Black Women: Influential Leaders of the Black Panther Party
Updated: May 21, 2021
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale started The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) in Oakland, California, in 1966. The BPP, with a distinct platform of community oriented and national goals, quickly rose to popularity because of its main objective: arm black men and women to protect themselves and each other from police brutality.
Although the Party seemed hyper-masculine and sexist, it pushed progressive ideals on social issues and constantly reassessed national and regional messaging and actions. The Panthers wanted to incorporate all working people, poor people, and minorities into their community and arrange social exchange programs to help one another.
Across the board, women, usually around ages eighteen to twenty-four, ran the majority of these social exchanges and provided food for children, education for young black people, and political activism classes. Most people joined or donated to the Black Panther Party because of these extremely successful programs. The Panthers continued their advocacy and programs despite the ever-present fear of the police. While male leaders garnered more attention, Black women championed the Black Panther Party from the mid 1960s until its collapse.
With the incarceration of male leadership and through their own ingenuity, women such as Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Tarika Lewis quickly stepped into indispensable roles within the Black Panther Party. Between 1926 and 1986, the number of Black prisoners increased eightfold and the amount of Black people in prison reached a high of 31 percent in 1978. Meanwhile, in 1978, Black people only represented 11.1 to 11.7 percent of the population.
Despite representing a smaller portion of the population, Black people, and usually Black men, comprised a significantly larger percentage of the prison population. This disproportional incarceration rate angered many people in the Black community who wanted to fight against the system that intentionally harmed them. Black women led the Black Panther Party efficiently without many of the male leaders.
The militant voice of the Black Panther Party created pushback from the white public and the American government. The BPP understood the effect its positions would have on the larger population. Their Ten Point Program reads, “The words BLACK POWER are not well understood. Ignorance of their meaning have given rise to fear and hatred, brutality and neglect.” The fear of the unknown and the unwillingness to know sowed division between Black communities and white communities and further prevented white people in the United States from sympathizing with the oppressed minorities.
Throughout the history of the United States, racial factionalism enabled a lack of unity among various ethnic, religious, and racial groups and allowed for the further exploitation of everyone. The FBI’s villainous portrayal of the BPP derived from opposition to the unity the BPP espoused. The United States FBI, as allowed and encouraged by President Johnson, formally investigated and disrupted the Black Panther Party.
John Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI from 1924 through 1972, made it his personal mission to prevent the spread of the Black Panther Party and its influence in Black and other marginalized communities. He distrusted the BPP and declared that ‘the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.’ The severity and impact of such a statement cannot be over emphasized.
The United States government and the full force of its police committed themselves to eradicating the danger of the Black Panther Party—an organization which at its peak had just over two thousand members from the nation. The police wiretapped and followed members, infiltrated multiple chapters of the organization in order to assassinate the leaders, and collaborated with the court system to lock up male leaders for long periods of time. Police surveillance and the incarceration of male leadership led to a shortage of men. Women filled the void.
When Newton was sent to jail on murder charges, he appointed Elaine Brown as the chairman of the Party. The Cleavers fled the country for Algeria due to criminal charges that Mr. Cleaver faced, and Seale had legal issues of his own. Elaine Brown assumed the chairmanship as a woman in an organization that made great strides for gender equality despite its hyper-masculine perception. Her success and the Party’s survival, despite the state’s assault on all three of its most prominent leaders, remained crucial.
Brown adopted a masculine attitude in order to lead: “I am, as your chairman, the leader of this party as of this moment. My leadership cannot be challenged.” Her assertion of her power and her experience, as well as Newton’s support, prevented anyone from challenging her authority. Brown immediately took a no-nonsense approach in addressing issues within the party including conversations around gender and treatment of fellow Panthers.
She forbade the normalization of sexist language among Panthers and intentionally promoted other women into ranked and senior positions throughout her tenure as chairman. Her tough attitude, however, indicated her adaptation into a masculine sphere, and she behaved in a masculine manner in order to command the same respect as her male Panther counterparts. Elaine Brown wanted to support every assertion of human rights by women in order to benefit the Black women both in and out of the party and the Black community at large.
