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“Old” is Not a Dirty Word

August 18, 2019

 

Margaret E. Kuhn, better known as "Maggie",  was born on August 3rd, 1905 in Buffalo, New York. Her family was conservative and middle class. They moved in 1916 to Cleveland, Ohio where Maggie lived until 1930. 

 

She attended Western University's College for Women in Cleveland, where she majored in English with minors in sociology and French. "Sociology, for me, related the community to the individual, and showed us a way to act responsibly in groups." With her sociology class, Kuhn visited jails, sweatshops, and slums. Kuhn described what she saw as "illuminating and shocking." She felt that her college career had a profound effect on who she became. "I'm eternally grateful for the education I got.… I was inspired by some very gifted women who were indeed part of the women's movement. And the memory lingers," Her activism began in college with sociology courses. 

 

She graduated with honors and accepted a job with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). At the time the YWCA was the foremost advocate for working women. She recalled that the women at the Y in those days were all socialists and wonderfully radical and influenced her greatly. In 1941 she transferred to New York and this was the first time she had been away from her family. In New York she studied social work and theology at Columbia’s Teacher’s College and Union Theological Seminary.  She organized educational and social activities at the local YWCA for young working class women.  When women replaced men in factories during WWII, she organized a USO division to improve working conditions for those women. 

 

In 1948, the USO division was phased out, so Kuhn took a job with the General Alliance for Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women, in Boston, Massachusetts where she worked for a short while but she was eager to rejoin her ailing parents who had relocated in Philadelphia.  Kuhn took an executive position with the Presbyterian Church, and moved to Philadelphia. She became assistant secretary of the Social Education and Action Department. During her years with the church, she edited the journal Social Progress. It encouraged Presbyterians to become involved with social issues, such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, nuclear arms, equality for women, and problems of the elderly.

 

In 1970, after 20 years on the job and seven months before her 65th birthday, Kuhn was asked to retire. "Truthfully, in those years I didn't think of myself as about to enter the ranks of the nation's old. … I was just me-neither young, old, nor middle-aged," she wrote in her autobiography, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. "I had never given retirement much thought." Kuhn tried to talk her supervisors out of the forced retirement, but they would not listen to her. "I felt dazed and suspended," she wrote. "I was hurt and then, as time passed, outraged. … Something clicked in my mind and I saw that my problem was not mine alone. … Instead of sinking into despair, I did what came most naturally to me: I telephoned some friends and called a meeting." Each of the six friends was also being forced into retirement. At the meeting, "we discovered we had new freedom as a result of retiring," Kuhn noted. "We had no responsibility to a corporation or organization. We could take risks, speak out. We said, 'With this new freedom we have, let's see what we can do to change the world."'

 

Kuhn and her friends participated actively with young people in protests against the Vietnam War and planned ways to resist forced retirement. In dealing with the issues of political commitment and aging, Kuhn and her friends created a new movement, which fought against ageism, racism, sexism, and militarism. One hundred people attended the group's first public meeting. From its beginning, the group included members of all ages, brought together by their interest in liberal political and social causes. "We established ourselves firmly for justice and peace, and not as an isolated group by chronological age," said Kuhn in her interview with Erlanger. "This gave us an immediate intergenerational emphasis and point of view, which we've never lost.”  

 

The Gray Panthers were born and they focused on three main issues in the 1990s: urban society, discrimination, and international policy. “  The organization under Kuhn’s leadership was 120 local networks in 38 states by 1979.  Other chapters began in Tokyo, Dublin, Stuttgart, Sydney, Paris and Basel. 

 

The Panthers foresaw many of the issues regarding aging in America. Fifteen years before catastrophic health care became an issue in Congress, they demanded a decentralized national health service similar to the Canadian system. Before the public was aware of homelessness as a problem, the Gray Panthers advocated and practiced intergenerational home sharing, beginning with Kuhn's own house in Philadelphia. The Panthers have long fought for the abolition of forced retirement and to have older workers share their expertise with younger ones in radically restructured jobs. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suggested viewing:  The PBS film, Maggie Growls, a documentary about Maggie Kuhn. 

    

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