Women's History Month: Celebrating Dr. Andrus

Posted on 03/05/21

AARP is proud to highlight our founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, and to honor her legacy during Women’s History Month.

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus assumed many different roles in her lifetime: daughter, educator, caregiver, advocate, and leader. But AARP remembers her as our founder, and, as part of Women’s History Month this year, would like to share her story with you, our members.

Born in San Francisco in 1881, Dr. Andrus spent most of her childhood in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, she became a teacher for two different pioneering settlements—Hull House and Chicago Commons. After retuning to California with her family, Andrus continued to teach and became principal of East Los Angeles High School in 1916—the first female principal of a major urban high school in California. While principal, Andrus established high academic standards and programs such as the Junior Coordinating Council, an outreach project that gave students work opportunities in their communities. But, more than anything, she supported her students endlessly, so far as even defending some in court.

However, her advocacy didn’t stop at supporting her students. Noticing the financial struggles of some retired faculty members, Andrus founded the Foundation to Assist California Teachers in 1927 and even raised money to establish retirement homes in the area.

But it was Andrus’s own retirement in 1944 that resulted in even larger change. While caring for her ill mother, Andrus realized that her own pension was only $60/month. That was enough money to support herself, an unmarried woman, but Andrus knew others were not so fortunate. She discovered one of her former colleagues lived in a chicken coop to make ends meet and didn’t want to sit idly by—she wanted to take action.

 In 1947, Andrus formed the National Retired Teachers Association to give retired individuals a nation-wide voice. She knocked on doors for nearly ten years to advocate for a health insurance plan for older Americans and, in 1958, one finally opened.

As her health plan grew in popularity, Andrus founded AARP, then known as the American Association of Retired Persons. Her goals were simple: to give older Americans a voice and help them live their lives to the fullest. She famously said, “Old age is not a defeat, but a victory, not a punishment, but a privilege.” And, she wanted to provide older Americans with the resources to discover all of life’s possibilities. Just some of Dr. Andrus’s successes are:

  • Giving older Americans a collective voice to advocate for subjects they are passionate about, whether it be affordable healthcare, pension reform, or age discrimination
  • Developing and advocating for different products and services missing from the consumer market that would enhance the lives of Americans 50+
  • Providing older Americans with opportunities to live to the fullest, such as organizing leisurely tours to Europe at the beginning of AARP’s founding

But, most importantly, Dr. Andrus founded AARP with the message of giving back to the community. She lived by the motto “to serve, not to be served” and devoted her life to caring for others. Dr. Andrus died at 83 years old in 1967, the same year that AARP reached a million members. Now, with nearly 38 million members, AARP honors her legacy as we continue to protect and support Americans 50+ as both a fierce defender and wise friend.

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