The second Bush administration had just begun and the American war in the Middle East was grinding along in its deadly, directionless way when I was contacted by an organizer with a New York City group called Grandmothers Against the War. Eighteen of her comrades had been arrested at the Times Square Recruiting Center the previous fall when they tried to enlist to replace the young people serving in Bush’s occupation of Iraq. They were about to go on trial for allegedly blocking pedestrian traffic.
Over the next year and a half, I helped write and circulate many press releases for the Grandmothers. I sometimes took part in antiwar actions with them and other groups they worked with. I also started to learn more about these elder activists. They had a shrewd way of going against people’s stereotypes about older people, while using those preconceptions creatively to connect with the public. It was fun, it got attention, and it fostered a more decentralized, inclusive activist culture.
That approach had its roots—as did some of the Grandmothers—with the Gray Panthers, one of the more remarkable movements to emerge from the 1960s. Superficially, the Panthers were a pressure group for the rights and dignity of the aged. But like other emblematic 1960s movements, including Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party, they built their activism on a vision of a new society in which elderly people could achieve greater control of their lives by working through a model of community partly based on mutual aid. They challenged every social assumption about how and where the elderly should live, how they interact with younger people, and even how they should conduct their sex lives.
If that put them beyond the pale of much conventional politics, it also made them one of the most recognizable activist groups of the time. That’s partly because the Gray Panthers wanted more than simply to secure more rights and resources for their "interest group." They sought to change the way the public viewed the elderly and, beyond that, the social role people were expected to play at every stage of life. They launched a nationwide Media Watch that spotted and called out stereotypical portrayals of the aged. Yet they also took full advantage in the early 1970s when the media became enchanted with the image of little old ladies and gentlemen forming picket lines and borrowing the name of a black revolutionary movement.
They returned the favor in 1973 when Bobby Seale was running for mayor of Oakland and the Black Panthers in that city were enduring intense pressure from police, FBI, and other agencies. As part of their Project SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment), the Oakland Gray Panthers arranged for Black Panther teams to escort seniors who lived in dangerous neighborhoods. An obvious and practical response to an everyday problem, it also emphasized the Gray Panthers’ solidarity with the movements of other excluded and disadvantaged groups. It was part of an endlessly creative effort to muddle society’s expectations and open up new possibilities for how groups like the elderly and inner-city African Americans could interact with each other.
The Gray Panthers have also persisted. Despite a period of decline and identity crisis, the organization survived and began to revitalize itself in the new century, meanwhile spreading its unique activist approach through groups like Grandmothers Against War. But the Panthers’ social vision—which included intergenerational housing, community-run clinics emphasizing preventive care, and a linkage between social services and economic democracy—may be the most intriguing thing about them today. In the early years of the movement, that vision was built on the presumption that an affluent society should be able to perfect itself. But it also offers at least some partial answers to our current dilemma, namely, how to collectively define and fulfill our social needs at a time when government is retreating from the provision of social services and an increasingly rapacious economic elite fights to maintain its grip on power.
"Gray Panthers are out to make old a beautiful thing, not something to be hidden but something to be declared and affirmed," founder Maggie Kuhn said, explaining the Panthers’ project. "The thing that we’re up to is that life is a continuum and age is a period of fulfillment, of continued growth and creativity where the inputs, the experience of a lifetime can be related to the group of people who are coming into their creative productive years, and to our young people."
This conception of life has clear practical implications today, when more and more working families find themselves simultaneously raising children and caring for aging relatives. A fruitful place to start exploring such connections is the new book Gray Panthers, a long needed history of the movement, by Roger Sanjek, a sociologist who has also been an on-and-off participant for more than 30 years. His book is concise and slightly breathless as it crams a great deal of struggle, accomplishment, and personal drama into just under 300 pages.
The Gray Panthers conceived of themselves as a multigenerational movement and they worked on an astonishingly wide range of issues at once, including social justice and antiwar causes not directly related to aging. This is part of what continues to make them of interest to contemporary activists trying to forge connections between different but related struggles, and Sanjek was right to encompass as much of their story as possible in his book.
