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Gray Panthers

Gray Panthers

Roger Sanjek
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Gray Panthers
    Book Description:

    In 1970, a sixty-five-year-old Philadelphian named Maggie Kuhn began vocally opposing the notion of mandatory retirement. Taking inspiration from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Kuhn and her cohorts created an activist organization that quickly gained momentum as the Gray Panthers. After receiving national publicity for her efforts-she even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson-she gained thousands of supporters, young and old. Their cause expanded to include universal health care, nursing home reform, affordable and accessible housing, defense of Social Security, and elimination of nuclear weapons. Gray Panthers traces the roots of Maggie Kuhn's social justice agenda to her years as a YWCA and Presbyterian Church staff member. It tells the nearly forty-year story of the intergenerational grassroots movement that Kuhn founded and its scores of local groups. During the 1980s, more than one hundred chapters were tackling local and national issues. By the 1990s the ranks of older members were thinning and most young members had departed, many to pursue careers in public service. But despite its challenges, including Kuhn's death in 1995, the movement continues today. Roger Sanjek examines Gray Panther activism over four decades. Here the inner workings and dynamics of the movement emerge: the development of network leadership, local projects and tactics, conflict with the national office, and the intergenerational political ties that made the group unique among contemporary activist groups. Part ethnography, part history, part memoir, Gray Panthers draws on archives and interviews as well as the author's thirty years of personal involvement. With the impending retirement of the baby boomers, Sanjek's book will surely inform the debates and discussions to follow: on retirement, health care, and many other aspects of aging in a society that has long valued youth above all.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0351-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
  5. Chapter 1 The Political Is Personal
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1913 three thousand impoverished older people resided in New York City’s Home for the Aged located on Blackwells Island (today’s Roosevelt Island). They occupied “huge dormitories with the beds nearer than in the usual hospital wards. That people can sleep … so close together seems incomprehensible—for although the very poor have never been used to the luxury of real privacy there is a difference between sharing a room with two to four relatives—and a room with a hundred or so strangers.” Married couples were separated by gender, Columbia University researcher Mabel Louise Nassau learned during her visit...

  6. Chapter 2 The Road to Denver (1970–72)
    (pp. 11-29)

    The Gray Panthers first entered the American national consciousness on a May weekend in 1972. Margaret E. Kuhn was a last-minute stand-in at a press conference during the United Presbyterian General Assembly in Denver. What seized the reporters, and later their editors and television producers, were this elderly woman’s persona and her words. The New York Times described a “slim 5-foot-3 militant [in] blue mididress, whose slit revealed her stylish boots.” It added, however, “Margaret Kuhn would not be flattered if someone told her she looked younger than her 67 years.” Maggie, as everyone called her, left no room on...

  7. Chapter 3 The Road to Chicago (1972–75)
    (pp. 30-57)

    Peering over half-lens granny glasses, Maggie Kuhn opened the first national Gray Panther convention in October 1975 with a call to form coalitions with the disabled, environmentalists, and the women’s movement. Her audience of more than two hundred Panthers from thirty-seven states had come to Chicago to give collective life to what was now a national movement. From California to Massachusetts to Arkansas, twenty-eight “networks” had affiliated with the national office in Philadelphia, and eight thousand people were on the Panthers’ mailing list. Following Maggie, Shubert Frye told the assemblage, “We have known in our bones that some time we...

  8. Chapter 4 The Gray Panthers in Berkeley, California (1973–85)
    (pp. 58-93)

    The following two chapters shift focus to the local networks. This chapter looks at the origin and activities to 1985 of the Gray Panthers of Berkeley, California, where I first encountered the movement and became an active member during 1977–78. Like others, this network was the creation of a remarkable first convener, Lillian Rabinowitz. Lillian was an inspired speaker and organizer, a dedicated advocate for a “continuum of care” for the elderly, and an engaging, dynamic personality. With grace and good spirit she made the transition from founder to member, using the network’s health committee as a vehicle to...

  9. Chapter 5 The Gray Panthers in New York City (1972–85)
    (pp. 94-126)

    Four months after Maggie Kuhn’s first 1970 meeting a handful of Consultation participants met to consider forming a local New York City unit. Among them were “group of six” members Helen Baker and Eleanor French, both Manhattan residents, and Presbyterian minister Cameron Hall from Long Island. The issues discussed reflected what was on the minds of these early Gray Panthers: the Vietnam War, government repression of the Black Panthers, and the fall congressional elections. Over the next two years Baker and Hall devoted their involvement to the Consultation steering committee (French died in 1971), and no further step was taken...

  10. Gallery
    (pp. 127-138)
  11. Chapter 6 The Road to Washington (1976–85)
    (pp. 139-178)

    Two weeks before the 1985 New York gathering at Red Oak to celebrate Maggie’s eightieth birthday, I attended a wine and cheese reception to mark the opening of the “Washington, D.C. branch of the [Gray Panther] national office.”¹ Held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building through arrangement by Steve McConnell, staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and a former Los Angeles Gray Panther, the event attracted an audience of two hundred and fifty. Maggie opened the brief formalities. “This is not the happy hour. This is a joyous hour, where all of us celebrate an event we...

  12. Chapter 7 Loss and Continuity (1986–95)
    (pp. 179-201)

    On a Sunday in April 1995 a front-page headline keyed New York Times readers to a story inside: “Gray Panther Founder Dies,” an obituary of eighty-nine-year-old Maggie Kuhn, who “died yesterday at the home she shared in Philadelphia with a like-minded coterie…. She spent the last 25 years leading people young and old in the fight against age discrimination and other forms of what she saw as social injustice and stereotypical thinking.”¹ Maggie died in her sleep at 8:30 a.m. on April 22, with her home attendant, Bertha Monroe, sixty-three, beside her. Later that day her personal assistant Sue Leary...

  13. Chapter 8 Reorganizing for a New Century (1996–2007)
    (pp. 202-226)

    For two years after Maggie Kuhn’s death the national Gray Panthers drifted. In Washington executive director Dixie Horning endorsed a spectrum of causes from reducing air pollution to pension reform, adding a Gray Panther signature to 118 organizational sign-on letters.¹ In Philadelphia Sue Leary was appointed “grassroots coordinator” for the fifty-four networks but left within a year to become executrix of Maggie’s estate and organizer of her archive deposited at Temple University. A 1996 Gray Panther “Age and Youth in Action Summit” cohosted with the United States Students Association honored Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. The...

  14. Chapter 9 The Gray Panther Legacy
    (pp. 227-252)

    Leaders shape and galvanize social and political movements, but followers empower leaders.¹ A movement leader who inspires followers must possess the ability to “translate personal troubles into public issues” and draw attention to “their human meaning for … individuals.”² Forced to retire against her will at sixty-five, Maggie Kuhn proclaimed the injustice of mandatory retirement and struck a responsive chord for others in her situation, who were legion. Among the thirteen million retirees over age sixty-five in the early 1970s, four million “did not retire by choice but rather were forced to retire.” More broadly, 86 percent of Americans of...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 253-282)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 283-290)
  17. Index
    (pp. 291-298)