The BPP motivated Panthers to participate in something larger than themselves beyond violence and struggle. In doing so, they created an environment in which men had to take orders from women—many for the first time. Female Panthers needed male Panthers’ support in their endeavors or else the Party would devolve into the gender roles displayed by the larger society.
For many women joining the Black Panther Party, the anger and frustration expressed by the BPP to the political establishment resonated with their own struggles and issues. They wanted a better world for themselves, and they wanted a better world for their kids. So, they put in the work to achieve it. Black women recognized the failure of the government to condemn the racism rampant in white society.
The angry language of the Party sometimes dissuaded other people equally as disillusioned as the Panthers from joining. The Black Panther Party, usually depicted in the media as Black men or women with black leather jackets and guns, were seen as a threat by American society. The organization’s efforts to thoughtfully and intentionally challenge themselves to display the equality they espoused set them apart from contemporary organizations.
During Newton’s trials, Kathleen Cleaver led the highly influential “Free Huey” campaign. She led marches and protests, and inspired other leaders in other organizations to raise money for Newton’s bail and to raise awareness. Her self-initiative, characteristic of a larger trend in Black women, showed the importance of community outreach in the BPP. Upon joining the Party, each member completed tasks without regard to gender.
Women participated in many of the social programs of the party, like the newspaper, the breakfast programs, prison outreach, and community canvassing. The official Black Panther Party Paper written by Panthers spread beyond the verbal and social reach of the Party. It generated a significant portion of the Party’s income. The other social programs, like the Oakland Community School for children, endeared the Party to the community because the Panthers protected and educated the children.
Tarika Lewis, the first woman reported to have joined the Black Panther Party, served as a lieutenant. She discussed the sexist comments she faced from male subordinates who did not want to listen to her because of her gender. She constantly challenged that outlook by outshooting the men at shooting ranges and teaching political theory in the Party. Despite the fact that the BPP established early on that members were appointed to ranked positions based on ability not gender, gender discrimination within the Party still persisted. Both male and female Panthers worked together to improve gender relations over the years.
Although the Black Panther Party originated to promote armed self-defense in Black communities to reduce police brutality, as more and more women joined the Party’s ranks, they shifted the emphasis towards social projects. According to Ealey, the BPP started over sixty social programs. The Oakland Community School, which the Party started in Oakland California, not only educated students, but also provided them with a safe space to learn about Black history and the importance of pride in one’s culture.
Women, especially those with children, around the nation participated in shared housing accommodations called Panther Pads. These Panther Pads promoted shared responsibilities, distribution of work, and safety of children. Both men and women lived in Panther Pads. Everyone wrote and sold the paper, and everyone participated in other community outreach programs.
As previously stated, some Black women joined the Black Panther Party because the message of Black Nationalism appealed to them. Kathleen Cleaver joined the Party because she believed that Black people needed to get together to build their own separate society from mainstream America. The Party itself wrote this idea into their platform: “We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.” In an interview almost twenty years after her time in the BPP, Kathleen Cleaver said, “The Black Power movement challenged all the preconceived notions of Blacks not being able to determine their own destiny. It was essentially a very nationalistic self-determination position.”
She continued to discuss her evolution of thought and that of the greater American public when it came to Black people and their ability. The Black Panther Party appealed to Black people, and Black men especially, because they could step into the role of leader and could more importantly create new roles for themselves that they never had before. The BPP allowed Black women to actively contribute to causes that benefited them and their communities when gender norms called for them to stay inside the home.
On the other hand, many more women joined the party because they wanted to participate in the community organization. Even though they did not believe in the group’s armed resistance method, they nevertheless supported the Panthers because of the Party’s community service programs. They also had a plethora of programs dedicated to helping their communities.
