Presbyterian Founder of Gray Panthers Documented in "Maggie Growls"
Presbyterian Founder of Gray Panthers Documented in "Maggie Growls"
By: Jerry L. Van Marter
Date: February 4, 2003
Source: Van Marter, Jerry L. "Presbyterian Founder of Gray Panthers Documented in 'Maggie Growls.'" Presbyterian News Service, 2003.
About the Author: Jerry L. Van Marter is the coordinator for the Presbyterian News Service (PNS), a position he has held since 1994. Van Marter has been on the staff of the PNS since 1988. He has served as a Presbyterian minister for over thirty years, and a parish pastor for more than seventeen years. Van Marter is a member of the San Francisco Presbytery (California). The PNS is the authorized news agency for the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. It is responsible for independently collecting and distributing news and information about the Presbyterian Church.
American social activist Margaret "Maggie" Eliza Kuhn (1905–1995) was born on August 31, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. In 1921, Kuhn graduated from West High School and, in 1926, graduated with a major in English literature and minors in French and sociology from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1930, Kuhn became the head of the Professional Department of Business Girls at the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eleven years later, Kuhn transferred to the position of program coordinator and editor for the YWCA's United Service Organizations (USO) division. In 1948, she became the program coordinator for the General Alliance for Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women in Boston, Massachusetts. Two years later, in order to take care of her sick parents, Kuhn became the assistant secretary of the Social Education and Action Department at the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
By this time in her career, Kuhn was already out-spoken in her social beliefs, taking strong positions on such issues as the Cold War, desegregation, McCarthyism, nuclear arms, and urban housing. In her capacity with the church, Kuhn urged members to express their opinions so that action would be taken to solve problems. In 1964, the Presbyterian Church gave her a leave of absence in order to teach a course on poverty and ethics at the San Francisco Seminary in California. In 1969, she became program executive for the Council on Church and Race for the Presbyterian Church. At this time, Kuhn became involved with a committee involved with problems facing the elderly.
When Kuhn turned sixty-five years of age (in 1970), retirement was forced upon her by the Presbyterian Church. Kuhn did not want—and was not ready—to stop working. That year, Kuhn met with a group of five friends who had recently retired to discuss problems of the elderly. They formed a group called the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. Within one year, the group possessed one hundred members. In 1972, the members changed the group's name to the Gray Panthers after a New York City television producer suggested the name, which was modeled after the Black Panthers, a militant black political organization founded in the 1960s. The controversial name was appropriate for the action-oriented group that had a sense of exigency with its cause. By 1973, there were eleven chapters of the Gray Panthers regionally within the United States. In 1975, the first national convention of the Gray Panthers was held in Chicago, Illinois. In 1981, the Gray Panthers became an official non-governmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations. In 1990, the group opened its public policy office in Washington, D.C. to better lobby for its priorities.
The Gray Panthers was formed to identify and solve age-related problems of people such as segregating, stereotyping, and stigmatizing—what the organization calls ageism. Since its founding, the organization has advocated for such issues as nursing home reform, world peace, full employment, fair and decent housing, anti-discrimination (ageism, sexism, and racism), pension rights, family security, expanded health care programs, rights for disabled persons, healthy environment, campaign reform, and issues associated with the United Nations. In 2006, the Gray Panthers have over 20,000 members in local networks within California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington D.C.
LOUISVILLE—Maggie Kuhn, a Presbyterian who founded the Gray Panthers in 1970 after being forced to retire at age 65 by the former United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, will be featured in a PBS documentary tonight (Feb. 4) entitled "Maggie Growls."
Check local listings for the exact time in your area. "Maggie Growls" is part of the PBS series Independent Lens, which features the work of independent documentary filmmakers.
Kuhn, who died in 1995 at the age of 90, turned her outrage at having to leave the job she loved in the UPCUSA's Social Education and Action Office in New York into one of the most potent social movements of the 20th century. As a result of the Gray Panthers' efforts, most mandatory retirement laws have been repealed in this country and older Americans have a host of rights they never would have gained otherwise.
"Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants," she said in an understatement of literally biblical proportions. With a disarming mixture of humor, shock value and common sense, Kuhn used her high visibility and the clout of the Gray Panthers to combat media stereotypes that denigrated the elderly and went on to champion universal health care, nursing home reform, shared housing and consumer protections for the most vulnerable in society.
"Maggie Growls" is produced and directed by the award-winning team of Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater.
As of the 2000s, local networks of the Gray Panthers across the United States comprise a national organization of members who call themselves "inter-generational activists dedicated to social change" at the local, state, and federal levels. The group deals with more than just issues of the elderly, believing that they must work to make the United States "a better place to live for the young, the old, and everyone in between."
Many of its members are high school and college students. Believing that neither the young nor the old should be ignored, disregarded, or discarded by the rest of society, the Gray Panthers believe that teenagers and the elderly should be given more responsibilities so as not to waste vast talents and experiences at both ends of the age spectrum. The Gray Panthers refute the notion that retirement is the only alternative for the elderly. Kuhn personally believed that society has treated older persons as problems of society instead of persons experiencing problems caused by society. She has fought to reverse that impression of older persons. Four issues that Kuhn and the Gray Panthers have promoted are the abolishment of forced retirement, exposure of nursing home abuses, reform in the hearing aid industry, and bringing to light the stereotyping of older people in the media.
In 1978, the Gray Panthers helped to enact legislation called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which increased the mandatory retirement age in the United States from sixty-five to seventy years in most sectors of the economy. Then, in 1987, the Act abolished mandatory retirement altogether for most people in the United States. (Some people still must abide by mandatory retirement policies, such as pilots, bus drivers, and other such occupations where age has been shown to be a valid occupational requirement.)
Beginning in 1977, the Gray Panthers founded the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform and, in 1977, produced the handbook "Nursing Homes: A Citizen's Action Guide," which exposed and documented nursing home abuse.
In 1973, the Gray Panthers joined Ralph Nader's Retired Professional Action Group to produce a documentary called "Paying Through the Ear," a report on health care issues for hearing. In 1982, the Gray Panthers worked with Nader's Public Citizen to persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor and regulate the hearing aid industry with respect to deceitful practices.
In 1975, the Gray Panthers began one of its most important programs: the National Media Watch Task Force. Members of the task force monitored how seniors were portrayed on television. When they found inaccurate or offensive portrayals of older people, members relayed that information to the television broadcasters in order to eliminate such portrayals of older people on television. They eventually succeeded in convincing the National Association of Broadcasters to modify the Television Code of Ethics so that seniors were treated with the same respect on the major networks as were being accorded to minorities and women.
At the age of sixty-five years, when she was supposed to retire, the hard-working and committed Maggie Kuhn founded the Gray Panthers. Maggie Kuhn died on April 22, 1995—twenty-five years after her (supposed) retirement. During her lifetime, Kuhn championed the fight for human rights, economic and social justice, international peace, integration, and mental health. She helped to change how society treated and regarded the elderly. The Gray Panthers lives on after her death, helping to deal with policies related to the elderly.
Kuhn, Maggie. No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
The Gray Panthers. <http://graypanthers.org> (accessed May 31, 2006).
Public Broadcasting Service. "Maggie Growls: Filmmaker Q&A." <http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/maggiegrowls/qanda.html> (accessed May 31, 2006).
Public Broadcasting Service. "The Gray Panthers: Panthers on the Prowl." <http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/maggiegrowls/panthers.html> (accessed May 31, 2006).