992, the International Year of Aging, the Panthers' UN representative chaired the 10th anniversary celebration of the UN Action Plan on Aging.
The Gray Panthers focused on three main issues in the 1990s: urban society, discrimination, and international policy. "We need to save the cities!" related Kuhn to Erlanger. "In urban policy we need to look at housing, including shared housing." In shared housing, older people, who often have homes that are too big for themselves and who need companionship, share their homes with younger people who need inexpensive housing. To bring about social change, the Gray Panthers first organized task forces to research issues. Kuhn noted, "You don't take to the streets until you've done your homework." Having adopted a position, the members tried to increase public awareness of the issue and influence public opinion and policy makers by writing letters and contacting elected officials. Because they are a nonprofit organization, the Panthers were not permitted to lobby.
The Panthers foresaw many of the issues regarding aging in America. Fifteen years before catastrophic health care became an issue in Congress, they demanded a decentralized national health service similar to the Canadian system. Before the public was aware of homelessness as a problem, the Gray Panthers advocated and practiced intergenerational home sharing, beginning with Kuhn's own house in Philadelphia. The Panthers have long fought for the abolition of forced retirement and to have older workers share their expertise with younger ones in radically restructured jobs. They differ from other advocacy groups for older people in that they do not pit the interests of the elderly against those of the younger generation. The Gray Panthers are one of the few radical social action groups from the Vietnam War era to survive.
The Panthers have demonstrated at meetings of the American Medical Association and the National Gerontological Society. They have monitored planning commissions, zoning boards, courts, banks, and insurance companies. They have physically "liberated" people from unsafe nursing homes. The group organized ongoing local and national "Media Watches" to eliminate all ageist programs and commercials from the air.
Lived Her Beliefs
Kuhn practiced what she preached. She had housemates who were in their twenties and thirties. She provided them with low-cost housing and they shopped for her and took her to meetings. Kuhn engaged in almost nonstop public speaking, protesting, and testifying before Congress, state legislatures, and international bodies as the representative of seniors for social change. Although she sometimes used a wheelchair pushed by a travel companion, toward the end of her life Kuhn still traveled thousands of miles each year. Dressed in black athletic shoes, an elegant wool suit and a stylish hat, the petite, wispy-haired activist delivered lectures to motivate people to change American society. To make sure the audience listened, Kuhn sprinkled her lectures with shocking remarks. "One of the things I say in my speeches is there are three things I like about being old," said Kuhn. "I can speak my mind-and I do. I'm surprised with what I can get away with-that the audience doesn't boo and hiss! Second, that I've outlived much of my opposition; and third, I can reach out to the young. Many, many old people retire from their jobs and retire from life. They have no objective, no purpose. Every one of us needs to have a goal, a passionate purpose. … It's possible to have new roles and a new value system [in old age]. The five M's are what I talk about with old people: Taking on the role of the mentor; mediator; monitor of public bodies, watching city hall, the president and the statehouse; motivator; and mobilizer," Kuhn told Erlanger.
On her 80th birthday, Kuhn made a vow to do something outrageous at least once a week. In her late eighties she increased it to at least once a day. "You get people's attention that way. You get energized, you can make an impact, and it's just fun," she noted. A feminist from her youth, Kuhn devoted herself to work and social causes and helped change the way society views old age. Despite a variety of love affairs and two engagements, which she documented in her 1991 autobiography, Kuhn never married. She was the author of several books, including You Can't Be Human Alone, Let's Get Out There and Do Something About Injustice, and Maggie Kuhn on Aging. In 1979, Garson Kanin wrote about Kuhn in Quest magazine. "Those who fired her, fired her into the social atmosphere in the manner of a space missile, propelling her into fame and usefulness and glory." Kuhn died at her home in Philadelphia on April 22, 1995, at the age of 89.
Kuhn, Maggie, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn, Ballantine, 1991.
CWRU Magazine, February 1993.
Nation, May 28, 1990; May 29, 1995.
New Age Journal, January/February 1989.
Witness, May 1990.
