Let’s Revive The Grey Panther Movement

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 age of 65,  then the mandatory retirement age.  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.

The year she was forced to retire, she banded together with other retirees and formed the Grey Panther movement. It was originally called “The Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change.” In an interview with Johnny Carson in 1974, the TV host commented that he thought her movement was a lot like the Black Panthers. He coined the name “Gray Panthers,” and that name stuck.

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 murdered 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 Pennsylvania 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 just 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 eight 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 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. In “Maggie Kuhn on Aging.” she described the structural reforms needed to address these problems with elder housing, mandatory retirement, and social and economic inequities.

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. Maggie called this community her “family of choice.”

Kuhn founded the Shared Housing Resource Center. She worked with Anne Hays Egan and Carroll L. Estes to develop the Festival of the Ages in Princeton, in 1981. The proceedings of the festival were published as a book, Empowering Ministry in an Ageist Society.

 

Kuhn wrote her autobiography, No Stone Unturned, in 1991—four years before she died in Philadelphia at the age of 89. In 1995, Kuhn was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Was the Grey Panthers approach to activism  too radical for mainstream acceptance? Probably.  Their passion and commitment to social justice was admirable even as their tactics alienated potential allies and hindered broader support for their causes. However, the historical context and the challenges they faced in advocating for the rights of older adults during a time of significant social change, is also part of the story.

One anecdote that illustrates this point is the Grey Panthers’ protest at a pharmaceutical company, demanding affordable medication for seniors. While their message resonated with many, the aggressive tactics used, such as blocking entrances and disrupting business operations, led to negative media coverage and backlash from the public.

Another example is when the Grey Panthers organized a sit-in at a government office to demand better healthcare access for seniors. While their persistence eventually led to some policy changes, their confrontational approach caused tension with officials and overshadowed the substantive issues they were advocating for.

 

But this is a different era. Can the Grey Panther Movement be revived?

Can the Equal Rights Amendment be passed in Washington DC?

Ultimately, the same things Maggie Kuhn brought to the forefront of consciousness still exist today: war, povery, discrimination and elder shaming.

That’s what my video is about, today.

Meet Kate and Dean Holland

 

17 thoughts on “Let’s Revive The Grey Panther Movement”

  1. What an interesting thought to revive this movement. I have been really focusing on kindness. Kindness should permeate ALL people, not just those we identify with in our own mindset. The age demographic is often excluded and I truly appreciate your bringing it to the forefront. Ageism is real. I have expedited it recently and it is unfortunate, sad and not kind. Thank you for your passion. Have a great week!

  2. Sarah Goulding

    I learn something every week reading your blog posts. I think I’ve said it before, but I really look forward to reading your blog.
    ‘Family of choice’ is lovely and I’d love this to come back.
    My grandma had a fear of retirement homes, she asked my dad to promise that she’d never go to one no matter what her health was. My dad kept her wish and when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we all moved in with her, had dinner every night and cuddled her until she slept.
    Kindness for all is key. I’m not experienced ageism YET but I’m more mindful about how I speak to my parents xx

    1. Hi Kate,
      It’s fascinating how the efforts of the Grey Panther movement seems to echo through the currents of today’s social dynamics. There’s a tangible shift towards welcoming the strategies of occupation and protest that once defined this movement. It’s almost as if the spirit of the Grey Panthers is resurfacing, prepared for a revival in this new era. Great post Kate. Thanks!
      Meredith

  3. Thank you for shedding light on the vital work of Maggie Kuhn and the Grey Panthers in addressing important issues like ageism and social justice. Their legacy serves as a reminder of the ongoing challenges we face today in areas such as war, poverty, discrimination, and elder shaming. Let’s take inspiration from their activism and continue to advocate for a more inclusive and just society. I believe that in the United States, we have an unhealthy outlook on growing old; we believe that older adults are a burden. They can no longer work and contribute. A mind-shift is definitely needed; we should value their experiences and learn from them. Someone who has done something for 30+ years is an expert and a resource and should be thought of as a bank of knowledge, not disposable, because they are moving at a slightly slower rate than the new grad. A shift is needed, and I commend you for bringing these issues to light.

