Voices of Color—Invisible Women: Sexism in the Black Panther Party

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A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, by Elaine Brown. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Paper, $14.95.

This Side of Glory, by David Hilliard and Lewis Cole. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993. Paper, $11.95.

The energizing and fundamental role women play in revolutionary organizations came home to me afresh as I read recent memoirs by Elaine Brown and David Hilliard, both former leaders in the Black Panther Party.

The two authors show us the reasons for the party’s spectacular rise – and also its agonizing fall. Their books reveal, directly or indirectly, how sexism helped destroy the Panthers.

Source of hope and strength. Hilliard and Brown both recount their experiences growing up Black and oppressed and learning how to survive.

For them, as for many others, the BPP and its visionary Ten Point Program gave direction and potency to their daily fight against racism. They show how the party’s internationalist, integrationist, and socialist politics grabbed the hearts and minds of Blacks and people of all colors radicalized by war, injustice, and broken promises—in the U.S. and globally.

So what happened?

Brought down by disrespecting women. In This Side of Glory, Hilliard relives the war waged on the party by the police and FBI – the infiltration, murders, and arrests. With refreshing honesty, he lays bare the destructive internal trends, fed by the government’s dirty tricks, that became entrenched practice: the paranoia that turned comrades against each other, the culture of drugs and gangsterism, and founding hero Huey Newton’s progressive isolation and one-man rule.

Hilliard has more trouble, however, in discussing sexism. But he says enough for a reader to conclude that poisoned male-female relations must have played an enormous part in disintegrating the party.

In contrast, Brown’s Taste of Power vividly describes the pervasive and sometimes brutal ill-treatment that female Panthers faced – physical abuse, exploitation as sexual prizes and workhorses, and denigration of their abilities.

As early as 1969, Brown realized that women “would have to fight for the right to fight for freedom.” By 1975, she concluded that “the value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as by being Black and poor.”

But, like many Black women, Brown believed then that feminism was strictly for well-off whites, and was put off by the predominant radical- feminist ideology of the era – that is, the idea that gender concerns are more important than race issues and that men are the enemy, not capitalism.

Brown admits that she did not always speak out against female subordination in the Panthers. Instead, she concentrated on shoring up her own tenuous leadership position, conferred on her unilaterally by Newton. To stay on top while Newton was in prison, she relied on the “normal” macho enforcement techniques.

She reports that she was finally goaded into action when Regina Davis, who managed the Panthers’ highly praised school, ended up in the hospital. “The Brothers” had beaten Davis up and broken her jaw because she reprimanded a male colleague for not carrying out an assignment.

Brown writes that when she told Newton of her anger over the attack, he refused to break solidarity with the men, challenging her to a debate in the Central Committee.

Believing the other women would collapse in a direct confrontation over sexism, Brown says, she literally ran away from the fight, leaving the problem of women’s role in the BPP unaddressed and unresolved.

What happened to Regina Davis illustrates perfectly how women’s second-class status devastated the party.

As in every other movement, women were the backbone of all the Panthers’ administrative and organizational work, particularly the Survival Programs. It was these community projects – childcare, breakfasts, schools, clinics – that won broad support and counteracted the media image of the Panthers as gun-toting thugs. And when given the chance, the women also showed themselves to be keen thinkers, innovative strategists, and moving orators.

On paper, the Panthers called for gender equality. But instead of being recognized, developed, and utilized, their many unacknowledged women leaders were sabotaged, demeaned, and punished for being uppity. The result was a divided and fatally weakened organization.

Learning from history. As the Black Panther chairperson, Brown had more influence than any other woman. Her failure to challenge female invisibility inside the party was a tragedy not just for the Panthers but for the feminist movement, which relies on the pacesetting contributions of radical women of color to remain healthy, united, and effective.

But, over the years since then, other women of color – writers, union and grassroots organizers, lesbian activists – picked up the torch and showed in life and theory how feminism is an organic part of every liberation movement.

Brown and Hilliard, and the incredibly significant party they belonged to, could not break free of the sexism of the time. But learning from their struggles will help today’s antiracist revolutionaries, women and men, create a new organization that takes up where the Panthers left off.

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