Chapter 9
The Gray Panther Legacy

Leaders shape and galvanize social and political movements, but followers empower leaders.1 A movement leader who inspires followers must possess the ability to “translate personal troubles into public issues” and draw attention to “their human meaning for … individuals.”2 Forced to retire against her will at sixty-five, Maggie Kuhn proclaimed the injustice of mandatory retirement and struck a responsive chord for others in her situation, who were legion. Among the thirteen million retirees over age sixty-five in the early 1970s, four million “did not retire by choice but rather were forced to retire.” More broadly, 86 percent of Americans of all ages agreed “nobody should be forced to retire because of age if he [or she] wants to continue working and is still able to do a good job.”3

The Gray Panthers, however, did not become a single-issue, anti– mandatory retirement organization. The older members who responded to Maggie included forced retirees, voluntary retirees, early retirees, and persons still employed. They all understood what the labeling of themselves and others as “senior citizens” or “elderly” entailed. Although “at no point in one’s life does a person stop being himself [or herself] and suddenly turn into an ‘old person,’” they realized that “the public image of most older people is far more negative than the view [those] 65 and older hold of themselves.”4 Negative characterizations and treatment of the old became more common with the transition from nineteenthcentury preindustrial republic to twentieth-century corporate state.5 In 1968 Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe them.

Ageism is the systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people be-
cause they are old. … Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought
and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills. … Ageism allows the younger
generation to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly
cease to identify with their elders as human beings. … Ageism is manifested
in … outright disdain and dislike, or simply subtle avoidance of contact; dis-
criminatory practices in housing, employment and services of all kinds; epithets,
cartoons and jokes. At times ageism becomes an expedient method by which

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