Next month, the autobiography of Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, comes to the bookstores. She gave her life the title “No Stone Unturned” and, verily, her grasp of the many dimensions of necessary change for a better society reflects that comprehensiveness.
There has never been anyone quite like Maggie Kuhn in American history. Her greatest accomplishments came after her forced retirement in 1971 at age 65 from the social service agency of the Presbyterian Church.
“We didn’t feel old,” she writes about a meeting with her “retired” friends. “In fact, we felt more radical and full of new ideas, more opinionated and less constrained by convention than we were when we graduated from college. We knew our lives had reached a sort of climax, not an ending. Vet we felt disturbed that we had few role models.”
Maggie blazed many paths to become many role models. In a whirlwind of civic organization all over the country, she organized chapters of the Gray Panthers, oriented them to issues that including their age group but also the young and other Americans — health insurance, nursing home reform, intergenerational living in shared housing, waging peace, workplace quality of life, consumer justice, women’s rights, and the list goes on. She became the ultimate exponent of a self-determination linked with social justice that tempers or curbs the abuse of concentrated power whether in business or government.
Back in 1981, a community called Poletown in eastern Detroit was under siege by General Motors and City Hall. The Mayor had moved by eminent domain to condemn hundreds of homes, a dozen churches, schools, a hospital and many small businesses to make room for a GM plant producing luxury cars. He even got GM a combined local, state and federal subsidy package worth $350 million.
The residents were beside themselves with fear and anger. Most were elderly and had lived in their neatly tended homes for decades. Maggie came to address them and at the end of her speech delivered the blood-curdling cry of the Gray Panthers. Although the residents eventually lost their fight, they received a morale boost that led to stiffer opposition to GM’s power play. It is not likely that GM will try another community displacement again.
Maggie is all about busting stereotypes and liberating human possibilities. “Be outrageous” is her wry advice to Gray Panthers. Read her words on ageism: “Our competitive, profit-centered society has segregated people by social class, race, and age. The separation of the old from the young violates the essential wholeness and continuity of life, and sets the stage for intergenerational conflict. The self-imposed segregation of old people in retirement homes deprives young people of mentors and our changing society of historical perspective.” Maggie has been the victim of two random street muggings in Philadelphia, where she lives, in the last few years. She has survived two bouts with cancer and has severe arthritis. Yet her mind keeps getting sharper and more daring. Her spirit is almost the definition of irrepressible.
A small, almost frail woman, she has stood up to corporate moguls at meetings, chided Johnny Carson on his show for his Aunt Blabby skit and honored Presidents with her dynamic presence at the White House.
What marks her achievements is the manner in which she takes the “entirety of the human state” (Simone de Beauvoir’s words’) upon herself. Far from being a single issue person, she epitomizes the “total issues” citizen. She has changed many mind sets about older people, and if the waves she has relentlessly generated continue, she will have sparked for many people twenty years or more of active living in place of the post retirement doldrums that industrial culture too often provides for people of that age.
A rare person, indeed, that Maggie Kuhn!