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Founded in 1970, the Gray Panthers is a national organization dedicated to social justice for old and young people alike. However, the Gray Panthers is best known for work on behalf of older persons. It has lobbied and litigated against Age Discrimination in the areas of retirement, housing, and health care. The group's broad liberal agenda reflects the politics of its founder, Margaret E. "Maggie" Kuhn (1905–1995), who built the fledgling organization into a powerful force in local and national politics. Kuhn's success as an organizer, leader, spokeswoman, and author left the Gray Panthers, at the time of her death in 1995, with 70,000 members in 85 chapters nationwide. Although the organization is strongest at the grassroots level, its relatively small seven-member national staff has effected significant changes in federal law.
The protest era of the Vietnam War gave rise to the Gray Panthers. In 1970 the 65-year-old Kuhn was forced by the federal mandatory retirement law to end her 22-year career in the United Presbyterian Church. However, she did not want to retire. In response Kuhn helped form a loose-knit organization called Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. Its primary goals were changing the mandatory retirement age and uniting people of all ages to seek an end to the Vietnam War. As the group gained recognition, the press coined the term "gray panthers," comparing it to the radical black activist group, the black panthers. Kuhn adopted the name in 1972.
The Gray Panthers developed a broad political agenda. Among its goals were affordable housing, the creation of a national health system, nursing home reform, and Consumer Protection.
Lobbying efforts soon established the group's reputation on Capitol Hill. In 1978 it helped secure passage of an amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which raised the mandated retirement age from 65 to 70. In 1981, the Gray Panthers added a representative to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Gray Panthers backed efforts ranging from the passage of gay Civil Rights legislation to the legalization of the medical use of marijuana by those who are ill. They also lobbied strongly during President bill clinton's first term for the creation of a National Health Care system.
The organization was also active in the courts. It joined numerous cases by filing friend-of-the-court briefs and brought its own suits. Perhaps its most significant victory came in 1980, in Gray Panthers v. Schweiker, 652 F.2d 146 (D.C. Cir. 1980), a Class Action suit brought to change Medicare regulations. At issue was how the government informed older patients when Medicare reimbursements were denied: under federal law, benefits of less than $100 could be denied for reimbursement with only a form letter, which was thick with jargon (42 U.S.C.A. § 1395 et seq.). In 1979, the Gray Panthers contended that this notification scheme was an unconstitutional violation of their due process rights. The defendant, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, maintained that it had a congressional mandate to set restraints on the program; any further form of notification would be too expensive, it argued. After losing the initial court case, the Gray Panthers successfully argued on appeal for improved written communication and an oral hearing at which they could explain their side of the dispute.
In the late 1990s, the Gray Panthers launched a national campaign that targeted jobs and workers' rights and universal health care. In 2001 the organization launched "Stop Patient Abuse Now" (SPAN) a coalition of more than 125 national, state, and local organizations representing seniors, patients, and others. The purpose of SPAN is to make prescription drugs affordable to all consumers. The organization continues to advocate for more environmental and safety regulations and for the reduction of military costs. The Gray Panthers has also been in the forefront of those organizations urging corporate reform after the scandals involving Corporate Fraud by such companies as Enron and WorldCom.
The Gray Panthers continues to hold monthly meetings in state chapters and to publish its bimonthly newsletter, Network.
Gray Panthers. Available online at <www.graypanthers.org>(accessed July 26, 2003).
Kuhn, Maggie. 1991. No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. New York: Ballantine.