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  • Sophia Casale

Maggie Kuhn Put the Heart in Social Change

Maggie Kuhn was a fierce activist whose career and personal life was heavily entwined in the struggle for social justice. Through radical missions, Maggie actively worked to empower women and racial minorities during her time at the YMCA and the United Presbyterian Church. (Estes & Portacolone, 2009). Her drive to make a considerable difference came from her experiences as a woman and her keen observations of Philadelphia’s inner-city minority residents. However, as Maggie’s accolades began to increase, her professional career in activism halted as soon as she turned 65.

Mandatory retirement was in full swing back in 1970, and droves of older adults were being pushed out of the workforce. Regardless of whether they wanted to retire, their working days were over, and so were their public roles in society. Maggie, being the activist she had been for four decades, disapproved of this expectation and began to form a coalition of her own. Initially called the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults. However, today many may recognize this organization as the Gray Panthers today (Estes & Portacolone, 2009).

At its inception, the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults was born out of a sense of urgency – the first step in Kotter’s 8-Step Model of Change and a powerful initial push toward a societal culture shift. This key strategy was used to draw in individuals who feel passionate about making a change (Kotter & Cohen. 2002). Maggie recognized that if policies such as mandatory retirement could be enacted, implemented, and enforced, what others rooted in age discrimination would be next? Her charisma, determination, and strong will demonstrated a level of commitment to her older adult peers.

In no time, Maggie had recruited five other retirees who shared her fear of worsening ageism (Estes & Portacolone, 2009) and swiftly moved into Kotter’s Step 2: Building a Guiding Team. The small coalition of six sought to forge a connection between the older and younger generations, hence the coalition’s original name. Maggie insisted “that every generation needs those before them and those after them, not only to survive but also to thrive; and that a just society cannot exist without fairness and justice for all generations” (Estes & Portacolone, 2009, p. 8). The core group hoped to create a coalition that brought the definition of ageism to the forefront of conversations around the nation. Each member of the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults were able to picture a future defined not by age but by ability and contributions to society (Estes & Portacolone, 2009), a vision which was instilled in the core group. Unknowingly so was Kotter’s Step 3: Getting the Vision Right.

The Consultation of Older and Younger Adults went from six members in 1972 to 60,000 and 100 chapters across the U.S. by 1982 (Estes & Portacolone, 2009). In an age where social media was not as widespread as today, expanding the coalition to such an extent is quite impressive. However, Maggie and her original core members had to utilize some serious buy-in tactics. Kotter would be proud that Step 4: Communicating the Vision for Buy-Ins was underway. These individuals knew what it felt like to get older, to be forced out of the workforce, and to be discriminated against. They understood the anxieties, anger, and confusion many older adults were feeling because they, too, were experiencing them firsthand.

In the rawest form, Maggie spoke of honesty, which drew a sizeable number of individuals to become activists, standing alongside her as she ruthlessly opposed the federal government, academia, and the medical field. No barrier was too significant for the coalition to handle. They stealthily dealt with opposition and, through their continued resilience, empowered action. They also successfully completed Kotter’s Step 5: Remove Obstacles. Many have compared the coalition’s American Medical Association and Gerontological Society ambushes to that of guerilla theater (Estes & Portacolone. 2009). Despite what some might say, Maggie’s eye-catching and uniquely funny tactics got noticed by key players. Emulating a panther’s fearlessness and power, the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults was rightfully renamed.

The Gray Panthers (GPs) clever activist activities were not hidden behind closed doors but performed in plain sight where masses of specific industry professionals congregated. Estes & Portacolone deal with how these individuals encountered and treated GPs and in turn were viewed by their colleagues, mentors, and the press. Getting a debate with the Gerontological Society’s President at the time, George Maddox, and piquing Johnny Carson’s interest was easy. Maggie, as the eloquent speaker and writer she was, helped more than just Carson and Maddox feel the pain, fear, and anger GPs were experiencing. These short-term wins were not short-lived by any means. The Gray Panthers began to slowly but surely shift the way gerontologists studied older adulthood, brought attention to how the media portrayed older adults, and successfully helped abolish mandatory retirement in 1986 (Estes & Portacolone, 2009). The coalition had blown through Kotter’s Step 6: Create Short Term Wins; and was well onto Step 7: Not Letting Up.

Maggie and her fellow GPs were not satisfied until ageism no longer existed. Urgency continued to stay nestled at the heart of the Gray Panthers. Given the enormous accomplishments the coalition had achieved in the U.S., members pushed to garner global attention and support. The United Nations recognized the implications of ageism’s effect on older adults worldwide and developed the first NGO Committee on Ageing in New York (Estes & Portacolone. 2009).

Twenty-eight years after Maggie Kuhn passed away, her legacy lives on in the research, services, support, and actions of those fighting to give older adults the rights they deserve. These individuals are making change stick and contributing to a global culture shift. Maggie and Kotter would surely be proud.


Estes, C L. & Portacolone, E, (2009). Maggie Kuhn: Social Theorist of Radical Change.

International Journal of Sociology & Social Policy. 29(1&2), 15-25

Kotter, J P. & Cohen, D S. (2002). The Heart of Change Real Life Stories of How People

Change Their Organizations. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press


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