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Remembering Maggie Kuhn, Founder of the Gray Panthers

Monday , September 21 , 2020

Remembering Maggie Kuhn, Founder of the Gray Panthers

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.

Posted in: Aging

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Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women!

Monday , August 24 , 2020

Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women!

The Roaring 20s. The Jazz Age. Whatever you call it, it was a decade of change. Many Americans owned cars and telephones for the first time. Football became a professional sport, and Amelia Earhart took her first flight across the Atlantic. The era of Prohibition began.

And American women were guaranteed the right to vote.

This August, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified in August 1920, it prohibits states and the federal government from denying citizens of the United States the right to vote based on sex.

Not That Long Ago

It may seem like an eternity, but 1920 is not that long ago. 100 years is just three to four generations – and it’s likely that your grandparents or your great grandparents were alive to see women fight for their right to vote.

The first women’s rights convention in the United States was held just 80 years prior, in Seneca Falls, New York. There, the women’s suffrage movement was launched.

Some states passed legislation that allowed women to vote if they owned land, or only in certain types of elections (such as school or municipal). Other territories granted women the right to vote and then took it away again.

In New Jersey, some women could vote as early as 1776, but that right was taken away in 1807 when the state legislature restricted suffrage to white, tax-paying male citizens.

According to the National Archives, the first amendment to guarantee women the right to vote was introduced in Congress in 1878. On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and two weeks later it was passed by Senate. It wasn’t until August 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, that it was adopted.

A Long and Thorny Path 

The movement to secure the vote for women was not an easy one. The path, even today, is dotted with disappointments, factional disagreements, prioritization of the rights of the white and wealthy, and (on occasion) scandal.

Though the amendment stopped states from barring citizens from the polls based on sex alone, they had plenty of other tools to keep people away. But activism for women and minority voting rights didn’t end there.

According to Rutgers University,

“In 1924, the Snyder Act granted Native Americans citizenship rights, including the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented racial minorities, especially Black voters in the South, from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution. The 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act ended discrimination against ‘language minorities,’ including those who speak Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Spanish languages, by requiring certain jurisdictions to provide translation materials for voter registration information and ballots.”

While the 19th amendment was a landmark in history, it was still decades before all women (particularly those of color) could exercise their right to vote.

Today, many Americans take that right for granted. But as we continue to battle a global pandemic, as well as racial unrest on our own soil, voting has never been more important.

This November 3rd, get out there and exercise the right that so many women before you fought to secure!

Posted in: Aging

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