Maggie Kuhn, who called herself a little old woman and celebrated her forced retirement in 1970 by founding the Gray Panthers, died Saturday at the home she shared in Philadelphia with a like-minded coterie. She was 89.
“She died peacefully in her sleep,” said her personal assistant, Sue Leary.
Kuhn’s public life began in in 1970. After working 25 years for the United Presbyterian Church, she reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 and was forced to leave her job.
“They gave me a sewing machine,” she once recalled, “but I never opened it. I was too busy.”
Within months of her retirement she joined several friends in founding an organization quickly dubbed the Gray Panthers, a name derived from the radical Black Panthers.
Despite the name and the initial emphasis on championing the elderly, as conceived by Kuhn the organization knew no age boundaries. Its credo described it simply as an advocate for “fundamental social change that would eliminate injustice, discrimination and oppression in our present society.”
For example, in addition to seeking a ban on mandatory retirement, which was eventually enacted into law, the group called for “publicly owned and democratically controlled” utilities.
In last year’s health care debate her organization championed what was widely seen as the most radical of the various proposals: single-payer health insurance - a position that had been on the Gray Panthers’ official agenda since 1977.
A tiny woman who wore her hair in a prim bun that gave her the look of an ideal candidate to be helped across the street by a Boy Scout, Kuhn, who detested the term “senior citizen,” made no apologies for her looks or her age.
“I’m an old woman,” she told The New York Times in 1972. “I have gray hair, many wrinkles and arthritis in both hands. And I celebrate my freedom from bureaucratic restraints that once held me.”
Kuhn, whose opposition to the war in Vietnam made her a hero to many young protesters, had a disarming argument in recruiting younger people to her cause: “Everyone of us is growing old.”
Kuhn leaves no immediate survivors.