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Gray Panthers: Bending Bureaucracy and Building Power


Maya Sandler is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her dissertation explores the efforts of health activists to shape safety-net healthcare programs and policies from the 1960s through the 1990s.

This post is part of a series on the power-building strategies of the Black Panthers, Gray Panthers, and Young Lordsfocused on their efforts to organize around health.


Maggie Kuhn, the formidable founder of the Gray Panthers, was often photographed with half-moon glasses, her wispy white hair pinned atop her head, and one arthritic hand raised in a defiant fist. Even as Kuhn emphasized the physical features of her aging body, she also mirrored the attitudes and poses made famous by radical young people. This was her goal. She took a similar approach in describing the organization’s origins, regularly recounting the outrage she had felt as her sixty-fifth birthday neared in 1970 and she realized that mandatory retirement would end her lengthy and fulfilling career within the social justice arm of the United Presbyterian Church. It was a fiery story, one in which she and her comrades came to theorize their experiences as a form of “ageism.” Then, taking action, they banded together to begin fighting the myriad injustices faced by the elderly and to champion the particular contributions that elderly people could make to powerful social movements of the era. The Gray Panthers, who would eventually count thousands of members with chapters in 43 states—and who still exist today—developed a bold and expansive agenda, ranging from opposition to the Vietnam War, to support of women’s liberation, to the creation of a national health service.

Rarely featured in this dramatic retelling, however, was the set of straitlaced administrative skills that Kuhn and her colleagues used to catalyze this visionary project. Though formal bureaucracy was seen as stodgy at best, and a reactionary impediment to progress at worst, the Gray Panthers knew how to make complex systems work for them. This strategy led to meaningful victories that improved institutional services, increased transparency, and galvanized elderly activists in their continued efforts to build power and achieve broader societal changes.

As the first handful of participants began discussing their nascent organization, Kuhn recalled winkingly, “Being the good bureaucrats we were, we decided to call another meeting…My office at work was right next to a Xerox machine, so it was easy to slip over there and whip out copies of a notice for a meeting…The topic of the evening: ‘Older Persons and the Issues of the Seventies.’” The Xerox flyers were effective; one hundred people attended that open meeting. Even as they fashioned themselves as radicals, the Gray Panthers remained the same “good bureaucrats” they had always been. This seeming paradox reflected many of Kuhn’s particular privileges—as a middle-class white woman able to retire in the first place, she felt newly disenfranchised by age discrimination—and this contributed to a broader sense within the Gray Panthers movement that their efforts were intended to re-gain these rights of citizenship and representation, rather than to achieve them for the first time. Though the Gray Panthers eschewed many visible forms of hierarchy in their organizational structure, they nonetheless carried extensive knowledge of bureaucratic practice that they could wield in strategic ways.

This knowledge had some straightforward benefits, including the ability to quickly secure a variety of funding sources, and to manage the administrative demands of a rapidly growing membership-based organization. More subtly, sharing these same bureaucratic techniques with rank-and-file members helped the Gray Panthers to build power and commitment among their expanding ranks. The details of a given bureaucracy, perhaps because of all its rules, could be written down and broken into its individual parts. Teaching bureaucratic process became something that the Gray Panthers organization could offer, something that a single individual might not be able to parse without collective effort. By inviting Gray Panther members to learn bureaucracies and hold them accountable, they empowered elderly people to see themselves as experts capable of disentangling convoluted bureaucracies and reshaping them to better address local needs.

This strategy of bureaucratic navigation is clear in the Gray Panthers’ extensive work on nursing home reform. In the mid-1970s, the United Presbyterian Church offered the Gray Panthers funding to research nursing homes and long-term care across the United States. The project was led by two Gray Panthers, nurse Linda Horn and gerontologist Elma Griesel, and their findings culminated in the publication of Nursing Homes: A Citizens’ Action Guide as a widely-accessible trade press book in 1977. The book was a careful dissection of the legal and regulatory environment that structured nursing homes, and the multitude of ways that these systems failed residents, workers, and their respective communities. Though Kuhn and other Gray Panther leaders spoke in sweeping and visionary terms, the Guide offered a different kind of invitation for curious onlookers or new members.

The authors assumed that readers knew about the horrors of long-term care (an issue that had even made the front page of the New York Times in recent years), but they didn’t assume that most people understood how to take any kind of meaningful action in this arena. Instead, they broke down the overwhelming topic of “nursing homes” into smaller chapters on regulations, inspections, enforcement, and complaints that required no prior knowledge of relevant policy or legislation. The Guide taught bureaucratic navigation as a sequential process of interviewing bureaucrats, documenting their systems and processes, and publicizing the actual workings of local regulatory agencies and nursing home operators. Furthermore, this insistence upon local, small-scale action suggested that elderly people, many of whom described feeling isolated and worthless, could be valuable political actors when they acted together.

The first section of the Guide focused on organizing around nursing homes as a topic of concern. Anticipating reader discomfort with the depth of research and analysis required to understand the frameworks governing long-term care, Horn and Griesel began their chapter on “Education and Research” with something of a pep talk. They wrote,

The primary reason for investigating government agencies is to obtain information which can lead to action…Citizen involvement of this nature does not require experts in law, government, or economics. Any citizens with determination and common sense are quite capable of organizing and conducting an investigation.

These investigations aggregated important and purposefully-obscured information about the state of local nursing home care, but they also invited readers to think of themselves as a community of investigators, worthy opponents to the faceless regulatory agencies that had long ignored their individual complaints. Horn and Griesel continued, suggesting, “To check for accuracy and honesty, at the beginning of the interview ask a few questions to which you already know the answers. Another useful strategy is to present yourself as being very informed or knowledgeable, even more so than you really may be.” This “fake it until you make it” strategy was offered as a way to excavate intentionally hidden information, such as the number of inspectors assigned to cover a region’s nursing homes. However, it also allowed investigators to see themselves as “informed and knowledgeable,” and entitled to shape the policies that structured their lives.

Though the Gray Panthers spoke about the health care “system” frequently, their activism refused a birds’-eye-point-of-view, focusing instead on the intimate ways that elderly people came into contact with providers and institutions. The impacts of this approach can be seen in some of the Gray Panthers’ key successes: the closure of decrepit nursing homes, the instatement of ombudsmen, and the development of active patients’ rights committees. None of these victories resolved the fundamental issues of funding and oversight that plagued nursing homes, but each intervention was designed to position the elderly as expert evaluators of their own needs and experiences. Indeed, each of these actions demanded that nursing homes conform to requirements set by activists, rather than the other way around.

In her memoir, Kuhn described one of the Gray Panthers’ first efforts at a patients’ rights committee, writing that “the administrators of the home, unable to understand that we were taking their patients seriously, asked that our first project be to help the residents make Easter baskets. What the patients really needed was to gain a place at the board table where the decisions about their lives were made.” Though the nursing home research project raised fears on the part of nursing home administrators that rowdy Gray Panthers and their allies might show up at their doors, bringing the press and demanding to be let in, the core of this Gray Panthers project was devoted to offering instructions, step-by-step, to reconstructing existing bureaucracies on activists’ own terms.