Saturday, August 3, 2019 was the 114th anniversary of Maggie Kuhn’s birth. She was born to a financial executive and a stay-at-home mother (with a business school degree), both of whom valued education. Her grandmother had raised her mother and aunt while running the family store after Ms. Kuhn’s grandfather had died when the children were young. As a result, Ms. Kuhn grew up with some unconventional ideas about women and work for her time.
She earned her undergraduate degree at the Flora Stone Mather College for Women (now part of Case Western Reserve University) in French, English literature and sociology. After graduating, she went to work for the YWCA and later the Presbyterian Church, working on social issues for those organizations and advocating for “social action projects” (Kuhn, 126). During this time, she also cared for her father and mother in their old age at home until their deaths; she supervised the care of her younger brother, who had health issues, until his death. These experiences were part of what informed her social action interests.
In 1961, President Kennedy convened the first White House Conference on Aging. Ms. Kuhn attended as an observer representing her employer (Kuhn, 126). At this time, there was a groundswell of support and interest in the rights of the aged; in 1962 there were 18 million Americans over the age of 65, and many had low incomes and an inability to pay medical expenses. Part of the government’s response to concerns about aging Americans included three bills President Johnson signed in 1965: the Older Americans Act (which created the Administration on Aging, now the Administration for Community Living), Medicare, and Medicaid. In 1967, President Johnson signed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) into law. The ADEA “prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older.”
Ms. Kuhn, who had always pursued issues related to women’s rights during her career, became more active in the pursuit of equality for elders as well after her conference attendance and her personal experiences with aging in this milieu. In February 1970, her employer told her their mandatory retirement policy required her to retire on her 65th birthday. She decided she would make use of her time with a secretary and a photocopier in her remaining period of employment (from February to August) to form the organization that would become the Gray Panthers with colleagues who had also experienced forced retirement (Sanjek, 18). The mission of the Gray Panthers was ‘”action on public issues'” (Sanjek, 20). Over the years they engaged in a broad spectrum of social environment issues that extended beyond the rights of older persons. One of their greatest successes in achieving rights for older persons was their lobby against the mandatory retirement age, which was raised to 70 in 1978 and abolished in 1986 (with a few exceptions). The Gray Panthers, led by Kuhn, also pushed for health insurance protections for older persons and for shared housing initiatives. She continued to work with the Gray Panthers, traveling, protesting and speaking, until her passing at age 89 at home in Philadelphia.
One in five people in the United States will be 65 or older by 2030. The future is us, but greyer. Maggie Kuhn said, “The human life span has almost doubled since the turn of the century. The challenge is, what are you supposed to do with that when you’re supposed to retire halfway through life?” The ADEA has opened our options.
HV28.K77 A3 1991 Kuhn, Maggie. No stone unturned : the life and times of Maggie Kuhn.
HQ1064.U5 S265 2009 Sanjek, Roger. Gray Panthers.
HV1457.N482 Network (Gray Panthers Project Fund). Network.
WMLC 93/355 Gray Panthers network.
KF3464.G743 2014 Gregory, Raymond F. The Civil Rights Act and the battle to end workplace discrimination : a 50 year history.
K1770.A94 2013 Selmi, Michael, ed. Age and equality law.