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February 19, 2004

Lecturer explores women’s role in Black Panther Party

Kathleen Cleaver at a 1970s Black Panthers rally

Kathleen Cleaver at a 1970s Black Panthers rally

Women members of the Black Panther Party, one of the most prominent organizations in this country’s black power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, remain an invisible group to scholars and historiographers who lump them in with misleading and incomplete images of their male counterparts.

While the Panthers did not admit women as members until some five years after the party’s founding in 1966, by the mid-’70s the Black Panther Party had transformed itself and probably had more female than male members, according to Robyn C. Spencer, assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Penn State, who this year holds a post-doctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon.

Black women rose through the party ranks to positions of leadership during the 1970s and especially in the latter half of that decade following the Panthers’ decision to form a collective society, Spencer said. These are facts often missing from traditional history, she added.

While radical politically, the Black Panthers still are seen as a male-dominated group that was conservative when it came to gender roles and interrelationships, Spencer said Feb. 12 at a women’s studies lecture co-sponsored by the  Department of Sociology’s Social Movements Forum.

“As a result of this prevailing analysis, black women’s experiences in the black power organizations, including the Panthers,  have remained one-dimensional. This puts women on the outskirts of black power, as though all they did is sacrifice black womanhood to the gods of black manhood,” she said.

“In contrast, my research demonstrates that the Black Panthers launched an important struggle within the party to first define and then defend revolutionary womanhood,” Spencer maintained. “They became one of the first organizations to popularize the image of the black woman as an armed insurrectionist akin to the heralded guerrilla fighters who were fighting in anti-colonial and Afro-racial movements in the Third World at that time.”

Along with traditional sources, Spencer’s research for her forthcoming book on the history of the Black Panther Party 1966-1982 includes studying archival Black Panther newspapers and interviewing former Black Panther women at reunions they have held since the mid-1990s.

Co-founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., the early Black Panthers were exclusively male, recruiting followers in typical male bastions, such as pool halls, street corners and bars.

“Gender was embodied initially in how party leaders articulated the party’s politics,” Spencer said. The first mission statement included the wording “the cream of black manhood, there for the protection and defense of our community.” This statement suggested that the program involved the black man as protector of women, children, mothers and sisters, Spencer said, and assumed that men would be on the front lines of the battle against oppression.

“From the beginning, Newton and Seale thought they were launching a universal appeal for those who were being oppressed, not particularly a gendered appeal,” she said. “So, the call of the party, even though it came out originally in a very gendered way, still resonated with black women.”

Even before admitting women as members, the party adopted the belief that women too could master armed self-defense, and could teach it to children, Spencer said, a clear challenge to the equation that guns equal masculinity and a statement that women and children were considered warriors in the movement.

The Panthers also were among the first organizations to use images in their publications and recruiting posters of women active in the struggle against white oppression, in contrast to many black nationalist organizations that kept women in the shadow of men.

With the country still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, black women also saw the Panthers as an alternative to the Nation of Islam, which preached gender-divisive politics, and as a more radical organization than the local Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee and NAACP chapters, she said.

“Seale and Newton didn’t exclude African-American women in their rhetoric or in their involvement. The message became: Black brothers and sisters unite for real social action.”

At the height of membership in the early ’70s, the Black Panther Party likely had 5,000-7,000 full-time members, although there are no formal records to draw on for verification, Spencer said. The Black Panthers opened some 50 chapters across the country, but membership declined drastically beginning in the mid-’70s in the face of a strong campaign of political repression, including from FBI infiltrators whose task was to pit members against each other and start divisive rumors, Spencer said.

As Panther chapters closed around the country, most of the party base returned to Oakland. “The Panthers went from being a social movement to unite other organizations, to being a collective,” which was likely the largest African-American commune of that generation, Spencer said. “They lived together, they purchased property, they shared clothing. They organized themselves this way to focus on the Oakland community,” establishing a series of local social programs, known as “survival programs,” to provide food and medical services to black and poor people, particularly children. “In the collective, they also argued about political ideology and gender politics within the context of day-to-day struggles,” Spencer said.

This new social structure, modeled on Marxist principles, brought several previously dormant issues to the fore, including sexual freedom, birth control, reproductive rights, the nature of parenthood and the allocation of housework.

“These were highly debated, organizational issues,” Spencer said. For example, “on the one hand, as an organization they promoted sexual freedom; on the other hand, sexual freedom was understood in masculine-gendered assumptions about men and women,” Spencer said. “A lot of male Black Panthers expected sexual favors from Panther women, [believing that] women’s bodies should be localized and allocated to males as rewards” for commitment to the collective.

At the same time however, Spencer said, some women found their own growing sexual freedom included having multiple lovers, sometimes male and female.

“In this collective environment, birth control was no longer only an individual choice, because pregnancy and child care meant a reduction in staff time devoted to the party’s cause,” Spencer said.

Child care became largely a group activity, she added, with the establishment of an on-site child development center where everyone had staffing responsibilities. Children, up to 80 of them, would stay with biological parents on the weekends but be raised collectively during the week. “This system was rooted in the Panthers’ commitment to collectivism, but was also an extension of the African-American extended-family tradition,” Spencer said. “For women, this meant they had both the space and time to embrace motherhood as well as activism.”

The party had an informal policy that women could date only within the organization, while men were allowed to date outside the party.

“Again there was the gender-based assumption: Women might be pulled out of the party by males who would resist and complain about their party commitment, while men dating outside the organization would be able to bring more women into the fold. There was honest dialogue in that debate, and it set the stage for women to see themselves in a way isolated with certain expectations placed on them.”

Eventually, female members of the party demanded that the organization be accountable to its egalitarian rhetoric, Spencer said. Work was assigned by skill rather than gender, and women began to assume authority positions in the party based on their talents.

Women became central to the Panthers’ involvement in the community and took active roles as agents of change, demonstrating that they had a strong place in the party, she said. “And it demonstrates that the black power movement and its politics were much more complicated than historians and scholars today have imagined.”

Similarly, the historiography of the women’s movement, which rejects the black power movement out-of-hand as misogynistic, has ignored the role of black women as advocates and activists, focusing instead on the upsurge of women who embraced feminism.

“As Panther women began to find themselves, they embraced their womanhood even as they leaped over the traditional definitions of femininity,” Spencer said. “They didn’t make the choice between motherhood and activism, they did both. They challenged patriarchal assumptions about sexual freedom as unlimited male access to the female body. And in the process they transformed themselves and the Black Panther Party and the very idea of black power.”

—Peter Hart         





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