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August 3, 1905|
Buffalo, New York
|Died||April 22, 1995
|Occupation||Elder rights activist|
|Known for||Founding the Gray Panthers|
Maggie Kuhn (August 3, 1905 – April 22, 1995) was an American activist known for founding the Gray Panthers movement, after she was forced to retire from her job at the then-mandatory retirement age of 65. The Gray Panthers became known for advocating nursing home reform and fighting ageism, claiming that "old people and women constitute America's biggest untapped and undervalued human energy source." She dedicated her life to fighting for human rights, social and economic justice, global peace, integration, and an understanding of mental health issues. For decades she combined her activism with caring for her disabled mother and a brother who suffered from mental illness.
Early life and career
In the 1930s and 1940s, Kuhn taught at the YWCA, where she educated women about unionizing, women's issues, and social issues. She caused controversy by starting a human sexuality class in which she discussed such topics as the mechanics of sex, birth control, sexual pleasure, pregnancy, and the difficulties of remaining single in a culture where marriage is the norm. She encouraged women to really study their own lives and their world. She once wrote to companies for samples of their products and incited a discussion of the products, "truth in advertising," the profits made from cosmetics and drugs, the conditions under which they were made, and the role of women as "purchasing agents."
During World War II, she became program director for the YWCA-USO, which was a controversial career choice due to her opposition to the war. In spite of this, she continued to advocate a progressive stance on issues such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and nuclear arms.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Kuhn worked for the Presbyterian Church, where she hoped to give emphasis to the social dimension of the Gospel. While tradition confined most seminarians to fieldwork within churches, Kuhn declared that none of her students would pass unless they went out and found poverty within the local community.
Her interest in elder rights began, not as a personal issue, but as one of human rights and basic justice, when she attended the 1961 White House Conference on Aging as a church member. When she began to visit Presbyterian retirement homes, which one resident described as "a glorified playpen," she realized the need to reverse the cultural tendency to treat old people like children.
In 1970, although she was working at a job she loved with the Presbyterian Church, she was forced to retire the day she turned 65 because of the mandatory retirement law then in effect. That year, she banded together with other retirees and formed the Gray Panthers movement. Seeing all issues of injustice as inevitably linked, they refused to restrict themselves to elder rights activism, but focused also on peace, presidential elections, poverty, and civil liberties. Their first big issue was opposition to the Vietnam War.
After an elderly woman was killed and robbed of $309 after cashing a check, Kuhn enlisted the help of Ralph Nader who set up a meeting with the president of the First Pennsylvanian Bank. The bank agreed to establish special check-drawn savings accounts for people over 65 free of charge and make loans more accessible to older people.
The Gray Panthers' motto was "Age and Youth In Action," and many of its members were high school and college students. Kuhn believed that teens should be taken more seriously and given more responsibility by society. To her, this was but another example of a fast-paced, exploitative culture wasting vital human resources.
The Gray Panthers also combated the then-popular "disengagement theory," which argues that old age involves a necessary separation from society as a prelude to death. Kuhn implicated the American lifestyle for treating the old as problems of society and not as persons experiencing the problems created by society. She accused gerontologists of perpetuating the illusion of old people as incapacitated, noting that grant money seemed to favor such research. She called into question the representation of old people in popular media.
Kuhn raised controversy by openly discussing the sexuality of older people, and shocked the public with her assertion that older women, who outlive men by an average of 8 years, could develop sexual relationships with younger men or each other.
She also took a stance on Social Security, arguing that politicians had created an intergenerational war over federal funds in order to divert public attention from the real budgetary issues: overspending on the military and extravagant tax breaks for the rich.
Kuhn criticized housing schemes for the elderly, calling them "glorified playpens". While acknowledging that they helped to keep seniors safe, she contended that they also segregated the elderly from mainstream society. During her years as a Gray Panther activist, she lived in her own home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She shared that home with younger adults, who received a break on rent in exchange for their help with chores and their companionship. Kuhn founded the Shared Housing Resources Center.
The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a collection of Maggie Kuhn's correspondence, administrative documents, printed matter, reports, books, photographs and other materials that document her personal life and professional work.
- Gay, Kathlyn & Gay, Martin K. Heroes of Conscience: a Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc., 1996