Clarifying Black Nationalism: Female Leadership in the Panthers

In October of 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in the tumultuous city of Oakland, California.  The Party's creators, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, endeavored to utilize armed self-defense, mass protest, and a revolutionary black-nationalist rhetoric to combat the growing trends of racial injustice and police brutality within their community and America at large [1].

To this end, the Party organized.

They published a ten-point platform identifying their overarching goals.

They launched a well-staffed and informative periodical, The Black Panther, to further attract support and disseminate information to their community.

They organized volunteer patrols to monitor police activity, "armed with law books, tape recorders, and legally carried weapons" [2].

Most importantly, they appealed to and encouraged female membership within their ranks, emphasizing a message that transcended gender boundaries.  From the late sixties until the Party's general dissolution in the early eighties, women held an increasingly large say in the organization's decision-making and ideology.  External portrayals of the Party by mainstream and white-skewed publications and news networks painted a brutal picture of a hyper-masculine, hardline-militant force willing to employ any means necessary in pursuit of an aggressive agenda; however, as the Party's female members won greater participation in the organization's public image and policies, bringing to the forefront influential and charismatic leaders such as Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, they discovered and incorporated meaningful methods to not only directly combat and suppress the Party's misogynistic elements but also to set the record straight with community-service projects and highly publicized forms of nonviolent resistance against the issues plaguing their society.

The Female Presence within the Panthers

In the turbulent times that accompanied the Panthers' inception and growth, popular notions of black nationalism and family life were reaching controversial and unprecedented levels of debate.  The Moynihan Report, published in 1965 "under the auspices of the United States Department of Labor," functioned as a heavily skewed and ill-researched observation on the status of the "current" African American family--the report drew heavily on a sociology text published almost thirty years prior.  The Report described the black community as overly "matriarchal," with an abundance of female-dominated households leaving young boys "enervated, without a strong work ethic"--and ultimately encouraged increased African American participation in the military as a source of "strong role models."  Within the evolving spectrum of the civil rights movement, the African American community scorned the Moynihan Report, deriding it as "a concerted plan to annihilate the black population," and coalesced under the ideal of a wider unified community [3].

Thus, the Panthers' recruitment messages tended to cater as much to women as to men, stressing a need for brothers and sisters to unite under the common banner of the organization's "Ten Points" manifesto.  Even still, female recruits soon encountered an environment that remained largely misogynistic and homophobic, fueled by the patriarchal reconstructions that some Black Power advocates construed from the Moynihan Report's sentiments.  In the organization's earliest years, sexual relations with male members were always encouraged and usually required to promote "Party solidarity," and the female Panther's body was advertised as her greatest weapon [4].

However, as the percentage of female membership within the Party continued to increase (eventually gaining a majority in the early seventies!), the organization's women soon executed methods to redefine and enhance their own importance within the Panthers.  Female members turned their sexuality to their advantage, refusing to sleep with their partners were boundaries or rights not respected.  Nonviolent methods of community interaction, such as peaceful protest, public-aid programs, and public-outreach events, were introduced or expanded upon, their cases emphasized to Party leaders by women who held increasingly prominent positions within the Panthers' hierarchy [5].

One famous example and towering achievement of the Panthers was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, designed to provide free daily meals to schoolchildren in the community.  First established in St. Augustine's Church in the Panthers' hometown of Oakland, California, the program began at a capacity of one hundred and fifty students in 1969, soon feeding as many as ten thousand by the end of the year as more and more Panther chapters took up the Free Breakfast auspices nationwide [6].  The program would prove a double-edged sword for the Party, as the influence it garnered among the community set it squarely within the sights of the federal government as a subversive danger to national interests; nevertheless, the influence was there in droves.  The program became incredibly popular, establishing deep-seated support for the Panthers and increasing volunteer participation at Party events--particularly from among the ranks of the young beneficiaries' parents!

In 1974, the female position within the Panthers reached unprecedented heights.  Huey Newton, the Party's then-Chairman, faced a bevy of criminal charges (including murder) and instigated a self-imposed exile to Cuba in order to escape prosecution.  In his absence, he appointed close advisor Elaine Brown to lead in his stead, making her the Panthers' first Chairwoman [7].  Brown would ultimately carry the Party through the political and internal struggle and change of the mid-seventies, further emphasizing community outreach and grassroots politics in her tenure.

The Faces of the Party

As the rates of female participation within the Panthers increased throughout the late sixties and into the seventies, several members gained unprecedented positions of prominence in the Party's ranks--both in and out of the public eye.  Women like Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Ericka Huggins did much to alter the organization's image and agenda through their ample stores of willpower, influence, and devotion to their visions of a healthier and happier black community.


