Gray Panthers

Gray Panthers

Gray Panthers

Gray Panthers


In 1970, a sixty-five-year-old Philadelphian named Maggie Kuhn began vocally opposing the notion of mandatory retirement. Taking inspiration from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Kuhn and her cohorts created an activist organization that quickly gained momentum as the Gray Panthers. After receiving national publicity for her efforts--she even appeared on the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"--she gained thousands of supporters, young and old. Their cause expanded to include universal health care, nursing home reform, affordable and accessible housing, defense of Social Security, and elimination of nuclear weapons.

"Gray Panthers" traces the roots of Maggie Kuhn's social justice agenda to her years as a YWCA and Presbyterian Church staff member. It tells the nearly forty-year story of the intergenerational grassroots movement that Kuhn founded and its scores of local groups. During the 1980s, more than one hundred chapters were tackling local and national issues. By the 1990s the ranks of older members were thinning and most young members had departed, many to pursue careers in public service. But despite its challenges, including Kuhn's death in 1995, the movement continues today.

Roger Sanjek examines Gray Panther activism over four decades. Here the inner workings and dynamics of the movement emerge: the development of network leadership, local projects and tactics, conflict with the national office, and the intergenerational political ties that made the group unique among contemporary activist groups. Part ethnography, part history, part memoir, "Gray Panthers" draws on archives and interviews as well as the author's thirty years of personal involvement. With the impending retirement of the baby boomers, Sanjek's book will surely inform the debates and discussions to follow: on retirement, health care, and many other aspects of aging in a society that has long valued youth above all.


I will never forget my first Gray Panther meeting. It was held at the West Berkeley Library on a February afternoon in 1977. I was struck immediately by the voluble energy of some two dozen gray-haired women and men talking about political issues and the activities of their “network.” I quickly realized, first, that I had never been in a room with so many older people before and, second, that whatever stereotypes of “senior citizens” I held had just flown out the window. I was thirty-two, and for Lani Sanjek and me the Gray Panthers transformed our notions of what our sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties could be.

In the 1970s the elderly were still widely seen as “impotent, frail, disabled, demented, or dependent.” They were expected to “disengage” (which was also a prominent gerontological theory), not enter the public sphere. and because, like most people, they “conform[ed] to the institutional arrangements which enmesh them, … and which appear to be the only possible reality,” most older persons remained “quiescent.” Throughout America’s history, however, there have been “challenges” by political movements to “the rules laid down by … traditional authority,” with public notoriety following when activists appear “out of place” from where cultural assumptions relegate them. Women voicing political views in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were “out of place.” So were factory workers sitting down on plant floors in the 1930s; African Americans sitting in at “white” eateries between 1957 and 1960; middle-aged female “displaced homemakers” picketing for job openings in 1974; and people in wheelchairs occupying federal offices to protest lagging civil rights enforcement in 1977. the Gray Panthers similarly shattered dominant cultural expectations by appearing in locations and undertaking actions that were “out of place.”

Lani and I had gone to Berkeley five months earlier for my one-year postdoctoral fellowship in quantitative anthropology and public policy at the University of California—mainly to escape threatened layoffs at Queens College in New York following that city’s 1975 fiscal crisis. She had just completed the nurse practitioner program at Lehman College . . .

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