Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Only Stone Left Unturned (1905)

Feb 19, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


   The 1960s was the decade where rebels had any number of causes: The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, anti-Vietnam protests. There was also another battle, and though it did not make the seismic waves as others of its era, it likewise proved a noble struggle.

     One can judge a culture by how it treats its aged. Filial devotion has always been a serious business in China, deeply etched in the national psyche. At the other end of the spectrum are societies that practice senicide-the killing of the elderly. The Inuit looked at the aged as useless feeders and sent them to a watery death on an ice floe. In contemporary Western culture-unlike extended family units where grandparents are integral members-the old often spend their “golden years” in retirement facilities.  The atmosphere in some of these institutions reeks of disinfectant and despair. Injustice against the mistreatment of senior citizens was a wrong one women dedicated her later years in righting. 

   Margaret “Maggie” was on the road to activism pre-birth. In 1905 the pregnant Mrs. Kuhn was in Memphis with her husband and, unwilling to deliver a child in the segregated South returned home to Buffalo before her due date. When Maggie was young, women had three career choices; teaching, nursing, or marriage: she chose none of these. As a teenager she graduated with honors from Western Reserve University’s College for Women in Cleveland where she majored in English literature, sociology, and French. A staunch suffragette she instituted a college chapter of the League of Women Voters. In a 1993 interview, Kuhn said her activism began with her sociology classes that involved visits to jails, sweatshops, and slums.

       With her degree under her belt, Maggie moved to Philadelphia and joined the Young Women’s Christian Association where she became the head of the Department of Business Girls. During World War II, with the men fighting in Europe, Maggie-in Rosie the Riveter fashion-encouraged females to exchange aprons for factory attire. The YWCA sent her to Columbia University to study reform, and she lectured to women workers about standing up for themselves in a patriarchal controlled country. She found her career niche when she became the secretary of the Social Education and Action Department at the Presbyterian Church.  In her position she edited the journal Social Progress that focused on the desegregation movement of the 1940s, anti-McCarthyism in the 1950s, and ending the Vietnam War in the 1960s. 

       In 1970, at age 65, though vital as ever, the law mandated Maggie’s resignation. Her employer gave her a sewing machine as a parting gift, one that remained unused. Although she had known termination was inevitable, Ms. Kuhn recalled she felt “suddenly shocked and wounded, then angry, at having to be sent out to pasture.” Recalling her reaction, she reflected, “Then I figured there must be thousands of old people like me, so I decided it was time to fight back.” Political activist Ralph Nader proclaimed of the expiration date on Maggie’s career, “The most significant retirement in modern American history.” Maggie decided she would not fade quietly away and stated, “Don’t agonize, organize.” Infuriated at this injustice she and five female friends whose employers had been forced to cut loose because they were seniors, met to address the problem of ageism in America. They formed the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. The group included the young, also victims of societal stereotyping. In a nod to solidarity, Maggie shared her large house in Philly’s Germantown neighborhood with different generations. She referred to retirement homes as “glorified playpens where wrinkled babies can be safe and out of the way. There is little stimulation and people regress.” If she had to live in one, she remarked, she would just die. In a year the organization had more than 100,000 members in 32 states and a half a dozen countries. In 1972, a TV newsman dubbed them the Gray Panthers, a spin on the name of the civil rights group of the era. Unlike the militant group her choice of weapons were words. Ms. Kuhn’s philosophy was, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes, for well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” Maggie’s mission was to end the marginalization of the elderly, a bastion of prejudice.  As she put it, “We can no longer afford to scrap-pile people.” Headquarters was in the basement of the Tabernacle Church, and the Gray Panthers took aim at the lack of universal health-care, economic disparity, and corporate monopolies. Of the latter she stated, “Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few and powerlessness in the hands of so many.” In 1977 the group published “Nursing Homes: A Senior Citizen’s Action Guide and initiated long overdue legislation.” After sustained pressure from the Gray Panthers in 1986, President Reagan, aged 75, abolished the antiquated law mandating forced retirement. Kuhn, a powerful speaker despite her frail frame argued, “The first myth is that old age is a disease, a terrible disease that you never admit you’ve got, so you lie about your age. Well, it’s not a disease-it’s a triumph. Because you’ve survived. Failure, disappointment, sickness, loss-you’re still here.” The Gray Panthers were sponsors of “the Black House Conference on Aging” and protested the lack of African Americans at the first White House Conference. Another crusade was death with dignity; their pro euthanasia stance was based on the belief that when doctors take drastic measures to keep patients alive they are not prolonging life; rather, they are just prolonging death. This subject was a raw wound for Kuhn as her comatose brother was kept alive for several days before being allowed to pass. Maggie took steps to ensure that would never be her fate, and her lawyer, minister, and physician co-signed her living will. 