  4. Kate, you should definitely keep going with your efforts to provide a great service to the boomers, despite any negative comments you might encounter online. Just like Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers, who faced challenges and criticism, your dedication to addressing important issues like ageism and advocating for the rights of older adults is commendable. By staying focused on your mission and the positive impact you are making, you can continue to inspire positive change and make a difference in the lives of many. Well done, thanks Atif

  5. Thank you for introducing me to the Grey Panther Movement. And you’re right! This is a different era. Negative media or not – it seems society has taken the stance that this movement once did with tactics of occupation and protests. I think the Grey Panther Movement CAN be revived.
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  6. Regina Burton

    Hi Kate,
    It was so interesting to read about Maggie Kuhm and the Grey Panthers. She did so much good for so many people.
    Here in Australia our government has relaxed some laws and now allows retirees to return to paid employment on a part time basis without it affecting their pension if they don’t earn too much. There is also a labour shortage in some industries so that was one of the reasons and also the high cost of living putting too much pressure on the elderly to survive. The government recently announced that they are raising the pension age to 70. it used to be 60 years of age decades ago! Also women also still earn less wages than men for the same work. So we need more women like Maggie Kuhm in politics!

  7. Hi, Kate!
    I had never heard about this movement. Thanks for sharing!

    It’s amazing how younger people treat older people so differently. I’m on the verge of appearing older. My hair appears brown inside, but all the gray is vivid in the sunlight. People treat me differently when I’m in the sun, and my hair is gray versus being inside when it appears brown.

    The big change shocked me! I think the gray is beautiful, and I’ve looked forward to it changing. I didn’t realize how much people would treat me differently. It’s on a different level than I expected. It’s not just about beauty.

    It can be patronizing.

    I think what you’re doing with your niche is wonderful. I enjoy it. And I have high hopes that you and your audience will be able to make a difference in bringing attention to this topic.
    Nakina

  8. I was just talking to a guy this week who has been retired for nearly 30 years – that’s a huge chunk of life for people to think you’re done and just need to go off by yourself and get ready to die. There’s still so much life to live and so much more to contribute to others.

    In Europe and Japan, they are starting to have housing setups where retired people and young people, often college students are put together as roommates – I think that’s a great idea. It would be nice to see more mixed housing, but then the companies that charge some of these retired people 5K a month for rent wouldn’t make as much per unit, so that would be tough interest group to get past.

  9. I was unaware of of Maggie Kuhn or about the Gray Panther Movement. Thank you so much for sharing! I found it quite intriguing and I appreciated learning about this.

  10. Hi Kate,
    What a great idea to revive the Grey Panther movement. Us oldies are too often written off as has-beens. We still have a voice and can teach these whipper-snappers a thing or two.
    Keep the faith. Well done on those YouTube views, what a fantastic achievement.
    Cheers,
    Andy

  11. Kate, what a great post. Loved hearing about the Gray Panthers. I do remember when people were pushed out after age 65. Nowadays, that age is rising & probably reach 75. That suits some, but I like the idea of doing your own thing & still contribute.

    Loved that the Gray Panthers were so versatile. Seeing connection in all injustices and opposing the Viet Nam war. I agree.

    We create democracy when we are socially active, helping each other.

    Love that you are doing great on YouTube. I am inspired.
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  12. Hi Kate, such a great read and greater information.
    History can teach us many things – we only need to be willing to listen and understand; something it seems to have become harder and harder to do somehow.
    Thanks for bringing this very important part of history to our attention.

  13. I like that the Grey Panthers recognised the need for young and old to work together. Its far to easy to get polarised on issues. Obviously it was a very American Focused movement, but the issues they highlight are common to many Western Societies.

    For me, old age has always been a very positive thing, I have fun Aunts and Uncles who kept old age fun and active.

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