Many great, worthy and downright dirty deeds have been done on this day in history. The first Olympic Games in modern times began today in 1906 in Athens. Pravda, the Russian Communist Party newspaper was founded in 1912 on Lenin’s 42nd Birthday and published for 79 years until Boris Yeltsin shut it down in 1991. The first helicopters were used in battle today in 1944. The first Earth Day was celebrated today in 1970 and is still celebrated on this day as “Mother-Earth Day”. The Spanish Queen Isabella was born today in 1451. Forty-nine year later, Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil on this day, setting in train the colonisation of Brazil. Immanuel Kant, that most influential of philosophers, was born this day in 1724. The list goes on and on.
For me however, the death today in 1995, at the age of 89 of Maggie Kuhn, is perhaps most worth marking. Not that her death was spectacular. She died of a heart attack in Philadelphia. It was her life that brings hope and courage to my heart.
Born in 1905, Maggie was a devout Christian and Presbyterian, Maggie’s life can be divided into four phases, each more remarkable than the previous one. In the 1930s and 1940s, Maggie taught at the Young Women’s Christian Association, where she educated women about unionising, women’s and social issues.
She caused controversy by starting a human sexuality class in which she discussed such topics as the mechanics of sex, birth control, sexual pleasure, pregnancy, and the difficulties of remaining single in a culture where marriage is the norm.
During World War II, Maggie became programme director for the YWCA-USO, a controversial career choice due to her opposition to the war. In spite of this, she continued to advocate a progressive stance on issues such as desegregation, urban housing, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and nuclear arms.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Maggie moved to work for the Presbyterian Church, where she hoped to give emphasis to the social dimension of the Gospel. While tradition confined most seminarians to fieldwork within churches, Maggie declared that none of her students would pass unless they went out and found poverty within the local community.
Maggie’s real contribution and claim to fame came on her 65th birthday in 1970 when the Presbyterian Church forced her to retire. She organised other retirees and formed the Gray Panthers Movement. Seeing all issues of injustice as inevitably linked, they refused to relegate themselves to elder rights, but focused also on peace, presidential elections, poverty, and civil liberties.
After an elderly woman was killed and robbed of $309 after cashing a cheque, Maggie enlisted the help of Ralph Nader who set up a meeting with the president of the First Pennsylvanian Bank. The bank agreed to establish special check-drawn savings accounts for people over 65 free of charge and to make loans more accessible to older people.
The Gray Panthers combated the then-popular “disengagement theory,” which argued that old age involves a necessary separation from society as a prelude to death. Maggie accused the American way of life for treating the old as problems of society and not as persons experiencing the problems created by society.
She also took a stance on Social Security, arguing that politicians had created an intergenerational war over federal funds in order to divert public attention from the real budgetary issues: overspending on the military and extravagant tax breaks for the rich.
Maggie criticised housing schemes for the elderly, calling them “glorified playpens”. While admitting that they helped to keep seniors safe, she contended that they also segregated the elderly from mainstream society. During her years as a Gray Panther activist, she lived in her own home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Maggie shared that home with younger adults, who received a break on rent in exchange for their help with chores and their companionship. Maggie founded the Shared Housing Resources Centre.
Thanks, Maggie Kuhn for showing us that it is never too late to stand-up and organise for human flourishing.
– Douglas Racionser (you’ll find a full arhcive of these historical musings at http://serendipiday.blogspot.