They organized free bus rides to prisons, went door to door talking to people and asked what the Party can do to help, as well as educated members of the Party on how best to defend themselves physically and with knowledge. The Black Panther Party stood out for its strong community emphasis and its incorporation of both men and women in ranking roles.
Joan Kelley-Williams, a member of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, created an anti-sexist culture with her fellow Panthers. For these Panthers, the BPP stood apart from other pro-Black movements because women were seen as equals. While strict regulations differed from chapter to chapter, the Illinois branch took their pledge to treat all Panthers equally seriously and both men and women proactively called out injustice or inappropriate comments against women. This party mentality allowed for more women to step into leadership roles without fear of discrimination.
Women like Phyllis Jackson worked diligently in the Party, whether in the building or doing fieldwork, even if they had children. She recounted the time when, after the birth of her son, she returned to work at the Oakland branch of the Party: “I used to have to jump him up and down really heavy so he wouldn’t start crying as I’m answering the phone.”
Ericka Huggins, a member of the New Haven branch, held night watch due to police surveillance. Ora Williams discussed “cooking breakfast for the breakfast program, [she was] in between contractions, flipping pancakes.” All of these people willingly dedicated their lives to the Party because they truly believed in creating a better community for poor Black people. They ensured that their hard work benefited others.
Angela Davis, a well-known pro-Black activist who never officially joined the BPP, discussed the role that women played in the militant aspect of the Black Panther Party. Some women actively participated in shootouts or joined armed men, with guns themselves, to keep watch over police stops. Despite the prevailing notion in the 1960s and 1970s that women needed male protection, in police attacks against Black people, the police beat Black women and painted them as dangerous criminals much as they did Black men.
As the party grew and expanded, the founders deliberated the importance, contribution, and impact of having women in the BPP. They, and other men, had to restructure their thoughts and attitudes and examine the past conditions that made them believe in their own superiority and in women’s inferiority. Newton, Seale, and Cleaver all wrote essays on the importance of wholly incorporating women in the Black Panther Party; however, they did not always believe in it. Newton and Seale founded the Party for one specific reason: to empower the Black male against the establishment threatening to destroy him.
Cleaver, previously convicted of rape charges and known for his inflammatory language, had a poor record with women. All three of these men had different moments in which they adapted their ideology. For Seale and Cleaver, the arrest of Ericka Huggins and several other women prompted them and other men to realize women faced the same difficulties and harassment as the male Panthers did at the hands of the police. For Newton, the simultaneous movements for equality from the feminist and LGBTQ rights advocates made him realize the breadth and scope of how much revolutionary change the organizations could create if they worked together.
Despite dealing with misogynoir from both the male Panthers and the society at large, Black women persisted in their advocacy for fair treatment and a decent standard of life for Black people. In 1972, the Women’s Bureau reported that 48.7 percent of Black women were in the workforce, compared to 43.2 percent of white women, though the gap between Black and white women slowly decreased over the next two decades.
Within the Panthers, Black women on average had more education than Black men. Nevertheless, Black women still faced racism and sexism in job searching and house hunting. Because of the historic legacy of Black women’s plantation and domestic labor in order to provide for their families when Black men went underpaid and unemployed due to racism and stereotypes, Black women were the primary providers in their families at twice the rate of white women. This trend further indicated that the widespread association of women as “weak” or “confined to the home” did not apply to Black women, other women of color, and poor women, as they had to work to provide for their families.
The Panthers drew inspiration from the writings of Malcolm X, a civil rights and pro-Black activist who died in 1965, a year before the founding of the Party. Discussing women, Malcolm X famously said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman [....] [We must] respect our women, and protect our women.”
Historically speaking, since slavery, men had frequently exploited and abused Black women, who received very few, if any, of the protections that white women received in the United States. The most brutal treatment occurred during slavery, when slave-owners abused Black women for personal and economic reasons and enslaved Black men could not provide recourse. Remnants continued through the Jim Crow era with lynchings, violence for the sake of superiority, and even through the onset of the twenty-first century with job insecurity and lack of media coverage on missing Black women.
