Gender Politics of the Black Panther Party
Black women held various different types of roles in the organization and their responsibilities ranged depending on their position. "As the bulk of the Panthers’ rank–and–file membership, women occupied the most democratic layer of the organization and served as the public face of the organization in poor communities'' (Spencer 91). Panther women played integral roles in the success of many of their most well known initiatives, like the free lunch program and collective childcare. "Panther women and scholars have asserted that tasks within the organization were assigned by skill rather than gender. Skill acquisition, however, was clearly not gender neutral, and the Panthers sometimes replicated the gender realities of U.S. society that left women disproportionately in possession of domestic and clerical skills (Spencer 97). Despite the fact that roles and positions were assigned based on skill in most cases, there were still instances of Panther women being relegated to secretarial and clerical positions.
An important thing to remember is that The Black Panther Party was not founded with women in mind. Newton advertised the organization to "brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been peddling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit, brothers who had been fighting the pigs” (Alameen - Shavers 39). The Black Panther Party has often been associated with masculinity, male empowerment and violence. The organization was depicted to consist of young militant Black men, who were violent, misogynist and domestic abusers. Popular culture vilified them and positioned the organization to be anti American. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted several investigations into the organization under the rhetoric that the party utilized guerilla tactics to overthrow the United States government. Multiple members of the organization were often incarcerated and Angela Davis, who was a member of the organization, was famously put on the FBI'S 10 most wanted fugitive list. Black Panthers were thought to be young, angry Black men who carried guns and beat their wives, and in some cases it was accurate. The organization did suffer from sexist and discriminatory ideologies, however there was a transformation of thinking regarding the role that Black women played in their organization and in their community as a whole.
Black women could not escape the roles of mother, wife and caregiver. Black woman Panthers were expected to give birth to children and take care of the home, as children and a strong foundation were seen as integral to the strength of the movement. As opposed to traditional notions that women should be good wifes and mothers for the health of their families, Black woman Panthers had to be good wifes and mothers for the betterment of the cause. An important question to ask is: who are the people that are sprouting these views, and in the beginning days of the organization, it was often the prominent male leaders. Antwanisha Alameen-Shavers in her work titled, "The Woman Question: Gender Dynamics within the Black Panther Party'', analyzes the Black Panther Party's perspective on gender equality, the ways in which their perspectives influenced the policies they implemented and how successful those implementations were. She writes, "...ideas generated by prominent Black nationalists suggested that the position of women in the Black liberation movement largely consisted of them giving birth to children and supporting Black men, who were supposedly using this political moment to reclaim their manhood and perhaps even their dignity, which may have been compromised under the restrictive nonviolent policies of the Civil Rights movement" (Alameen-Shavers 39). The value of Black woman revolutionaries was in their ability to give birth to children that would eventually grow up into people who could support their work and further their cause. Linda Lunsden, author of "Good Mothers with Guns: Framing Black Womanhood in the Black Panther, 1968-1989", also discussed a similar perception of Black women who were a part of the Black Panther Party. She writes, "[An article in The Black Panther] wrote that a Panther woman should be 'supportive': 'Her main objective should be to assist in the re-birth of the black man’s mind.'... Another framed women as mystically maternal, a state similar to the ”feminine mystique” that Betty Friedan said entrapped white middle-class housewives' ' (Lumsden 904). Yet again, there is a notion that the role of a Panther woman is that of mother and someone that will provide support to their male counterparts in order to ensure that they are successful in getting freedom from oppression.
In day to day interactions, Black women had to face violence and misogyny from many of their male counterparts. Robyn Ceanne Spencer highlights this in her work "Engendering the Black Freedome Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California''. In this work Spencer examines how Black women who joined the BPP challenged racism and sexism in the organization, society and themselves. She writes, "Male leaders, even those most vocal about gender equality, were not held accountable to organizational codes of conduct in their intimate relationships (which were usually with Panther women). And women who did not have high organizational rank or were not tied to powerful Panther men had less recourse in addressing gender discrimination". This exemplifies the fact that despite there being institutionalized protections against sexism and misogyny, many male members were not held to those standards.
Nonetheless, these efforts to protect Black Panther women, like codes of conduct, reflected a change in attitudes towards women, which resulted in changes in interactions among party members. Tracye A Matthews exemplifies this in her work titled, "No One Ever Asks What a Man's Role in a Revolution Is: Gender Politics and Leadership in the Black Panther Party, 1966-71". She writes, "This evolution in the gender ideology of the Panther leadership was also reflected in the statements and actions of the rank-and-file male members, who often abandoned overtly sexist and male chauvinist behaviors as a result of their interactions with Panther women, particularly those in leadership positions" (Matthews 242). Official gender ideology spread by the Panther leaders, like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldrudge Cleaver did change over time (Matthews). "Newton, Seale, and Cleaver all espoused the idea throughout their writings, speeches, and interviews that the oppression of women was linked to other forms of oppression and should be given great attention. They all agreed that it was necessary for members of the BPP to rid themselves of sexist ideas for the sake of the revolution and advocated for the liberation of all women, particularly Black women in the BPP" (Alameen-Shavers 43)