Kathleen Neal Cleaver involved herself in activism from a young age, assisting the Student Nonviolent Conferencing Committee (SNCC) in a secretarial position by age 21.  As she became aware of the Black Panthers' message, eventually meeting the prominent Party leader Eldridge Cleaver (who she would later marry) at a Nashville conference and agreeing to join the Party, she transitioned the tactics and organizational skills she had learned in the SNCC to her new role as the Panthers' communication secretary.  As her husband increasingly came to blows with fellow leader Huey Newton, whose approval of the Party's community-outreach strategies were at odds with Eldridge Cleaver's more direct and combative vision, she ended up siding with Newton, organizing a nationwide "Free Huey" campaign to protest his jailing  in 1968 [7].

Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Elaine Brown became involved in the liberation movement around 1967.  Upon entering the Panthers, the extent of the sexual hierarchy that structured the Party's earliest years made itself blindingly clear to her; as she observed about her first days in her autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story, 'Sisters...did not challenge Brothers.  Sisters...stood behind their black men, supported their men, and respected was not only 'unsisterly' for us to want to eat with our Brothers, it was a sacrilege for which blood could be shed'" [8].  Additionally, major themes of her early experience with the Party included frequent beratements and beatings from prominent male Panthers, as well as the frequently-encouraged notion that female Panthers' bodies were their fiercest weapons--as Brown puts it, "sleep with the enemy at night and slit his throati n the morning."  As she gained more influence within the Party, eventually appointed to Chairwoman of the BPP (the only woman to achieve this position in the history of the Panthers) by the organization's exiled leader Huey Newton, Brown fought more and more viciously against the Party's sexist mindset.  In her words, "the value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as by being black and poor" [9].

Ericka Huggins joined the Party at age 18 in 1968, gradually becoming the co-leader of the Party's Los Angeles chapter.  In 1969, she was arrested along with Party co-founder Bobby Seale in a high-profile case, prompting "Free Bobby, Free Ericka" campaigns similar to those Kathleen Cleaver had instigated for Huey Newton only a year before.  In 1973, Huggins became the director of the Oakland Community School, an educational institution located at the center of Oakland's African American community.  Using her position as director, she further encouraged community-organization synthesis and worked to advance the Party's public-outreach programs until its gradual dissolution in the early eighties [10].

The Female Legacy

While the impact of female Panthers on the Party's image and that of black feminism as a whole quickly found widespread recognition--and continued to boast a serious influence into the ensuing decades--other marginalized communities, such as the LGBT+ movement of the time, were not so readily convinced of this change.  In a 1970 issue of the Detroit Gay Liberator, an op-ed described a local Panther demonstration in support of Angela Davis; within the context of the protest, the Party speaker referred to anti-Davis demonstrators as "homosexuals ≠ women ≠ less than men"--despite national Party policy espousing support for "the Gay's and Women's Lib movements."  The national-local discrepancy in the Party's treatment of sexism and homophobia noted here serves as a charged example of the outdated viewpoints and mindsets some sectors of the Party were still operating under at this early stage in the Panthers' lifespan.  These mindsets, seen by many as indirect collaboration with the larger "Ameri-KKKa" landscape of bigotry that the Panthers professed to combat, prevented many other marginalized movements and communities from finding common ground with the Party--at least, initially [11].

In the end, the ideologies and methods employed by female Panthers are held up by contemporary researchers and historians as a more direct and informal approach to radical politics.  Scholars paint the picture of a marked shift towards "conventional politics" in recent years, describing "ideological and political debate" as "locked away in an ivory tower, extracting Marxism and cultural nationalism from grassroots organizations where they once informed reading groups, breakfast programs, art classes, child care, and other daily local activisms" [12].  The smaller-scale public outreach that the Party soon became known for has not been as readily adopted by several of its modern descendants, as debates over policy and welfare find greater coverage and impact on the more controlled national stages of courtrooms, legislatures, and executive offices; but the female Panthers' grassroots approach to interacting with and supporting their communities sees continual revision and revival in the practices of other organizations furthering the causes of the disenfranchised.


[1]  Robyn Ceanne Spencer, Engendering The Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California (Journal of Women's History 20, 2008), 95.

[2] Spencer, Revolutionary Black Womanhood, 97.

[3]  Linda Lumsden, Good Mothers with Guns: Framing Black Womanhood In The Black Panther, 1968-1980 (Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 86, 2009), 905.

[4] Lumsden, Good Mothers with Guns, 906.

[5] Lumsden, Good Mothers with Guns, 913.

[6]  Ruthe Stein, Panthers Serve Free Breakfast To Black School Children (Sun Reporter, 1969)

[7]  Ariana Johnson, Pride of the Black Panthers (Call & Post, 2018),

[8] Marquita Smith, Afro Thunder!: Sexual Politics & Gender Inequity in the Liberation Struggles of the Black Militant Woman (Michigan Feminist Studies 22, 2009), 65.

[9] Smith, Afro Thunder!, 67.

[10]  Ericka Huggins on Board of Education: Black Panther Wins Seat on County Board (San Francisco: Black Panther Party, 1976), 1.

[11]  Sexism and the Panthers (Detroit: Detroit Gay Liberator, 1970) 

[12]  Courtney Thorsson, Why Now?: Recent Writings on Black Power and the Black Panther Party (Callaloo 32, 2009)

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