By far the highest-profile Gray Panther was Kuhn, a career activist, organizer, and program coordinator for the Young Women’s Christian Association—and later the United Presbyterian Church—who began putting the idea together for a broad-based movement of socially conscious elderly when she herself faced mandatory retirement at 65. Sanjek does his best not to let Kuhn dominate his book, giving plenty of space to other important Gray Panthers, including Lillian Rabinowitz, who founded the Berkeley network, Frances Klafter, Elma Griesel, and New York organizers Lillian Sarno and Sylvia Wexler.
But the center of gravity keeps shifting back to Kuhn who emerges as a remarkable activist and visionary, as well as a media magnet who made the Panthers a pop cultural presence as well as an effective movement. Partly this was because she was an eloquent speaker and conversationalist and a deeply appealing presence. Her appearances with Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson were memorable and she was constantly in the news and in print media during the 1970s and 1980s. Another reason, however, was that she insisted, both within the Gray Panthers and in public, on centering elder activism around a broader social vision, not just the issue of the moment.
Kuhn lived in an intergenerational household in Philadelphia that served as a prefiguration of the kind of community she wanted the Panthers to help build. At a time when it was still considered unseemly, she insisted on talking about sex as an important part of life for the elderly, including her longtime relationship with a married man and later her involvement with a 21-year-old male Black Panther. Breaking taboos was her way of broadening the discussion of what life could be for the elderly and keeping the movement focused on possibility rather than on the next strategic compromise.
Elderly people were one of the last and, superficially, the least likely identity group to come to consciousness in the 1960s. But they had every reason. At the time, a far higher percentage of older Americans lived in poverty than the general population. Social Security was not yet fully indexed to inflation and Medicare was just getting started. Many of the elderly were warehoused in nursing homes, often in deplorable conditions. If they wanted to keep leading active lives, the cards were stacked against them. Big employers generally enforced mandatory retirement rules and nowhere were workplaces or public facilities required to accommodate their special needs.
The term "ageism" was coined in 1968, the year of uprisings, by gerontologist Robert Butler as a catch-all for the host of demeaning prejudices heaped on the old, ranging from the nasty (doddering, "senile," crotchety) to the patronizing (passive, old-fashioned, cute). Older people were starting to complain, get active, and form groups to fight for their rights. The American Association of Retired People (AARP) was launched in the late 1950s. The following decade other large advocacy organizations appeared, including the labor-backed National Council of Senior Citizens and the National Caucus on the Black Aged.
They quickly began to make progress. In 1965, Congress passed Medicare as well as the Older Americans Act, which funded a collection of new service and employment programs for the elderly. A year later came the first iteration of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which started the move to abolish compulsory retirement.
The Gray Panthers, who coalesced in 1972, were different, however. They didn’t aim to be a mass organization directed by a Washington staff that mobilized its members from the top down. Instead, they organized through locals or "networks" loosely joined to a national office. At their peak in the early 1980s, the Panthers had only 5,000 to 6,000 members and 122 networks, whereas AARP’s rolls topped 30 million. But the Panthers were hard-core, committed activists, many of them veterans of the old left and the radical wing of the labor movement, who joined because they wanted to give significant time and creativity to the cause.
As such, they helped push other elder activists in a more aggressive direction. Kuhn described the Gray Panthers as "gadflies to keep older, more established…organizations moving toward ever more radical goals." In this they weren’t always successful. To give one instance, they fought against, but failed to prevent, a restructuring of Social Security in 1983 that raised payroll taxes, cut benefits, and boosted the retirement age.
Attempting to testify before the Greenspan commission, which set out the main elements of the restructuring, Kuhn was hauled away and arrested, making headlines. Other advocacy groups for the aged went along, however, because they felt it was the best deal they could get. Their willingness to compromise marked the end of more than 40 years of expansion and improvement for America’s support system for the aged. Soon after, the movement against Social Security would start to spread its caricature of the elderly as "greedy geezers" devouring the resources of the young.
