Fifty years ago, Maggie Kuhn founded the Gray Panthers, a radical movement to encourage activism among America’s older population.
Inspired by the political environment at the time, such as Vietnam War protests and racial equality demonstrations, Kuhn believed that issues affecting older people should also be on the radar. More than anything, she wanted to destroy every single stereotype surrounding older adults – especially older women.
Please keep reading to learn more about Maggie and the movement she started and find out where the Gray Panthers are today.
Who was Maggie Kuhn?
Maggie Kuhn was born in 1905 to parents who grew up in the segregated South. Determined to give their daughter a different life, they raised Maggie in the North, where she graduated college and organized a chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Throughout her adult life, Maggie worked towards change and demonstrated a powerful interest in social reform on many fronts.
In 1970, at just 65 years old, Maggie was forced into retirement. At the time, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. Senior citizens were expected to fade into the background and disappear from everyday life. Maggie, however, was infuriated.
Even more irksome? Her parting gift was a sewing machine.
“Old age is not a disease. [Old age] is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.”
Sexism and ageism were two things this petite, gray-haired lady couldn’t stand for. Maggie took it upon herself to make sure other older adults didn’t face the same fate as her.
With the help of a few other seniors forced out of the workplace, Kuhn quickly founded the “Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change,” dubbed the “Gray Panthers” by the press. The group was “lively, quick-witted, controversial and action-oriented.”
Maggie’s legacy was so impactful that political activist Ralph Nader once called her retirement “the most significant retirement in modern American history.”
Conjuring the Power of Older Adults
The Gray Panthers identified as a militant, though nonviolent group and their tactics included public protests, political lobbying, and grassroots organizing. They forced their way into the diplomatic sphere and demanded action.
According to the AARP, in their first full year of operation, the Gray Panthers stormed the White House and requested access to the presidential conference on aging. Kuhn even called out President Gerald Ford when she found his remarks “patronizing.”
Throughout the years, the organization successfully lobbied against mandatory retirement age, pushed for nursing home reform and creation of a government-subsidized single-payer national health insurance program, fought for accessibility in mass transportation and against proposed cuts to Social Security, and much more.
Most of all, Kuhn fought against the rampant ageism in America – especially the negative stereotypes about older adults in the media. The Panthers routinely monitored how seniors were portrayed on television and rallied against networks that insisted upon depicting them as “dependent, powerless, wrinkled babies.”
The Gray Panthers Today
Today, it seems as though the Panthers have been largely forgotten. In part, that can be attributed to Kuhn’s death in 1995. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Maggie was “such a charismatic leader that once she died, the organization began to drift.”
But despite their challenges since Kuhn’s death, the Gray Panther’s mission continues to this day. With a series of local advocacy networks throughout the United States, the group fights ageism and other social justice issues every day.
Interested in helping? You can contact the NYC chapter here or visit the National Council of Gray Panthers Networks on Facebook.