Maggie Kuhn

From Academic Kids

Maggie Kuhn (August 3, 1905 - April 22, 1995) was born in Buffalo, New York. She was a lifelong American activist. She is most famous for founding the Gray Panthers movement in 1971 after being forced into retirement by the Presbyterian Church. The Gray Panthers became known for advocating nursing home reform and fighting ageism, claiming that "old people constitute America's biggest untapped and undervalued human energy source." She also dedicated her life to fighting for human rights, social and ecomonic justice, global peace, integration, and an understanding of mental health issues. She wrote her autobiography, No Stone Unturned, in 1991. Four years later, she died of cardiopulmonary arrest in Philadelphia at the age of 89.


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 encited a discussion of the products, "truth in advertising," the profits made from cosmetics and drugs, the conditions underwhich they were made, and the role of women as "purchasing agents."

During WWII, she became program director for the YWCA-USO, which was a controversial career choice due to opposition to the war. In spite of this, she continued advocate a progressive stance on issues such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and nuclear arms.

The Presbyterian Church of the USA

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 of 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 reverse the cultural tendency to treat old people like children.

Gray Panthers

On her 65th birthday, the Presbyterian Church forced her to retire. She banded together with other retirees and formed the Gray Panthers Movement. Seeing all issues of injustice as inevitably linked, they refused to relegate themselves to elder rights, 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 Panters' 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 our fast-paced, exploitative culture wasting vital human resources.

The Gray Panters, also, combated the then-popular "disengagment theory," which argues that old age involves a necessary separation from society as a prelude to death. She implicated the American lifestyle for treating the old as problems of society and not as persons experiencing the problems created by society. And she accused gerontologists of perpetuating the illusion of old people as incapacitated, noting that grant money only seemed to fund such research. She called into question the representation of old people in popular media.

Kuhn raised controvery 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, should turn to each other for sexual pleasure.

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: over spending on the military and extravagant tax breaks for the rich.



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