(WOMENSENEWS)–It started, like so many women’s insurrections, over a food-laden table.
Sixty-five-year-old Maggie Kuhn was having lunch in Philadelphia in April 1970 with five female friends who, like her, faced mandatory retirement from their jobs. All were progressives and social activists.
Kuhn, freed by family money of the need to earn a living and determinedly unmarried, was with the Presbyterian Church’s Council on Church and Race. Previously, she had worked to bring better working conditions and education to working-class women through the Young Women’s Christian Association. Not surprisingly, given her background, Kuhn wanted to “get out there and do something” about forced retirement, other forms of discrimination against older American and broader social issues.
She did. “Old age is an excellent time for outrage,” she said later, “and my goal is to say or do at least one outrageous thing every week.” Recruiting not only like-minded “senior citizens,” but also local college students, Kuhn built one of the few multi-issue grassroots organizations directly challenging the status quo on all fronts.
By 1972, the group was calling itself the Gray Panthers, in homage to the very visible and militant Black Panthers. Maggie led protests against the Vietnam War, the arms race, the lack of affordable housing and healthcare and a multitude of issues related to aging, including pension rights, nursing home abuses and racism.
In 1974, the Gray Panthers staged a guerilla theater action in Chicago, outside the annual conference of the American Medical Association, one of their favorite targets. One Panther impersonated the “sick AMA” and four Panthers dressed as “medics” laid him on the sidewalk, probing for a heart beat, but only able to find wads of dollar bills in his chest.
Kuhn became a prominent national voice, chiding TV host Johnny Carson for making fun of old ladies and advocating “sex ’til rigor mortis sets in.” The last thing she did before her death in 1995 was picket a transit fare hike. She was just shy of her 90th birthday.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”