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A Champion for Women and All Americans

Posted on 03/01/19 by Mary Mazur, Community Engagement

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, founder of AARP

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, founder of AARP  

Women’s History Month in the United States grew out of a 1978 celebration of women’s contributions to culture, history and society organized by the school district in Sonoma, California. The idea spread throughout communities, school districts and organizations across the country. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8th as National Women’s History Week. The following year, Congress established the week as a national celebration. And six years later, the National Women’s History Project successfully petitioned Congress to expand to the entire month of March.

Celebrating Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus

This March, we celebrate the contributions of women across the US, including Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, founder of both AARP and the NRTA (formerly National Retired Teachers Association). Dr. Andrus was a disruptor and a social innovator who defied convention and challenged stereotypes throughout her life.

In her day, it was uncommon for women to pursue higher education. Nonetheless, she earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1903, then began teaching. She eventually became the first female high school principal in California.

While she had opportunity, she also saw retired teachers struggling with no health insurance and small, inadequate pensions. She also saw insurers canceling auto policies for older people or raising premiums to unaffordable levels by automatically categorizing anyone at that age as a reckless driver.

After her retirement in 1944, Dr. Andrus set out to address these problems by founding the NRTA and AARP. She focused on developing solutions, widening opportunities and overcoming negative aging stereotypes. AARP gave older people a collective voice to advocate for pension reform, affordable health care, financial security, improved housing and an end to age discrimination. She also spread her philosophy of productive aging, encouraging older Americans “To Serve; Not to Be Served.”

She fought for affordable health insurance for older Americans and believed that their collective purchasing power should qualify them for group health insurance. But, no company would write a policy. She was turned down by 42 insurance companies. But she didn’t give up. In 1955, she convinced a New York insurance executive to agree to a one-year trial health plan for retired teachers in New York. It worked. In 1956, this affordable plan was offered by Continental Casualty to National Retired Teachers Association members nationwide and became a huge success.

Looking forward

Thanks to Dr. Andrus and women leaders like her (including current AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins), women are actively engaged in making life better for all members of society and demonstrating that our later years can be a time of growth. While times have changed since Dr. Andrus began her crusade, the need for women as leaders, innovators and role models for future generations has not. Nor has the need to help and empower women to age successfully.

As we conclude our celebration of AARP’s 60th anniversary, we encourage you to read more about the history and legacy of Dr. Andrus.

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