"The Women of The Hall, 1998 Inductees," National Women's Hall of Fame,http://www.greatwomen.org/kuhn.htm (April 8, 1999). □
The Gray Panthers seek to redefine old age in America. Founder Maggie Kuhn emphasized that "ageism" diminishes all people by stigmatizing young and old people as less than full members of society. Their mission statement affirms the importance of their relationship: "The Gray Panthers is an intergenerational advocacy organization. We are Age and Youth in Action—activists working together for social and economic justice. Our issues include universal health care, jobs with a living wage and the right to organize, the preservation of Social Security, affordable housing, access to quality education, economic justice, environment, peace and challenging ageism, sexism and racism." The Gray Panthers work with other organizations (notably AARP—the American Association of Retired Persons) for issues of common interest (e.g. preserving Social Security), but they are distinctive in placing a primary emphasis on activism, particularly for those not normally active in the political process. Philosophically, the Gray Panthers are to the left of AARP, which is more conservative and allied with a variety of businesses and services. For over 25 years, the Gray Panthers have advocated social change, inspired by the dynamic example of founder Maggie Kuhn, who urged, "Speak your mind. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Even if your voice shakes, well-aimed slingshots can topple giants."
Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995) had been an activist for many causes during her life, but the organization that made her famous came about when she was forced to retire from the job she loved as an executive of the United Presbyterian Church at age 65. Infuriated by the wasteful nature of bureaucracies that mandated retirement for workers at 65, Kuhn began the process of organizing an advocacy group for older Americans. She recalled the awakening of her consciousness in her autobiography, No Stone Unturned: "Something clicked in my mind and I saw that my problem was not mine alone. I came to feel a great kinship with my peers and to believe that something was fundamentally wrong with a system that had no use for us." She believed that the talents, energy, and wisom of older Americans were being wasted.
With five friends, Kuhn began to hold meetings to try to address the problem, and it quickly grew from six to a hundred members in a year. The original name of the group was the Consultation of Older Persons, which was changed to the Gray Panthers when a member of the media suggested it to Maggie Kuhn as a better fit for her activist organization. This caused some confusion for people who were intimidated by the name, which recalled the Black Panthers, a militant activist organization of the Civil Rights movement. One woman wrote to Kuhn that she wanted to join but didn't want to be part of any "bombings." The new organization was helped significantly by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who incorporated his own seniors group (Retired Professional Action Group) into the Gray Panthers. His organization had investigated the hearing aid industry, and he published an exposé, "Paying through the Ear." Nader also contributed $25,000 to the Gray Panthers, which helped significantly as they began their next campaign for nursing home reform. Their efforts (in conjunction with the National Citizen Coalition for Nursing Home Reform) produced a handbook, "Nursing Homes: A Citizen Action Guide," which documented nursing home abuses. By 1974, the Gray Panthers were making their influence felt across the country.
Annoyed by television talk-show host Johnny Carson's character "Aunt Blabby," Kuhn turned her guest spot on the show in 1974 into a tour de force, charming Carson and not incidentally promoting the Gray Panthers. In 1975 the Gray Panthers established a National Media Task Force, which documented ageist stereotyping in broadcasting, which led the National Association of Broadcasters to amend the Television Code of Ethics to include "age along with race and sex." In 1978, the Gray Panthers won perhaps their most satisfying reward for their efforts: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed, raising the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70. The 1980s were a very successful decade for the organization; the Reagan era provided a spur to activist groups and the Panthers reached an all-time high of 80,000 members. While the Gray Panthers have a much lower profile than the AARP, Maggie Kuhn had a keen sense of what the press would pick up on and always provided them with good copy. She once said, "Old age is an excellent time for outrage. My goal is to say or do at least one outrageous thing every week." In that same spirit, membership materials affirm that "the Gray Panthers movement is in the trenches fighting for the values in which we believe—taking the far out positions which lead to real change."
The Gray Panthers have a strong bond with organized labor and walked the picket line in the successful 1997 United Parcel Services strike. The organization has requested all members who are also union retirees to identify themselves as such so that the Gray Panthers can continue to solidify the close relationship with the AFL-CIO and other unions in their quest for social and economic justice. Many members of the Panthers are lifetime activists, participating in union and progressive politics at a level of commitment that makes them extremely skillful as organizers. Networking is crucial to the success of the Gray Panthers: rather than employ the high-power lobbying techniques of AARP to influence members of Congress, the organization uses its modest resources to work directly with other progressive organizations such as Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy).
In 1995, the 10th Biennial Convention honored Founder and National Convener Maggie Kuhn. Kuhn passed away shortly after the convention, and on what would have been her ninetieth birthday, August 3, 1995, the Gray Panthers celebrated her memory in ceremonies across the country. The Panthers' most important achievement after Kuhn's passing was a joint event with the United States Student Association, the first "Age and Youth in Action Summit" in Washington, D.C. in 1996. The next year the organization regrouped and focused attention on producing a successful convention. With the election of a new national chair, 55-year-old Catherine DeLorey, president of the Women's Health Institute, the organization seeks to reaffirm its intergenerational character as it moves into the twenty-first century.
