Gray Panthers

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Feb 27, 2009 - Social Science - 298 pages
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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.


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About the author (2009)


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 32, and for Lani Sanjek and me the Gray Panthers transformed our notions of what our 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s 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 century were "out of place." So were factory workers sitting-down on plant floors in the 1930s. And African Americans sitting-in at "white" eateries between 1957 and 1960. And 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, like Queens part of the City University of New York, and soon began volunteering at Berkeley''s Over 60 Clinic founded by the Gray Panthers. In December she became the clinic''s director. Though we intended to stay in Berkeley for only nine months, Lani served as director for two years, while I became an Over 60 volunteer applied anthropologist and then an active member of the Berkeley Gray Panthers. During our second year I was awarded a fellowship in the University of California, San Francisco, medical anthropology program headed by Margaret Clark, a pioneer in the anthropology of aging.

Health care visionary and activist Lillian Rabinowitz, convener of the Berkeley network, was our Gray Panther mentor. In Berkeley we also met Gray Panther movement founder and leader Maggie Kuhn (pronounced "koon"), whom we had seen on the Johnny Carson television show a few times, and who in 1981 was our houseguest on a visit to New York.

In 1978 I returned to New York and Queens College, where I still teach. In 1980 I joined the New York Gray Panthers in Manhattan, and also established ties with the Gray Panthers of Queens, who met near the College. In 1981 I was elected to the Gray Panther National Steering Committee. The following year I organized a meeting of leaders of the seven Gray Panther networks in New York. This resulted in forming an umbrella group, the Gray Panthers of New York City, which I chaired from 1982 to 1987. Lani continued to work as a nurse in community-based settings, and also joined the New York Gray Panther health committee. Meanwhile, I began a team fieldwork project on relations between established white and black Americans and new Asian and Latin American immigrants in Queens, and this led to my appointment as founding director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College in 1987. The time demands of this position made it impossible to continue as convener of the citywide Panther group. While remaining dues-paying members of the Manhattan network, by 1988 Lani and I were no longer "active" Gray Panthers. That year she joined the staff of New York StateWide Senior Action Council, a membership organization of older activists, where she worked as a health care advocate and organizer until retiring in 2006.

During the 1980s and 1990s Lani and I kept in touch with Lillian Rabinowitz during her visits to her sister Pearl in Queens. Over shared meals Lillian gave vivid updates on activities in Berkeley, where the Gray Panthers continued to flourish. In 1992 Lani and I attended the twentieth anniversary celebration of the New York Gray Panthers. Mirroring the bigger picture nationally, their membership was shrinking and other New York City networks were consolidating. In 1995 the movement''s founder Maggie Kuhn died at age 89. The following year I spoke about my Queens research at a New York Gray Panther meeting, and in 1998 Lani, who that year co-founded the New York Network for Action on Medicare (NYNAM), briefed members on threats to Medicare. By then only one Gray Panther network still existed in New York, and in 2000 it ended regular meetings.

I began this book in 1981-82 when I wrote first drafts of Chapters 2 and 3 covering the origins and first five years of the Gray Panther movement. I utilized eighteen boxes of organizational documents at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, which Maggie Kuhn and the Panthers'' executive director Edith Giese arranged for me to visit; and I reviewed national office files with the cooperation of Gray Panther staff members Sherry Clearwater and Rosalie Riechman. I also interviewed Maggie about her pre-Panther life and the movement''s beginnings. In 1982 I returned to Berkeley to interview Lillian Rabinowitz and work through that network''s files. In 1983 I resigned from the National Steering Committee after struggles between "National" and network-based factions (described in Chapter 6). Dispirited, I did not return to work on the manuscript until 1985 when I completed a draft of Chapter 4 on the Over 60 Clinic and Berkeley network. I planned to finish the book in 1986, but that year my father died and I made no further progress.

My three Gray Panther chapters remained on a back burner while I continued my Queens fieldwork project and completed a book about it. In 1999 I read Maggie''s autobiography, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn, published in 1991. Aside from personal details it contained relatively little about her career not found in previous writings and interviews, and surprisingly little about the Gray Panthers. In 1999 Lani and I also attended the twelfth biannual Gray Panther convention in Washington D.C. In 2002 I returned to my Gray Panther manuscript. A 2003-04 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and a 2006 Queens College sabbatical leave allowed me to revise Chapters 2, 3, and 4, add coverage of the Panther movement in New York City, and bring the national, Berkeley, and New York pictures up to date. As it turned out, the New York network resumed meeting in 2003, and while completing this book I became an "active" Gray Panther again. In 2004 we attended the thirteenth Gray Panther national convention in Seattle, and in 2007 I was a guest at the spring and fall national Board meetings. Lani and I also revisited Berkeley in 2007 and attended a meeting of the network where our involvement with the Gray Panther movement began three decades earlier.

I completed this book as I turned 63, and many Gray Panther concerns look different to me now than when my consciousness about aging and ageism was raised in my early 30s. Sharing in hospice care for my father Russell, who died from prostate cancer at age 70 (which is young to me now), and helping my mother Betty, 90, following her stroke and rehabilitation therapy in 2003 and subsequent falls and hospitalizations, plus frequent visits at her assisted living residence, color my understanding of health and long-term care issues. So have the lives of Lani''s parents James, who died at 93 in 2006, and June Morioka, 92, both hearing aid users who aged in place at home with family members close at hand. Lani and I also remained close to a few activist friends as they entered their 90s, continuing to be inspired by their engagement with current politics and with life.

As a childless couple beginning our own retirement years, we remain concerned about war and intervention abroad, and threats to Medicare and Social Security at home. It is the struggles waged by our 1960s political generation, plus the baby boomers who follow, that will help determine our future in a world we share with people on all continents, and in a United States where by 2030 one in five persons will be 65 and over.

Plan of the Book

In telling the stories of the national Gray Panther movement and its Berkeley and New
local groups this book combines chronological and topical viewpoints. Chapter 1 briefly surveys the rise of old age poverty and retirement in the twentieth century United States, and the subsequent political responses by older people. It also presents biographies of six older Gray Panthers focused on their political activism from the 1930s onward, and for two younger members from the 1960s, before they joined the movement in the 1970s. Chapter 2 examines the pre-Gray Panther life of founder Maggie Kuhn, and then her creation of the movement in 1970 and its activities until 1972. Chapter 3 continues the national Gray Panther story through the group''s first convention in 1975. It also introduces the theme of tension between national and local levels of the movement, which recurs in later chapters.


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