       In 1972 Maggie, who the New York Times descried as a “diminutive militant,” was a frail-looking woman who wore her hair in a prim bun that gave her the look of a candidate who a boy-scout would help across the street.  She made no apologies for her looks or her age saying, “I’m an old woman. I have gray hair, many wrinkles and arthritis in both hands. And I celebrate my freedom from bureaucratic restraints that once held me.” In attire, as in spirit, Maggie dressed in an unconventional manner. In a 1992 interview at her home for The Los Angeles Times, Kuhn sat on a sofa, petting a cat, her staid gray wool suit offset with purple tights and black Nikes. At rallies she would show up in a mini-dress or a slit skirt with stylish boots. When impassioned, she would punch the air with an arthritic, clenched fist, a gesture accompanied by her organization’s trademark Gray Panther Growl. Maggie told interviewers, “The human life span has almost doubled since the turn of the century. The challenge is, what are you supposed to do with that when you’re supposed to retire halfway through life?” The answer was the G. P.’s mission.

      In the 1980s, its pigment-free members went after President Reagan’s budget cuts and later President George Bush’s Gulf War.  As a witness to the signing of the pension bill, President Ford called on her by asking, “What have you to say, young lady?” She felt his words were condescending and retorted, “Mr. President, I am an old woman.” Maggie explained her anger saying,  “My wrinkles are a badge of distinction. I earned them. Don’t flush away my life by denying them.” The crown prince of television, Johnny Carson felt her ire when she appeared on his show and criticized him for his “Aunt Blabby” routine. To make her point, she presented him with a Gray Panther T-shirt and admonished him that the nation is full of elderly women who are not dingbats.

        In her role as wearing the crown of the Gray Panthers, her words were “honey with a hammer” as she travelled 100,000 miles a year as spokeswoman, wrote a column for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and authored books on aging. She was the subject of two documentary films: Aging in America and Maggie Kuhn:  Wrinkled Radical. In the pages of her autobiography, entitled No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn, Maggie was as outspoken as she was in person and her memoir included descriptions of her sexual and romantic encounters, from college days through her last decade. She expressed her romance philosophy, “Sex and learning end only when rigor mortis sets in.” She wrote she was fortunate to have had so many “wonderful affairs” including a 15-year relationship with a married minister and a liaison with a man 50 years her junior, a student at the University of Washington, begun when she was in her 70s and he was in his 20s.  When asked the inevitable question as to why she had never married, Maggie’s invariable response, “Sheer luck.”

       In her twilight years in an interview she stated, “When I look back on my life, I see so many things I could not have done if I had been tied to a husband and children.” Ms. Kuhn never attached a negative connotation to the status of “old maid.” Maggie said that to deny sexuality in old age “is to deny life itself.” The only time her contemporaries felt she had gone too far was her suggestion that in late life heterosexual women might consider lesbian relationships. This statement was in keeping with her belief that the recipe for staying alert was to “try to do at least one outrageous thing a day.” Kuhn became known internationally, and by 1978 the World Almanac listed her as one of the 25 most influential women in the United States. In the mid-1980s, The Gray Panthers declined in membership to approximately 50,000, in part because of another powerful lobbying group: the American Association for Retired Persons. Ms. Kuhn said that this statistic was an indication that a new and more conservative generation of older people was to be its successor.

       Despite her physical ailments-arthritis, a degenerative eye ailment, and osteoporosis-the only effects of age that she could not fight against-did not slow her down. Pleased with the inroads she had made, she reflected, “We have begun to shape and shake up an ageist society. We have begun to celebrate age, not deny it. Old age is a triumph and I think that we have made that case.” Maggie survived bouts of cancer and two random street muggings that left her with a broken arm and shoulder. Two weeks before her death, she joined striking transit workers on their picket line.  Although she made it her goal to live until age 90, she felt her end was imminent and had friends celebrate her August birthdate in April. Christina Long, who helped write her autobiography, said Maggie’s former lover, then in his 40s, was at the celebration, “He seemed very proud of the romance.” At age 89 Maggie passed away in her sleep from cardiopulmonary arrest. In her final days, wracked with pain and sedated with morphine, she sat up in bed and declared, “I am an advocate for justice and peace.” Her indomitable spirit never left her and she made good on a comment she had made years before, I’m going to be outrageous until the end.”  No doubt, had she been conscious, she would have let out a last Panther roar.

    Ms. Kuhn forever altered the perception of senior citizens, which, hopefully, we all will be. The firebrand of The Gray Panthers aptly summed up her life when she wrote that she would like her gravestone inscribed: “Here lies Maggie Kuhn under the only stone she left unturned