At age 65, when many people prepare for quiet years, Maggie Kuhn embarked on the greatest adventure and most important work of her life.
In 1970, forced to retire from her career with the Presbyterian Church at age 65, Kuhn and a group of her friends in similar circumstances organized and founded an organization which became the Gray Panthers. The organization was created to work on issues of concern to the elderly, such as pension rights and age discrimination, but also to concern itself with larger public issues, such as the Vietnam War and other social concerns. At the core of the Gray Panthers’ message was that older people needed to seize control of their lives and be in the active world working for issues in which they believed.
Kuhn’s candor, charisma and lively approach to the needs and problems of the old drew major media attention, and the group was successfully launched, coming to represent in the public mind that power and energy that the elderly can represent. Kuhn fought off efforts by everyone from politicians to the managers of nursing homes to treat the elderly like amusing children, instead insisting on a place at the table and voice in decision-making that affected the lives of the old.
Kuhn’s advice to activists interested in creating social change shows the strength of her convictions: “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. And do your homework.”
Kuhn, who continued to play a role in the Gray Panthers until her death at age 89, is considered by many to have started nothing less than a contemporary cultural revolution, both in terms of redefining the meaning of age and through her insistence on “young and old together.” She and the Panthers have been directly instrumental in enacting significant national reforms, including nursing home reform, ending forced retirement provisions, and combatting fraud against the elderly in health care. She authored several books and an autobiography.