When you think of the Black Panther Party, you probably think of men: Men dressed in black berets and leather jackets, men with shaved heads and goatee mustaches, and men armed with rifles. You probably don’t think of the women of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers were a group of black socialists who advocated for revolutionary change to end racial oppression and inequality. In 1966, a group of young activists created the Oakland-based chapter of the Black Panther Party, which was originally founded in Chicago two years earlier. These women grew up in homes that valued education, social justice, and equality – all values they later used to fuel their activism in the Black Panther Party. As public school teachers, they were also especially equipped to have an impact on students and their communities.
Who were the women of the Black Panther Party?
There were many women in the Black Panther Party, but three women stand out for their particular contributions to the party: Angela Davis, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton’s fiancée, who went from being a student activist to being on the FBI’s most wanted list; Sonia Sanchez, a poet and professor who became the Panthers’ first “Outreach Poet”; and Kathleen Cleaver, a lawyer who wrote the first draft of the Black Panther Party’s platform. Davis is perhaps the most well-known of the Black Panthers’ female activists because of her position as a leader in the party and her subsequent arrest and detention by the FBI. She was charged with conspiracy to kidnap and murder and was acquitted after spending six years in prison. She was on the FBI’s most wanted list for two years and was No. 1 on the Defense Department’s list of “communist sympathizers.” Sanchez, who was a poet and professor, was recruited as the Black Panthers’ first “Outreach Poet.” Her job was to travel across the country and read her poetry to crowds of all kinds, from black and Latino communities to university campuses. Sanchez later went on to receive many awards for her poetry and was inducted into the Poetry Hall of Fame. Cleaver, who was married to Black Panther Party co-founder Eldridge Cleaver, was the first woman to deliver a speech at the United Nations. She drafted the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program, which addressed issues like police brutality, racism, and poverty.
What did the Black Panther Party do?
Like other organizations of the era, the Black Panther Party had a variety of programs to help the community. Members taught children after school, provided food for the hungry, and fought against police brutality. The Black Panther Party was mostly funded by members’ salaries, dues, and other small donations from the community. The Panthers, who originally numbered about a dozen, provided security at local nightspots and set up street patrols in black neighborhoods. The Party’s most famous program was its free breakfast for schoolchildren program. This program was started in 1969 when a small group of members began making daily trips to a local bakery to buy fresh pastries. They took the pastries to a nearby school, where they served them to children before school. It wasn’t long before other members began making the same daily trips to buy pastries, and before long, they were making baked goods, too.
Why were women so important to the Black Panther Party?
The Black Panther Party was created with the intent to create social change. And to do that, the Panthers needed people who were willing to fight for that social change. They made a conscious decision to recruit women. The Black Panther Party took a radical approach to gender equality. They didn’t just allow women to join. They encouraged them to do so. They believed that education would empower women and would help them lead successful lives. This was evident in the way the Party educated their children.
Some women contributed more than others.
Like any group, some women played a bigger role in the Black Panther Party than others. However, that’s not to say that the women who weren’t in leadership roles didn’t have an impact. In fact, many women played critical roles in the Party’s programs and administrative functions. For example, women members were responsible for most of the community outreach to other groups in the black community. Women were in charge of the children’s programs, hosting toy drives and reading groups. Women were also in charge of the healthcare programs, including a free health clinic. Women even ran the Party’s newspapers.
There’s a reason why you don’t hear much about these women.
Unfortunately, many of the women who were a part of the Black Panther Party didn’t receive credit for what they achieved. Many of the women who were involved in the Party, especially in earlier years, didn’t receive much recognition for their contributions. Some of these women even had to change their names to protect themselves and their families from the police or the FBI. Because the women went by aliases, people didn’t know who they were or what they did. A few years ago, a book was published that attempted to right this wrong and give credit where credit was due. The book, To Shake Their Hand, is a collection of oral histories from former Black Panthers. It includes interviews with women Panthers and documents their experiences. Even though many women were involved in the Party and made a huge impact, they were often overlooked.
Lessons we can learn from the women of the Black Panther Party.
There are a couple of lessons we can learn from the women of the Black Panther Party. First, women can and should be involved in social justice movements. Women have a lot to offer and can make a significant difference. You don’t have to be in a leadership role to make a difference. You can make a difference by participating in your community and making an effort to help others. Second, women have been involved in social justice movements for a long time. Even though they may not have been as visible as men, they have always been there, working hard to make a difference.