Remembering Maggie Kuhn, Firebrand of the Aged

By Tim Wahl
Tim Wahl
Tim Wahl
Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”
December 1, 2016 Updated: December 2, 2016

Hardly do clenched fists raised high in revolt invoke images of senior citizens. But in 1970, a recalcitrant Philadelphian named Margaret Kuhn started making waves in response to her forced retirement at the age of 65. Inspired by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Ms. Kuhn set out to radicalize older Americans and fight the image of “old” as a dirty word that serves as a grim reminder of mortality.  

Thus was born the Gray Panthers, a name she drafted from the Black Panthers, a radical movement in the 1970s.

Ms. Kuhn’s brand of activism fought ageism and a spectrum of topics relevant today latched onto by Millennials from universal health care to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

“The [aims of] Gray Panthers is not to be minimalized,” says Jack Kupferman, chairman of the New York Chapter of the Gray Panthers. “Our issues are central for the planet and for humanity.” To be sure, he stressed to the Epoch Times that the Gray Panthers is not just about education and awareness, but about creating change.

Ms. Kuhn, who died at the age of 89 in 1995, personified this vision, he says.

In the 1996 publication “Heroes of Conscience: A Biographical Dictionary,” co-authors Kathlyn and Martin Gay state that the Gray Panthers, which adopted the motto “Age and Youth in Action,” advocated that young people are as pertinent to the movement as seniors.

“There is the myth that stereotypes old age as a disastrous disease which nobody wants to admit to having,” Ms. Kuhn once asserted in an interview with Ken Dychtwald, a noted gerontologist and author. “Old age is not a disease—it is strength and survivorship, a triumph over all sorts of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.”

Epoch Times Photo
Born Margaret Kuhn in Buffalo, N.Y., “Maggie” Kuhn lived most of her life in Philadelphia, Pa., where she founded the Gray Panthers, a movement to fight for social and economic justice for seniors. (Philly.com)

Ms. Kuhn accused gerontologists of perpetuating the illusion of old people as “incapacitated.” Furthermore, she claimed that the American lifestyle treated the old as problems of society, and thus segregated them from society in nursing homes, which she reviled as “glorified playpens.”

She called into question the portrayal in popular media of old people as an “inevitable prelude to death,” and she raised an eyebrow or two with her claim that old people can enjoy physical intimacy, encouraging older women, who normally outlive men, to develop sexual relationships with younger men.

Described as a “diminutive militant” by the New York Times, Ms. Kuhn, who coined the phrase, “speak your mind even if your voice shakes, for well-aimed slingshots can topple giants,” was known to show up at rallies in clothing uncharacteristic for senior citizens. A mini-dress or a slitted skirt and stylish boots were her style.

Yet, the Times, reported, “[Maggie] Kuhn would not be flattered to be told she looks younger than her [advanced] years.”   

Indeed, she claimed, “I am an old woman; I have gray hair, many wrinkles and arthritis in both hands.” And she let the world know that she, like the “old people” she represented, were capable of contributing to society, a resonant chord with present-day Gray Panthers, whose credo advocates “fundamental social change [to] eliminate injustice, discrimination and oppression in society.”

Senior citizens today comprise what US News and World Report says is the largest voting bloc of “people who show up at the polls.” Politicians are wise to take their collective voice seriously, the periodical claims. Nonetheless, Gray Panthers has seen a decline in membership—down from 60,000 in its 1970s heyday to about 20,000 nationwide—due largely to what CBS News reported as Baby Boomer denial of turning gray.

Mr. Kupferman states that the Gray Panthers’ mission to unify opposite poles of age demographics may spur the momentum in issues that affect “most anyone in the United States,” which by 2023, will see one in five persons 65 years old and over.

“We’re all in this together,” adds Mr. Kupferman. “Aging is cross-generational. We are aging from the time we pop out of the womb.”

Maggie Kuhn, whose given name was Margaret, railed against economic disparity and corporate dominion, also a core issue with today’s millennial generation. “Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few,” she said, “and powerlessness in the hands of so many.”

Never afraid to march to her own beat and fight for what she believed, Ms. Kuhn “gave us a road map and a model,” says Dr, Fernando Torres-Gil of the Council on Social Work Education at UCLA.

“[She believed that] all stages of life can be fruitful and rewarding, but that in the last quarter of life we have a special opportunity and perhaps a duty to reengage in the civic life of our communities.” Her model, he claims, galvanized civic figures like consumer-advocate Ralph Nader and the late Florida Congressman Claude Pepper and many more.

Most telling of all about this woman and the life she took on might be her epitaph: “Here lies Maggie Kuhn under the only stone she left unturned.”

Timothy Wahl’s experience in business, education, the sciences, and the arts gives him a unique platform on a spectrum of subjects

Tim Wahl
Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”