But the Gray Panthers were influential beyond their numbers in pushing for nursing home reform, an end to age discrimination in hiring, long-term care insurance, and better services that would help the elderly to lead more independent lives. They fought hard for a national health care system and forged strong alliances with influential figures such as Representatives Ron Dellums and Claude Pepper, Senator Paul Wellstone, and Ralph Nader. They participated just as actively in the campaigns for a nuclear freeze and an end to U.S. intervention in Central America and its support for apartheid South Africa.
From the beginning, the Gray Panthers regarded these other causes as integral to their mission. This had fundamentally radical implications, tying the Panthers philosophically to other groups that understood the need to establish a degree of autonomy and control of their environment if they wanted to improve and achieve respect for their lives. For instance, the innovative Over 60 Health Center, which the Gray Panthers opened in Berkeley in 1977, was the product of their desire not just for a clinic that specialized in their needs, but one that emphasized preventive care and was run by the community of users, not just professionals who provided the service.
Shared housing—"congregate living arrangements" in which people from a span of generations came together to form a household or family of choice—was one of the Gray Panthers’ most ambitious concepts. Networks in Berkeley, Brooklyn, Denver, and Boston explored the idea. A group of Gray Panthers in Boston actually secured a grant to open a Shared Living Project residence, and the practice continues to spread modestly in some neighborhoods.
What the Over 60 Clinic, shared housing, and some other Panther projects had in common was an underlying, if not always conscious, critique of the New Deal-Great Society model for social progress. That model put the definition and fulfillment of social needs into the hands of technocrats: those schooled, trained, and indoctrinated to provide a professional "service." While it accomplished quite a bit in the decades before Reagan and the "Great Reversal," it provided very little voice for the people who participated in government social programs and received government assistance. Besides a name, one of the things the Gray Panthers shared with the Black Panther Party was a desire to bring social assets back under community control.
"Planning in an economic democracy must be under the control of elected representatives of the people while utilizing the expertise of scientists, technicians, economists, workers, [and] consumers," a Gray Panther manifesto from 1977 said. "Some planning [should be done] on the federal level, but much can be by regional and community bodies [with] as much local control as possible."
The Gray Panthers, like most social democratic-leaning movements in the 1970s, advocated a kind of decentralized mixed economy that firmly subordinated private enterprise to public need. But that kind of synthesis became less tenable after Reagan, when the continuing conservative dominance in Washington persuaded many grassroots progressive groups that they had to move to a more top-down model to defend their gains and survive.
The Gray Panthers experimented with such a structure, which meant investing more control in a Washington office that would mobilize the local networks when an issue or a bill came up that required "turnout" or contact with an elected official. They were also trying to cope with a decline in the movement itself. Panther membership fell in the 1980s, with the passing of some activists and, more importantly, the failure of many younger members to stick with the group, undermining the lifecycle model Kuhn and other early organizers had hoped would sustain it. However, the movement survived and in recent years has attempted to move back to the original network model.
But why the decline? The Gray Panthers were in part victims of their own success. Many of the large and small initiatives they pursued in the early decades—annual indexation of Social Security benefits, an end to mandatory unemployment, kneeling buses—became reality. Others, such as nursing home reform, national health care, and the mainstreaming of the disabled have been tougher slogs, but now claim much broader support. Meanwhile, the Gray Panther model of activism has been diffused: in the U.S. with groups like Grandmothers Against the War and in other countries through organizations that directly copied it (Graue Panther in Germany, Les Panthères Grises in France, and more).
All of which points to the effectiveness of the simple but shrewd frame the Gray Panthers presented: a group of elderly women and men adopting a militant style of organizing that people had previously assumed was reserved for the young. But the movement’s survival also suggests that they have benefited—may, ultimately, depend on—Kuhn’s insistent focus on a radical vision: in housing, health care provision, sexual relationships. This aspect of the movement is where, if the Gray Panthers persist, they could play an important role, not only in pushing against social and economic barriers, but in creating new ways to live beyond them.
"Until rigor mortis sets in," Kuhn said, "do one outrageous thing every week," and she meant it.