Kuhn, Maggie (1905–1995)
Kuhn, Maggie (1905–1995)
American political activist and founder of the Gray Panthers. Born Margaret Eliza Kuhn in Buffalo, New York, on August 31, 1905; died on April 22, 1995, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of Samuel Kuhn (a businessman) and Minnie (Kooman) Kuhn; graduated from Flora Stone Mather College, B.A., 1927; never married; no children.
Served as assistant business and professional secretary, YWCA-Cleveland (1928–30) and YWCA-Philadelphia (1930–41); served as program coordinator for YWCA's USO Division (1941–48); joined the staff of the National Alliance of Unitarian Women (1948–50); became a member of the Department of Social Education and Action of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (1950–65); worked as program executive for the (Presbyterian) Church's Council on Church and Race (1969); formed ad hoc activist organization, the Consultation of Older Persons (1970); founded the political action group, the Gray Panthers (1971); held first Gray Panthers National Convention (1975); served on President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Mental Health (1978–80); published her autobiography No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn (1991).
A self-proclaimed "woman born to the task of organizing," Margaret "Maggie" Kuhn was an outspoken pacifist, political activist, and passionate advocate of the rights of older Americans. For more than 60 years, she concerned herself with the important social issues of the 20th century.
Margaret Eliza Kuhn was born on August 31, 1905, in the home of her maternal grandmother in Buffalo, New York. Her parents, Minnie Kooman Kuhn and Samuel Kuhn, had long yearned for a child but had been unable to conceive. When, after 12 years, a precious daughter was finally born to them, they became over-protective. Throughout Maggie's childhood, her activities were severely limited, and her meals, naps and play were all closely supervised.
Samuel Kuhn was a successful businessman whose career kept the family on the move during Maggie's childhood. In 1908 (the same year her brother Sam was born), the family moved from Memphis to Louisville. Seven years later, they moved to Cleveland. Yet summers and holidays were always spent in Buffalo with her maternal grandmother and two maiden aunts. Kuhn later credited her aunts, particularly her Aunt Pauline, a political activist and suffragist, with having an enormous influence on her life and work. "[My aunts] were both models to me in later life, demonstrating to me that a woman could lead a full life without a mate." Her independent-minded aunts also furnished a striking contrast to her own mother, who was utterly dependent on Maggie's father.
The Kuhn household was animated by two passions: a deep commitment to education and an abiding devotion to Christianity. The Kuhns were church-going Presbyterians who expected excellence of their children at school. Happily for Maggie, she proved to be a natural student—intelligent, hard-working, and popular—but her younger brother was as hopeless as she was successful. His abject failure in school seems to have produced in adulthood a sensitive and reactive temperament that eventually developed into severe mental illness. But the bonds of sibling attachment remained, and Maggie would care for and protect Sam from the time they were children until his death in 1975 at age 67.
In 1922, at age 16, Maggie graduated from West High School in Cleveland and immediately enrolled at Flora Stone Mather College. While there, she was deeply impressed by the work of John Dewey, the noted educator and philosopher, and began to train as a teacher, one of the few professions open to women at the time. However, her career focus soon shifted; by the time she graduated with a B.A. degree in 1927, she had decided to pursue a more activist career path.
Her first job was with the Cleveland office of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). In the late 1920s, the YWCA was one of the most active and successful national organizations dedicated to improving the lives of women, particularly working-class women. It offered important community services, established affordable residences for working women, and served as a center for social activism, including unionizing and lobbying efforts to improve working conditions. Kuhn fully supported the moral mission of the YWCA, later calling it "one of the most successful feminist organizations" ever. She began as a volunteer, organizing programs and discussion groups for working-class women. After a year, she was hired full-time as the assistant business and professional secretary, in which capacity she supervised programs for "industrial" girls. Like many of her co-workers at the Cleveland YWCA, she joined and became active in the Young Socialists League.
When her father was transferred to Philadelphia in 1930, Kuhn accompanied her family and secured a job as the secretary in charge of programs for young business and professional women at the YWCA in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Here she continued her work on behalf of women, organizing classes on consumer education, political awareness, and, more controversially, on marriage and sexuality. Her new position at the Germantown YWCA required additional training, so in the spring of 1929 she traveled to New York City to take a series of courses at the YWCA's national headquarters, Columbia University's Teachers College, and Union Theological Seminary.
It was also during this period that Kuhn became increasingly active in the Presbyterian Church. In 1935, at age 30, she became a church deacon, a position newly available to women. Later, she was nominated to become the first woman at her church to be elected to the session, the church's governing lay body.
Speak your mind—even if your voice shakes, well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.
In the early 1940s, the YWCA was one of six social service organizations to form the United Services Organization (USO), a civilian coalition created to assist the Department of Defense in the war effort on the home front. In 1941, Kuhn was invited to New York to work at the national headquarters as program coordinator for the YWCA's USO division. Her work took her across the country, aiding in particular women defense workers, who often encountered unsafe working conditions and inadequate housing and childcare. In 1948, she moved to Boston and accepted a post with the National Alliance of Unitarian Women. Two years later, she returned to Philadelphia, the site of the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, to join the Department of Social Education and Action of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (which in 1958 would become the Department of Church and Society of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.). The department was responsible for conducting studies of secular issues and making recommendations that the church might adopt as official positions. It urged the governing body and churchgoers alike to take progressive stands on burning social and moral issues of the day such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and nuclear arms proliferation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Presbyterian Church came to be widely recognized for its enlightened policies on many issues, especially the civil-rights movement. As part of her duties, Kuhn managed a large leadership program, which trained the laity in social justice issues, and lobbied around the country on behalf of the church's positions on such issues as poverty and social health programs (such as Medicare). She also edited the journal Social Progress, which in the 1960s became Church and Society Magazine.