Despite its shortcomings, the Black Panther Party provided the opportunity for Black women to attain equality, freedom, and revolution. The visibility and national ranking of women distinguished the Party from other organizations that also fought for freedom. Integration promoted the confrontation of long held beliefs related to gender. Although it highlighted the impact of societal norms in a revolutionist organization, integration challenged the young men and women in the Black Panther Party to truly live up to their revolutionary ideals.
The Black Panther Party, principally started to combat police violence, focused on the Ten Point Program from its inception. All members participated in all the programs, but in many instances Black women performed secondary or traditionally feminine work, especially if they did not have a rank. Black women more often than not faced the double-edged sword of sexism within the party and racism from the outside.
Black women had to constantly justify their leadership positions and prove their worth. A reporter asked Kathleen Cleaver what a woman’s place in the revolution was, and she replied, “No one ever asks what a man’s place in the revolution is.” Despite the misogynoir, racism and sexism that Black women faced, they committed themselves to improving their communities.
The issue of sexism divided the women of the BPP. For some, like Huggins and Brown, they called it out every time they witnessed it, rather than acclimating themselves or their comrades to inappropriate language from some of the male Panthers. They preferred to challenge the sexism of their brothers while standing shoulder to shoulder with them against the police. For others, like Kathleen Cleaver, they preferred to handle the issue internally, because to broadcast the problem seemed like a betrayal to the brothers and a distraction from real societal problems.
The unwillingness to distract from other issues did not mean leaving it alone. Women championed themselves, as Douglas mentions in his interview, because not only did they demand respect, they expected it: “They were running the offices, they were bailing brothers out of jail, and so they demanded real rights [….] They were right there, being shot at just like everybody else, so they demanded their rights.”
They knew that the impact of the Party depended on the unity of the Panthers and that for all of them to be unified, they had to eradicate gender barriers. Some men called for accountability for active anti-sexism and for training to eradicate sexism from the Party. These men contributed to building an organization that functioned and felt like family. Other men continued to be sexist to the detriment of their organization. These kinds of men sowed division among the Party.
The efforts of Black women to remove gender roles from an organization within a society teeming with strict gender norms faced much opposition. In fact, some scholars make the argument that the presence of women in the Party was unintentionally disruptive and ultimately catastrophic in the survival of the organization.
Blaming female Panthers’ activism for the deterioration of the BPP created a false narrative because it did not fully encapsulate the nuances of what occurred. Even more insidiously, it perpetuated the notion that Black women were responsible for the sexism they faced, and that Black men had no other option but to generate that sexism. Black women led genuine efforts to initiate intra-Party and inter-organizational communications around gender and leadership.
The Black Panther Party inevitably collapsed due to the internal tensions, paranoia, and aimlessness caused by the successful infiltration of COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program founded by the FBI. Cleaver had fled to Algeria, Seale’s campaign to win the mayoral seat in Oakland California failed, and Newton descended deeper and deeper into a world of drugs and violence separate from the Party. Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins left because of the violence, along with other women, and many women slowly distanced themselves because of the competing responsibilities of motherhood and taking care of their own families.
Yet, the spirit of resistance and political activism lives on in Black people today. Women like Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate and 2020 general election grassroots organizer, and Opal Tometi, one of the cofounders of the Black Lives Matter movement, are carrying the torch of community activism and engagement. Black mothers work to keep their families together. Mothers who lost sons to police brutality and mothers whose daughters went missing work together to demand justice.
Black mothers face a higher maternal mortality rate, by three to four percent, compared to white mothers. They also face higher job insecurity, and some face poverty. In the recent death of Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, who police killed in her own home, Tamika Palmer, her mother, initiated the lawsuit against the police.
Black women across the nation via social media called on everyone to hold the police department and the Attorney General’s office accountable for her murder. Despite facing significant opposition, Black women continue to rise to the challenge and work for a better society.