Maggie Kuhn: Founder Of Gray Panthers

Profile of Maggie Kuhn, who formed the Gray Panthers, an organization which addressed age discrimination, pension rights, nursing home reform, and other issues affecting the elderly.

Margaret Eliza Kuhn was born on August 31, 1905 in Buffalo, New York to Minnie and Samuel Kuhn. She preferred to be called "Maggie" instead of Margaret. In 1921, at the age of sixteen, she graduated from West High School in Cleveland. She attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Commenting on her education, she said, "In those days higher education for women was still in its adolescence. We were given two career options""nursing and teaching""and it was expected that any career would be interrupted early on for marriage. I majored in English literature with minor studies in sociology and French." In her sophomore year she joined Gamma Delta Tau sorority. In 1926, she graduated from Western Reserve with honors.

In 1930, she became head of the Professional Department of business girls at the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She believed in the Y's philosophy, "One of the things I valued most about the Y was its belief in the ability of groups to empower the individual and to change society. Social workers back then called it "˜group work.' The idea was that individuals find purpose and meaning through group association."

In 1941, the beginning of World War II, she became a program coordinator and editor for the YWCA's USO division. Kuhn commented that, "The common view today is that women's liberation benefited from World War II. Hired by defense industries to build aircraft and guns, women found a new freedom and earning power."

After the YWCA's USO division was phased out in 1948, she became program coordinator for the General Alliance for Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1950, in order to take care of her ailing parents, she accepted a job near them in Philadelphia as assistant secretary of the Social Education and Action Department at the Presbyterian Church's national headquarters. She recalled that, "At the YWCA I had worked to bring better working conditions, education and enrichment to working-class women. In the social action department, my co-workers and I urged churchgoers to take progressive stands on important social issues: desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, nuclear arms. We believed that without powerful institutions like the Presbyterian Church advocating reform, many problems would go unsolved."

In 1964, she took a sabbatical from her job at the Presbyterian Church and taught a course on ethics and poverty at San Francisco Seminary in Marin County. In 1969, she became a program executive for the Presbyterian Church's Council on Church and Race, and was a member of a subcommittee that dealt with the problems of the elderly. She was interested in the issues facing the elderly, she said, "Since the1961 White House Conference on Aging, which I attended as a Church observer, I had developed an interest in problems of the aged."

When Kuhn reached retirement age, she was distressed because she did not want to stop working. She said, "I had never given retirement much thought. My sixty-fifth birthday was in August, but I had hoped the Church would ask me to stay on in my job on a year-to-year basis"¦As I felt energetic enough to go on for many years, the idea of retiring struck me as ludicrous and depressing."

In 1970, at the age of 65, she met with a group of five of her friends to address the problems of retirees. The group that grew out of this meeting was named the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. After a year, this organization had 100 members. The group was later named the Gray Panthers in 1972. In 1973, eleven chapters of the Gray Panthers were opened. In 1975, the Gray Panthers held its first national convention in Chicago. The Gray Panthers quickly received public notoriety and grew as a national organization. In 1990, the Gray Panthers public policy office opened in Washington, D.C. Kuhn described the mission of the Gray Panthers, "In the tradition of the women's liberation movement, the common mission of all the Gray Panther groups was consciousness-raising. Instead of sexism, we were discovering "˜ageism'""the segregation, stereotyping, and stigmatizing of people on the basis of age." Over the years, the Gray Panthers have been involved in grassroots activities that deal with public and governmental policies that deal with the elderly.

Maggie Kuhn died in 1995. Before her death she wrote an autobiography entitled, The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. She had never married and was able to be involved in many activities that helped make significant changes in the welfare of the elderly. Speaking about never being married, she said, "Many people ask why I never married. My glib response is always "˜Sheer luck!' When I look back on my life, I see so many things I could not have done if I had been tied to a husband and children."

Maggie Kuhn, the Gray Panthers charismatic leader changed the face of society with regard to the elderly. She was a committed, hard-working woman who at age 65 began an organization that continues her tradition of fighting for a better life for all. Her advice for those who want to make a change in the world is, "Go to the people at the top""that is my advice to anyone who wants to change the system, any system. Don't moan and groan with like-minded souls. Don't write letters or place a few phone calls and then sit back and wait. Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind""even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants."

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