Women, Gender, and Party Politics in the Black Panther Party

This post is part of our online roundtable on Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come

Women of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in the late 1960s (Photo: PBS)

In the spring of 1967, Tarika Lewis and Elendar Barnes joined the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Lewis, who was a student at Oakland Technical High School, aimed to extend her activism beyond campus. Barnes, enrolled at local Merritt College, joined the Panthers because the organization aligned with her family’s politics. Nearly a decade later, women members were at the helm of the organization, with women such as Elaine Brown and Phyllis Jackson serving as chairman and treasurer respectively. Barnes and Brown’s participation and leadership were emblematic of women’s roles in the Black Panther Party, which transformed the face of the Black Freedom Struggle.

In The Revolution Has Come, Robyn Spencer charts the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party with careful attention to how gender constructs shaped one of the most popular and powerful groups of the Black Power era. She deftly documents the organizational and ideological evolution of the Party in its birthplace, Oakland, California, analyzing how, “one incident at a time,” the Panthers became a nationally and internationally recognized organization. The book chronicles the local socio-political conditions that gave rise to the Panthers, its transformation into a mass movement, and members’ efforts to remake the Party into a local democratic organization in the wake of unparalleled state-sponsored political oppression. Although Oakland is the book’s focus, Spencer shows how the “BPP’s commitment to making linkages with revolutionaries” across organizations and locales made it “one of the most effective ambassadors for Black Power” nationally and internationally (p. 3).

From the outset, Spencer argues that the Panthers’ politics cannot be reduced to the “politics of manhood” (p. 44). To be sure, the Panthers promulgated a masculinist bravado and rhetoric, most recognizable in the group’s imagery of Black men dressed in leather jackets, black berets, and holding weaponry. However, founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale implicitly, and later explicitly, promoted the idea of a gender-inclusive activist community. Or as Spencer puts it, the Panthers “theorized about the need for strong manhood but didn’t counter that with descriptions of submissive womanhood” (p. 46). This principle undergirds the book, a text in which women’s voices and gender analysis are indispensable to the history of the Panther Party.

Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972. Free grocery distribution. (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

As readers learn about the evolution of the Party in Oakland, they also discover how Panther women contributed to each stage of its development. Interweaving interviews and underutilized archival resources, Spencer documents how women were drawn to the Party at different moments and for different reasons. Judy Hart, who joined the Party a year after its founding in 1967, was interested in the group’s early efforts to combat police brutality through armed police patrols. Ericka Huggins joined after the 1968 police murder of one of the earliest Panther recruits, “Lil” Bobby Hutton. For her, Hutton’s death confirmed the Panthers’ analysis of state repression and racism. Other women, such as Audrea Jones and Elaine Brown, who both joined the Party in different moments and in different chapters, rose to prominence during the group’s community control and electoral politics phase in the mid-1970s. Spencer’s fusion of new and familiar voices illustrates how women saw the Party as a welcoming space that represented their ideologies and politics. It also indicates that they were key to the Party’s history, simultaneously shaping and being shaped by the growing organization.

Spencer also documents how rising numbers of female members fostered conversations about gender roles and Black political organizing. She notes that from 1969 through 1971, “debates about gender and sexuality were reaching a crescendo within the organization” (p. 89), causing the Panthers to assess how to best articulate their commitments to revolution, equality, and resistance. For example, in August 1970, Huey Newton issued an open letter in which “he pushed the organization to express explicit support for the goals of the women’s liberation movement” and “show[ed] tolerance to the gay liberation movement” (pp. 98–99). Spencer argues that Newton’s forward-thinking letter was part of what made the Party a transformative ideological and organizational space. However, she also notes that the “furor” the letter created within the Party—particularly in relationship to Newton’s support of gay liberation—undercut the text’s political and ideological potential. Here, Spencer shines in her ability to foreground the progressive elements of the Party’s ideological tenets while also offering a critical analysis of members’ ability to actualize these goals. In the process, she reveals the Party’s record on women and gender was more progressive and complex than much of the scholarship has acknowledged.

While the Panthers attempted to redefine traditional gender roles, the federal government relied on them in their campaign to eliminate the Party. Under the direction of FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover, federal and state law enforcement campaigned to destroy the Party through the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). By 1969, officials had dedicated significant resources to infiltrating Party chapters, jailing Panther leaders on false charges, and engaging in violent attacks on multiple chapter headquarters. Spencer details this extensive state-sponsored violence, intimidation, and surveillance while also noting “law enforcement officials adhered to gendered assumptions about leadership when determining their targets” (p. 94). State and federal COINTELPRO programs focused on Panther men, assuming they were the leaders of the organization. Because women were integral to the daily work of managing the Party, the organization continued despite the FBI’s violent campaigns. Moreover, the Bureau’s targeting of Panther men created a leadership vacuum that women quickly filled in the early 1970s.

Kathleen Cleaver at “Free Huey” Rally, DeFremery Park 1968 (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

This does not mean that women did not face severe harassment from the state. One of the strengths of The Revolution Has Come is Spencer’s inclusion of women’s experiences with government repression. She foregrounds the fact that “Panther women faced frequent harassment on the streets they called home” (p. 94) and probes the recollections of women such as Mary Williams and Brenda Presley, who both recall the psychological effects of harassment and surveillance. Not only does Spencer’s analysis reveals the extensive reach of COINTELPRO, it also shows that studies that do not account for the intersections of women, gender, and surveillance offer incomplete accounts of political repression in the Black Power era.

Spencer’s attention to women and gender provides a much-needed intervention in the historiography of the Party and of Black Power more broadly. To be sure, more historians have begun to include the role of women in Black Power organizations, but so far few writers have so seamlessly integrated women and gender into their content and analysis. Spencer’s analysis of Party leaders’ and members’ positions engages readers’ interest in learning more about how these ideas affected the organization’s programming and direction. One also wonders how to interpret the gender dynamics in Oakland in the context of the larger organization and contemporary society. The broader scope of the Party is not Spencer’s focus. Given the author’s claims about the Party’s national and international influence, however, more on how to understand her findings within the larger work of the Party and the Black Power movement might have been helpful to students of the subject.

Spencer argues that “the study of Black Power doesn’t just fill holes in the scholarly literature; it fills holes in the tapestry of the American past” (p. 5). The Revolution Has Come accomplishes this by providing a comprehensive account of the Party in Oakland, an organization that changed the tapestry of American race relations. It also successfully illuminates how Panther women transformed the organization. Spencer’s book epitomizes how Black Power histories have the potential to foreground past organizing and theorizing lessons, particularly as they relate to grappling with the intersection of gender and Black liberation. Ultimately, her book reveals how the Party and its dynamic women members and gender frameworks offer a roadmap for a new generation of historians, activists, and revolution.

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.

Comments on “Women, Gender, and Party Politics in the Black Panther Party

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    I would be really interested in reading the book. To me the women of the movement were the heart & soul of it.

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      Thank you for your comment. The introduction to the book is online here: http://www.therevolutionhascome.com and it is available at online retailers like amazon. Women were indeed the heart and soul of the organization!

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    I agree! Dr. Spencer’s book will give you a great overview of the their importance to the Panther Party.

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    Nice article Prof. Ashley Farmer. Just long enough to keep the appetite going for Dr. Robyn Spencer’s ‘The Revolution Has Come.’ I like this line: “Or as Spencer puts it, the Panthers ‘theorized about the need for strong manhood but didn’t counter that with descriptions of submissive womanhood’” (p. 46).
    From communities where we live to mainstream media, sports and entertainment, and places of worship, there is need to re-familiarize ourselves with that statement.
    James Alan Oloo

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