The Social Action Department was controversial from the start because it advocated a set of social and moral positions far more liberal than the church's mainstream and conservative membership, some of whom branded Kuhn's ideas as "socialistic." In 1954, for example, Kuhn wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Christian Woman and Her Household," which called for responsible consumerism and urged women to refuse to buy products produced under unfair labor conditions. The pamphlet was publicly burned in protest by a chapter of the Presbyterian Women's Organization in Lexington, Kentucky, and Kuhn was labeled a communist. Despite the controversy, Kuhn became a skilled grassroots organizer, well-versed in public policy, during her two decades of work in the Social Justice office. She took part in the fight for civil rights, advocated the creation of public housing and anti-poverty programs, and participated in important social policy conferences, including the 1961 White House Conference on Aging.
In 1965, she was transferred to New York to work on a program called Renewal and Extension of the Ministries. She continued to live in Philadelphia, however, in order to care for her brother, commuting each day to work. At the time there were few women occupying executive positions in the Presbyterian Church, and Kuhn and her female colleagues were paid less than their male counterparts. In response, Kuhn organized a group of women to work for sexual equality in the church, their efforts resulting in a three-year study on the status of women that eventually yielded changes in church policy. By 1969, she was the program executive for the church's Council on Church and Race and had become involved in a number of social-action projects, a few of which touched upon issues relating directly to the elderly. As Kuhn herself was advancing in years, her awareness and interest in the special needs of the aged was growing rapidly. In 1969, there were more than 20 million Americans over the age of 65, one quarter of whom lived below the poverty line. That same year, Kuhn was invited to sit on the board of several wealthy Presbyterian retirement homes. Stunned by the elderly residents' lack of control over their own lives, she tried unsuccessfully to transfer to them greater decision-making power in the running of these homes.
In 1970, Maggie Kuhn reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 and was forced to resign. Outraged over her dismissal by the church, she organized a meeting at Columbia University called "Older Persons and the Issues of the '70s." About 100 attendees of various ages decided to form an ad hoc activist organization under the name "the Consultation of Older Persons." Its slogan, "age and youth in action," expressed the group's inclusive spirit and was reflected in its first issue, opposition to the Vietnam war. The group joined younger protesters in marches and demonstrations. In 1971, officially organized as the Gray Panthers, the group began operating out of a church basement in Philadelphia. Its credo called for "fundamental social change that would eliminate injustice, discrimination and oppression in our present society."
By 1972, Maggie Kuhn's Gray Panthers were attracting the attention of the mass media. The Panthers exposed pension-plan frauds that prompted the federal government to impose new regulations. They also prepared a scathing indictment of the hearing-aid industry's abuses of the elderly. Kuhn gained wide visibility as she was interviewed in newspapers and on national television. By 1973, 11 chapters of the Gray Panthers had opened in such cities as New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. In the same year, consumer advocate Ralph Nader's Retired Professional Action Group moved its headquarters to Philadelphia and merged with the Gray Panthers. In 1975, the Gray Panthers held their first national convention during which they adopted a number of resolutions calling for a reduction in military spending, a reformed health system, an end to compulsory retirement and age discrimination in employment, and new housing initiatives for the old and young.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Gray Panthers lent their support to dozens of issues involving health care, pension rights, public transportation, voter registration, housing, and legal services for the poor. The group was directly responsible for a number of important reforms, including the 1978 Age Discrimination in Employment Act which raised the retirement age to 70, and an amendment to the Older Americans Act which removed barriers to senior volunteer service. They lobbied successfully for legislation to improve health-care access for older Americans and for nursing home reform. Spinoff organizations included the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Care Reform and the Shared Housing Coalition. In 1976, Kuhn led a tour to the People's Republic of China in conjunction with the U.S. China People's Friendship Association. From 1978 to 1980, she served on President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Mental Health, and, in 1985, she was a member of the Philadelphia Delegation to the Soviet Union, sponsored by the Philadelphia-Leningrad Sister Cities Project. Kuhn also received a number of
awards and citations, including the Annual Peacekeeper Award of the United Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (1977); the Gimbel Award (1982); the Presidential Citation of the American Public Health Association (1982); and the Arthur Flemming Award (1994).
In addition to issues of public policy, for the last 20 years of her life Maggie Kuhn was deeply concerned with the wider cultural problems of aging: the social and psychological costs of isolating the elderly by forcibly excluding them from the workplace and propelling them into retirement communities which remove them from their families and the neighborhoods that give their lives meaning. She decried all forms of "ageism," the stereotyping and stigmatizing on the basis of age, advocated "intergenerational" living, and encouraged older Americans to remain active in the political and social life of their communities.
In 1995, in conjunction with the Gray Panthers' 25th anniversary celebration, Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell named April 1st "Maggie Kuhn Day" in recognition of her "unique combination of humanitarianism, social criticism, and leadership." Kuhn died three weeks later, on April 22, 1995, age 89.
sources and suggested reading:
Gray Panthers. "A Tribute to Maggie," in Network Extra, 1995, pp. 1–8.
Hessel, Dieter, ed. Maggie Kuhn on Aging. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1977.
Kuhn, Maggie, with Christina Long and Laura Quinn. No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. NY: Ballantine Books, 1991.
The New York Times. April 23, 1995.
Suzanne Smith , freelance writer and editor, Decatur, Georgia