Gray Panthers


In 1970, Philadelphian Maggie Kuhn (1905-95), a white middle-class woman and frustrated victim of mandatory retirement at age 65, formed an anti-ageist organization called the Gray Panthers. From challenging mandatory retirement to critiquing ageist media depictions of older Americans, the Gray Panthers fought to recreate the image, expectations, and roles of middle-class retirees in American society. Inspired by social movements of the 1960s, emboldened by their own lengthy activist backgrounds, and frustrated by the absence of an anti-ageist movement, these Gray Panther activists remained politically and socially active by fighting against ageism in their retirement years.

Color portrait of Maggie Kuhn. She is wearing a purple blouse, black skirt, and a red necklace.
Maggie Kuhn founded the Gray Panthers in 1970 after being subject to mandatory retirement at her previous job. Kuhn urged older people to “get out of their rocking chairs and into public affairs.” (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

After being subjected to mandatory retirement in 1970, months before her sixty-fifth birthday, Kuhn along with five other older, professional women facing retirement founded the Consultation of Older Persons, later named the Gray Panthers. A janitor’s broom closet in the Tabernacle Church in West Philadelphia served as their first office, and retirees volunteered their time to organize local events. These women believed that older persons were “a great national resource which has largely been unrecognized, undervalued and unused” and that retirees should remain politically and socially “involved in new and significant ways.” The movement quickly gained overwhelming support as thousands, both young and old, joined the Gray Panthers to fight against ageism.  

 In 1972, Kuhn, by then 67 and nationally recognized, addressed reporters and introduced the radical Gray Panthers to the nation as a new liberation movement to motivate seniors to “get out of their rocking chairs and into public affairs.” This movement was unlike the economic-driven struggles during the 1930s and the membership organizations for retirees founded during the 1950s and 1960s. Distinctly, Kuhn mobilized the elderly toward social activism. The Gray Panthers was an organization of the aged acting on behalf of the aged. Kuhn and the Gray Panthers encouraged grassroots organization and emboldened older, retired Americans to be vocal and active in society and address political issues that both applied to their specific age-based concerns and transcended age. 

Reform Successes

 The organization’s greatest accomplishments included a role in changing mandatory retirement laws, reforming nursing homes, critiquing media depictions of older Americans, and raising public awareness to the vulnerability of older people. Gray Panther members regularly testified before Congress, served on the White House Council of Aging, and helped found the Older Women’s League, the Black Caucus for the Aged, the National Shared Housing Resource Center, and the National Coalition for Nursing Home Reform as well. At one point, the Gray Panthers recorded over 75,000 members and 122 networks in forty-three states throughout the nation.

Black and white photograph of a crowd of people holding protest signs.
Like other social movements of the twentieth century, the Gray Panthers engaged in street demonstrations and pickets. In this photograph from June 1974, Gray Panthers protest outside the American Medical Association’s convention in Chicago. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In one example of their activist activity, during the 1976 Christmas season, the Gray Panthers picketed businesses in Philadelphia and Chicago. After being informed that all John Wanamaker department store employees over the age of 65 were going to be let go the day before Christmas, the Gray Panthers networks in Philadelphia; Willingboro, New Jersey; and South Jersey staged a two-hour demonstration at the stores, handing out over three thousand pink slips to shoppers “telling the story of ‘Scrooge Reincarnated.” That same week in Chicago, Gray Panthers in Santa Claus suits picketed the department store Carson, Pirie, and Scott for its mandatory retirement policies. Standing on State Street, Panthers held signs that read, “Santa Claus is too old to work for Carson, Pirie, Scott.” The protesting Santa Clauses sang Christmas carols such as “Deck the Halls” and abruptly stopped and pulled enormous white handkerchiefs to cry into. Both events were well covered by local news and radio stations.

The Gray Panther networks served as gatherings where older, predominantly white middleclass Americans came together to critique society’s social, economic, and cultural expectations of the aged, redefine old age, and be empowered. Indeed, older Americans challenged the social and cultural expectations of older people in various spheres, eschewed images of the aged as static, traditional, and sedentary individuals, and fought to create a new image of older Americans as dynamic, productive, and a necessary component of American society.

The Gray Panthers continued to be active in the early decades of the twenty-first century, though on a much smaller scale. Their national office moved to Washington, D.C., and networks existed in many states—some more active than others. Their primary concerns focused on universal health care, protecting the environment, promoting peace, civil rights and liberties as well as jobs and economic security, extending the legacy of the Philadelphia-born Gray Panthers.  

Emily Krichbaum is an Ohio-based writer and historian whose Ph.D. dissertation was about the Gray Panthers. She has published work on Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Older Women’s League, and other subjects. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2020, Rutgers University


Maggie Kuhn Portrait

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In 1970, as she approached sixty-five, Maggie Kuhn (1905–95) faced mandatory retirement from her executive position in the Division of Social Education and Action in the United Presbyterian Church. Kuhn did not want retirement to mean the end of her productive life. If she had to retire, she wanted it to serve as the start of something even greater. Together with five other professional women facing retirement, Kuhn formed the Gray Panthers. The organization challenged mandatory retirement, critiqued ageist depictions of older people, and emboldened the aged to act on behalf of themselves.

Maggie Kuhn at Demonstration

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Gray Panthers, like other radical social movements of the twentieth century, used street demonstrations and protests to advance their causes. This photograph from June 1974 depicts a Gray Panther protest outside the American Medical Association’s convention in Chicago. The AMA had recently ended its committee on aging and had shown little attention to the 1971 White House Conference on Aging health care recommendations. At the picket, Gray Panthers dressed as nurses and doctors staged a “house call” on the AMA. The “doctors” tried to find the heart of another protestor dressed as the ailing AMA, only to find a wad of cash in his chest instead.

Gray Panthers Button

Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Maggie Kuhn’s organization was originally named the Consultation of Older Americans. Five months after the group’s first meeting, Kuhn appeared on New York’s WPIX-TV program The Council of Churches Presents. After learning about the organization and hearing its name, the program’s producer, Reuben Gums (1927-2017), suggested a more “empowering” name—the Gray Panthers.

Some of the groups original members disliked the new name. Many believed that the name had connotations of violence because of its reference to the Black Panthers. Kuhn, however, argued that the use of the panther was apt for the organization as it symbolized “social action and social change... rather than just a docile acceptance of what our country’s doing.”

Gray Panthers on the Prowl

Elvert Barnes Photography Wikimedia Commons

Most notably, the Gray Panthers organized around issues directly related to the elderly, including mandatory retirement, nursing home reform, and ageist depictions in media. Gray Panthers also took up broader social issues. In this photograph, Gray Panthers participate in an August 1996 demonstration outside the White House against President Bill Clinton’s (b. 1946) changes to U.S. social welfare policy. In the twenty-first century, Gray Panthers continued to act on issues such as universal healthcare, protections for the environment, peace, and civil liberties. By participating in a wide range of political issues, Gray Panthers challenged the social and cultural expectations of older people and demonstrated that older Americans are a dynamic part of American society.

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Related Reading

Butler, Robert. “Age-ism: Another Form of Bigotry.” The Gerontologist 9: 243-46. 

Hess, Emily S. “Wrinkled Radicals: Maggie Kuhn, the Gray Panthers, and the Battle Against Ageism.” Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 2014. 

 Huckle, Patricia. Tish Sommers, Activism, and the Founding of the Older Women’s League. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 

 Sanjek, Roger. Gray Panthers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy