The Gray Panthers is a national organization founded in 1970 by social activist and educator Maggie Kuhn in response to insidious ageism within American culture. Ageism is the negative stereotyping, stigmatization, and segregation of people based on age. Through the national organization and coordination of local networks, the Gray Panthers functions as an intergenerational advocacy group dedicated to facilitating social change by combating inequities in a broad range of issue areas, including affordable and adequate housing, health care, work and retirement, nursing home abuse, and many others. The Gray Panthers seeks to unite younger and older people alike in grassroots change through social activism. The organization is known for its use of a variety of techniques to facilitate social change, for example, petition drives, demonstrations, letter writing and telephone campaigns, and large-scale educational programs.
The year was 1970, and Maggie Kuhn was involuntarily retired from her job. She wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture, and neither were five friends who were experiencing the same involuntary retirement. Thus began a movement by a woman, her friends, and the addition of college students who were, at the time, opposed to the Vietnam War. This network of friends gathered under the early name Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. Shortly thereafter, this new, highly action-oriented group was nicknamed the Gray Panthers, a name that has remained associated with a mission to lead advocacy and activism for social equity and justice on issues affecting older adults.
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Combating the effects of ageism has always been at the heart of Gray Panther activities. Ageism, a term first coined by Robert N. Butler in 1968, was originally defined as the systematic stereotyping of and discrimination toward older people as individuals and a population group. Ageism reflects extremely negative images of older people and subsequently manifests in the treatment of older people in inappropriate, unfair, and undignified ways. The Gray Panthers actively adopted a visionary counter position to ageism, actively advancing positive images of older people as well as social systems and institutions that were proactively responsive to their needs rather than based on a disease, disablement, disempowerment orientation. For example, in 1973 and 1974, the Gray Panthers New York City Network organized two events that were intended to call into question ageist medical treatment. These events were alternatives to the American Medical Association (AMA) conference and focused attention on health care as a human right. In another bold move, the Gray Panthers in 1974 staged guerrilla theater outside the site of the 123rd AMA annual meeting. Health care inequities, lack of adequate housing, the need for long-term care, mandatory retirement, and the impact of demeaning stereotypes in the media were just some of the “causes” that the Gray Panthers actively sought to ameliorate throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
Maggie Kuhn died on April 22, 1995, at nearly 90 years of age and just following the 25th anniversary celebration of the Gray Panthers. Her leadership was central to the inspiration and determination of all who were involved with the Gray Panthers. Following her death, the national organization struggled and then moved forward under the leadership of a dedicated board of directors and its chairperson. A 5-year strategic plan was prepared, and, in 1997, the Gray Panthers held their first national convention since Maggie’s death.
Since the 1990s, the Gray Panthers has continued to launch activist efforts targeting universal health care, Medicare, education, economic justice, family security and community safety, job and worker rights, social security, and other national issues that affect the basic ethical and human rights of older people.
- Gray P (n.d.). Gray Panthers’ history. Retrieved from http://www.graypanthers.org/graypanthers/history.htm
- Gray P (n.d.). Gray Panthers’ selected achievements. Retrieved from http://www.graypanthers.org/gray panthers/achieve.htm
- Kuhn, (1991). No stone unturned: The life and times of Maggie Kuhn. New York: Ballantine.
- Temple University Libraries (n.d.). Urban Archives, Gray Panthers, Accession 835, Records, 1950s–mid Part 1: Background and history. Retrieved from http://www.library.temple.edu/urbana/gray-01.htm
- Temple University (n.d.). Urban Archives, Gray Panthers, Accession 924, Records, 1970s-1990s. Retrieved from http://www.library.temple.edu/urbana/gray-924.htm