Gender Performance in the Black Panther Party
Woman Panthers had to create space for themselves in this organization because of the transforming gender ideologies within and outside the confines of the party. As previously discussed, there were certain expectations for woman Panthers (wife, mother, support system) and they had to combat gender discrimination on a daily basis from their peers, despite institutionalized effort to combat it. As a result of the preexisting gender politics of the party, some Black women Panthers were required to overcompensate for their womanhood and adopt a hypermasculine and strong persona that was more in line with the ways male panthers behaved. This allowed them to ensure that they were respected, safe, and listened to within their organization. Gender performance was also influenced by macroscale societal gender ideologies; Woman Panthers had to navigate through how society defines a Black female activist. In this context, gender performance is centered around actively combating stereotypes and ensuring that their voices are not being ignored by their male counterparts or society.
Trayce Matthews highlights the decision of some woman Panthers to be aggressive, hypermasculine and authoritative. She writes, "While this macho posturing by women may have reinforced the notion of black women as domineering, it also challenged the idea that only black men should lead and “protect” black women. That some women had to modify their public persona in order to be respected is indicative of the extent to which gendered power dynamics pervaded the lives of Party members'' (Matthews 244). Alameen Shavers discussed a similar phenomena in her work, and she writes, "Though ranked female officers were naturally afforded more protection from harassment than rank-and-file women, they were not immune to pashback from men. In some cases, ranked women found it necessary to affect a macho or masculine posture in an effort to deal with male chauvinism" (Alameen-Shavers 48). This is a perfect example of the impacts of intersectionality on gender performance. Panther women were viewed as domineering (because they are black), but also motherly/and supportive (because they are women). Therefore when they were forced to perform a hypermasculine and aggressive persona, because men would abuse them and/or ignore otherwise, Black woman Panthers were performing a type of gender unique to them and to their identities.
"Assata Shakur stated, "[A] lot of us [women] adopted that kind of macho type style in order to survive in the Black Panther Party. It was very difficult to say “well listen brother, I think that . . . we should do this and this.” [I]n order to be listened to, you had to just say, “look mothafucka,” you know. You had to develop this whole arrogant kind of macho style in order to be heard. . . . We were just involved in those day to day battles for respect in the Black Panther Party" (Matthews 243).
For Women Panthers, this adoption of a strong, hypermasculine persona was integral to their survival in the organization. It allowed them to create spaces for themselves that were previously being denied because of gender stereotypes and also protect their physical bodies from any harm. If a woman was not the drill sergeant that other women may have been, they might have found it more difficult to be a woman in the Black Panther Party. "Women that were mild-mannered, less aggressive, and perhaps less masculine would have found it difficult to navigate such a terrain. However, if the man was insecure about his masculinity, it is likely that even the most assertive women would have fallen victim to male chauvinism…" (Alameen-Shavers 48). For Women Panthers, it was important that they performed gender in a way that demanded equal respect and autonomy because the spaces they were in did not fully accept women's involvement in the movement. Hypermasculinity was a major component of the performance of gender for woman Panthers. Not only did the gender politics of the Party itself necessitate a certain performance of gender, larger society had expectations of what a woman panther is and therefore, how they should be treated.
"Once these black women, involved in militant organizing efforts, stepped outside of roles traditionally assigned to women or African Americans, their treatment more closely resembled the experiences of their black male comrades than those of white women'' (Matthews 245). This is another example of the influences of intersectionality on the perception of Black women (woman Panthers) and how it impacts gender performance. Being a part of a militant activist organization altered the preconceived notions of what a Black woman is and what she is capable of. This meant that Woman Panthers had also had to perform gender in a way that combated larger society's preconceived notions of Black women and Black female activists. Woman Panthers were treated in similar ways that Black men were treated and they were not afforded any leniency because of their gender. "...[t]he brutal treatment of these women by police authorities made it clear . . .they could expect no comfort or benefits from stereotypes of women as fragile and weak and needing to be protected” (Matthews 2001 244). Because they were Black female Panthers, they were treated like Black men and were not afforded the shroud of protection that society places over white women. Therefore, their gender performances had to combat these macroscale gender ideologies.