Review: Gray Panthers (Roger Sanjek)

Sanjek, Roger.  Gray Panthers. University of Pennsylvania Press.  320 pp.Cloth 2009  ISBN 978-0-8122-4137-2 , $65.00; Paper 2011, ISBN 978-0-8122-2191-6  $26.50; Ebook 2011, ISBN 978-0-8122-0351-6,$26.50

Studies of elder activism are rare indeed.  Much more so the kind of rich and detailed account which veteran anthropologist and activist Roger Sanjek offers us here.  Gray Panthers has much to give those interested in older people, not just because of the quality of the study itself, but also because the Panthers to whom we are introduced are themselves experts on aging from whom we need to learn.
Some professor once taught me that  the test of a good ethnography was the degree to which the data it presented could enable another scholar to re-anaylze it to answer different questions.  I was reminded of this criteria as I read Gray Panthers.  The careful study of the emblematic activist organization is rich enough in data to speak to a dozen different research agendas: relating to the history of left politics in the United States, the activism of older people, social movement organizing, leadership and gender, ideas about older people, intergenerational politics, and insider anthropology, among others. The life history of a social movement, Gray Panthers traces the story of the eponymous organization from the moment of the group’s inception in 1971 in a fight against mandatory retirement and the ageism it represented.  The group grew to represent the interests of older Americans in a variety of ways: denouncing living conditions in nursing homes, unethical practices in the hearing aid industry (in collaboration with Ralph Nader), media portrayals of older people, for example.   Yet, it has been much more than that.  It’s slogan, “Age and Youth in Action,” signals the group’s intergenerational philosophy.  It took up pressing social justice issues of the moment, including the war in Viet Nam, public health care, sexism and racism.  It is to this larger critique that the group owes its name, an intentional reference to the Black Panthers. The story spans several decades and many states, including specific chapters focusing on the Panthers in Berkeley, New York, and Washington.  (Sanjek originally encountered the Panthers in Berkeley in 1977.  He and his wife both became personally involved with the Panthers.  The author only later took up the group as an object of study.)  The account continues through the organizations various ups and downs, including internal conflict, and the death of its found Maggie Kuhn in 1995, to the time of writing.
For scholars interested in aging, the book is doubly fruitful.  There is much to learn about how older people organize and do politics.  Most striking perhaps is the symbolic politics which the Panthers were so good at: intentionally interrupting mainstream views of older people and aging by doing “outrageous” things.  Another important question for older activists is time.  In Gray Panthers, we see this particular relation to time in at least three ways.  First, older people are often retired, thus have more time available to dedicate to their causes.  Second, older people also benefit from long experience and extensive networks.  Once and again in Gray Panthers we see how members make use of expertise and contacts acquired in earlier stages of their lives.  One of the most personally compelling aspects for this reader was the way the Panthers connect us to earlier activist movements and political struggles that have been all but forgotten in US political memory — in particular the pre-cold war left traditions.  Third, the activists and their organization have to contend with the fact they are nearer the end of their lives, than the beginning.  This can create a sense of urgency, that time is limited. It also creates practical challenges for political organizing.  Experienced and knowledgeable members are more likely than their younger counterparts to be sidelined by illness, or even to die.  The particular strengths of and challenges faced by the elder activists here can thus inform our understanding of the third age more generally.
In sum, Gray Panthers is a book that needed to be written.  Evidently Sanjek was the man for the job.  The Panthers have played an important role in redefining what it means to be old.   This book both describes and continues that project.

Lindsay DuBois
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology
Dalhousie University

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