Maggie Kuhn and Gray Panthers

Twenty years ago, Maggie Kuhn launched the Gray Panthers and last weekend at the 4-H facility in Washington, D.C., this valiant woman, 84 years young, was celebrating the occasion with her civic leaders from all over the country.

Forced to retire at age 65 from her church-related, social service position, Maggie started the movement against “Ageism” in America. “Ageism” is more than discrimination against older people, more than stereotyping older people as subjects of either pity or scorn, more than segregating older people in their retirement homes or nursing homes. To Maggie Kuhn, “Ageism” is the exclusion of the many contributions which older adults can make to their community, to their society and especially to youngsters who need all the adults they can learn from these days.

She deliberately chose the name “Gray Panthers” accompanied by a blood-curdling Panther scream, to signal that this organization was going to take on abuses of power in tough minded ways. Nursing home reforms, tenant. rights, health care, access rights for the disabled, fairer drug prices for the ill, better mass transit, more comprehensive health insurance – these were some of the early struggles that Gray Panthers chapters and lobbyists across the country took on.

But Maggie tirelessly traveled to organize new chapters, now composed of 70,000 members, inspire their missions, fundraise and expand their vision. For unlike other elderly groups which focus heavily on social security and other benefits, the Gray Panthers see the world as their arena of concern.

The program for the 20th anniversary convention illustrates the breadth of their concerns. There are sessions on “intergenerational organizing,” economic conversion to a peacetime economy, reforming the justice system, workplace voter registration, the assault on the Bill of Rights and how to reach the media.

Unfortunately the media did not appear interested in the Gray Panther convention and its sparkling, fascinating participants. This indifference is par for the course for national citizen gatherings on weekends in Washington.

There was a writer there working on a biography of Maggie for Random House Publishers. Readers of this forthcoming book will come to appreciate this fundamental citizen leader as the person who started a new perception of older people and a resurgence of self-confidence and engagement by older adults themselves.

Our century is the first in recorded history where society’s elders were increasingly set aside and diminished in their family and community roles. Until this century, the wisdom, experience and power rested with the elders and kept a steadying hand on the younger generation. Advice and counsel and learning flowed through the generations in the kinship network unlike now when professional counselors, psychiatrists or no one are the alternative.

Is there less need for the continuity of wisdom, experience, judgment and a sense of history today than in past decades? I think not. Youngsters need this monitoring more than ever, given the greatly expanded risks and impacts they are exposed to daily.

More than anyone, it was Maggie Kuhn who liberated the start of these potentialities. For those interested in more information, contact Maggie Kuhn, Gray Panthers, 1424 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.

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