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.
Further Reading on Maggie Kuhn
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).