Brazil, Eric. "Gray Panthers Hope to Attract New Blood." San Francisco Examiner. September 27, 1997.
Gottlieb, Martin and Kurt Eichenwald. "A Hospital Chain's Brass Knuckles, and the Backlash." New York Times. May 11, 1997.
Gray Panthers. "Age and Youth in Action." Final Report. Washington, D.C., Gray Panthers, 1996.
——. "Bridging Generations for a New Social Contract." Report. Washington, D.C., Gray Panthers, 1997.
Hessel, Dieter T., editor. Maggie Kuhn on Aging: A Dialogue. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1977.
Kay, Jane Holtz. "Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back." New York Times. July 20, 1997.
Kuhn, Maggie. No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. New York, Ballantine Books, 1991.
Founded in 1970, the Gray Panthers is a national organization dedicated to social justice for old and young people alike. However, the Gray Panthers is best known for work on behalf of older persons. It has lobbied and litigated against age discrimination in the areas of retirement, housing, and health care. The group's broad liberal agenda reflects the politics of its founder, Margaret E. "Maggie" Kuhn (1905–1995), who built the fledgling organization into a powerful force in local and national politics. Kuhn's success as an organizer, leader, spokeswoman, and author left the Gray Panthers, at the time of her death in 1995, with 70,000 members in 85 chapters nationwide. Although the organization is strongest at the grassroots level, its relatively small seven-member national staff has effected significant changes in federal law.
The protest era of the vietnam war gave rise to the Gray Panthers. In 1970 the 65-year-old Kuhn was forced by the federal mandatory retirement law to end her 22-year career in the United Presbyterian Church. However, she did not want to retire. In response Kuhn helped form a loose-knit organization called Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. Its primary goals were changing the mandatory retirement age and uniting people of all ages to seek an end to the Vietnam War. As the group gained recognition, the press coined the term "gray panthers," comparing it to the radical black activist group, the black panthers. Kuhn adopted the name in 1972.
The Gray Panthers developed a broad political agenda. Among its goals were affordable housing, the creation of a national health system, nursing home reform, and consumer protection.
lobbying efforts soon established the group's reputation on Capitol Hill. In 1978 it helped secure passage of an amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which raised the mandated retirement age from 65 to 70. In 1981, the Gray Panthers added a representative to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Gray Panthers backed efforts ranging from the passage of gay civil rights legislation to the legalization of the medical use of marijuana by those who are ill. They also lobbied strongly during President bill clinton's first term for the creation of a national health care system.
The organization was also active in the courts. It joined numerous cases by filing friend-of-the-court briefs and brought its own suits. Perhaps its most significant victory came in 1980, in Gray Panthers v. Schweiker, 652 F.2d 146 (D.C. Cir. 1980), a class action suit brought to change medicare regulations. At issue was how the government informed older patients when Medicare reimbursements were denied: under federal law, benefits of less than $100 could be denied for reimbursement with only a form letter, which was thick with jargon (42 U.S.C.A. § 1395 et seq.). In 1979, the Gray Panthers contended that this notification scheme was an unconstitutional violation of their due process rights. The defendant, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, maintained that it had a congressional mandate to set restraints on the program; any further form of notification would be too expensive, it argued. After losing the initial court case, the Gray Panthers successfully argued on appeal for improved written communication and an oral hearing at which they could explain their side of the dispute.
In the late 1990s, the Gray Panthers launched a national campaign that targeted jobs and workers' rights and universal health care. In 2001 the organization launched "Stop Patient Abuse Now" (SPAN) a coalition of more than 125 national, state, and local organizations representing
seniors, patients, and others. The purpose of SPAN is to make prescription drugs affordable to all consumers. The organization continues to advocate for more environmental and safety regulations and for the reduction of military costs. The Gray Panthers has also been in the forefront of those organizations urging corporate reform after the scandals involving corporate fraud by such companies as Enron and WorldCom.
The Gray Panthers continues to hold monthly meetings in state chapters and to publish its bimonthly newsletter, Network.
Gray Panthers. Available online at <www.graypanthers.org>(accessed July 26, 2003).
GRAY PANTHERS. In 1970, Maggie Kuhn organized a group of recently retired friends to discuss the challenges facing retirees, including loss of income, un-certain social roles, and lack of networking opportunities, but also a newfound independence, such as speaking out against the Vietnam War. After a New York talk show producer nicknamed them the "Gray Panthers," Kuhn's group struck a nerve with other retirees, who wanted to join. The Gray Panthers used the media to gain a national forum for issues ranging from race relations to health-care reform. As membership grew, the group organized local networks and in 1985 opened a public policy office in Washington, D.C.