Women, Sexuality And The Black Panther Party
One of the most prominent female figures in the Black Panther Party was Angela Davis, a human rights activist, professor and cultural icon. Davis is a controversial figure, but she also is an example of a black lesbian leader that deserves to be recognized for her contributions to the African American and LGBT community. Davis announced her lesbian identity in an OUT magazine interview in 1997. She was reluctant to speak about her lesbian identity until then because of harsh discrimination against lesbians of color and her already controversial image.
According to one Panther woman: “Sexuality was a very low-key thing in the Party. It was just natural that women had women lovers and men lovers at the same time. We all were sexually allowed whatever was our wish.” The BPP had an open mind towards sexual expression as well as the roles women could play in social change organizations. The embrace of female empowerment and varied sexual identities within the party allowed for women like Angela Davis, to rise to prominent positions of power within the party while other radical organizations of the time such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) saved leadership roles for men, and forced women to remain in the background. Although the BPP did not chastise Davis for her gender or sexuality, Davis kept her sexuality a secret to the outside world until 1997 because of prevailing stereotypes about lesbians and women of color.
Davis was born on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. During her younger years, she attended segregated schools, until she enrolled at New York’s Little Red Schoolhouse, a school that became infamous for its communist identified students and faculty. She later attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, an adjunct of Little Red Schoolhouse, on a full scholarship. After graduating from Brandeis University in 1965, she served on the faculty of Goethe University in Frankfurt Germany, and eventually returned to the US where she was appointed a faculty position at UCLA. When her membership in the Communist Party became known to university administration in 1969, she was fired from UCLA. After a first amendment court battle, she was rehired. Davis recalls in her autobiography, “tons of hate mail poured in my office at UCLA demanding I be removed from the university…many threats had been made on my life…” During her time in the US, Davis had also become drawn to the socialist politics of the BPP.
The Black Panther Party is most commonly portrayed to students of history as a militant, hyper-masculine organization that diverged from the non-violent civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. In many ways this portrayal is accurate.
From it’s inception in 1966, the Black Panther Party explicitly stated its commitment to using violence and the ideas of black power as means of achieving equality within white society. Originally named The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, party founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale created ten-point program that asserted, “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.” Point seven of the program declares,
“We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people. We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.”
Statements like these are taken out of the context of Black Panther ideology. Also they are quoted without consideration of the support women gave to these statements or the shifts in party politics that occurred in the later years of the BPP.
Portrayals of women as powerful militants as well as charismatic personalities of the movement were crucial parts of Black Panther self-representation. As Historian Robyn C. Spencer writes, “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.” Considered “Pantherettes” at this time, as the Black Panther Party was still technically an all-male organization, women participated in the march to the state legislature in Sacramento on May 2nd, 1967 to protest the Mulford Bill. The bill would prohibit the carrying of unconcealed firearms in public and was thought by many to be a direct attack on The Black Panther’s self-defense efforts. In this march and other actions, the Black Panthers “had not excluded women or overtly endorsed prevailing theories about women’s subordinated place in the black liberation movement.” The party’s all-male stance was mostly in relation to prevailing notions that men should be on the front lines of a self-defense group.
Women like Davis became public figures of the BPP through their experiences with violence and arrest. Many women rose to power in the BPP, simply because the men of the organization were being systematically persecuted by the US government. Davis became a political prisoner in the eyes of Party members after her arrest in 1972. When the plot to free political prisoner George Jackson went awry, a kidnapping resulted in several deaths, including Judge Harold Haley. Angela was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list because while she was not involved in the incident directly, it was a gun registered in her name that caused the deaths. After her arrest The Black Panther, the official newspaper of the Panthers, featured a large image of Davis yelling into a microphone with the words “FREE ANGELA” above the image. Free Angela signs were a common sight in the seventies, and her large afro, common among Black Panther women, became a trend among young African American women. During this time, Davis was also featured on the cover of Life Magazine, for an article entitled “The Making of a Fugitive”. As a nonviolent person, I do not agree with her decision to supply weapons to the Black Panther Party. However, I will never have the experience of being a lesbian black woman in the 1970s, and could never understand why she or the Party condoned the use of violence in the name of equality.
Davis’ strength during her trial, and her willingness to publicly speak out against injustice encouraged Panther women to demand equal rights on their own terms. Increased female involvement and leadership in The Black Panther Party promoted socialism as a solution to economic problems, but also as a solution to the intertwined oppressive forces of racism and sexism in America. As more women joined the Panthers in the seventies, the elimination of sexism within the Party, and ultimately society, was pushed to become not just rhetoric, but reality. Women used the rhetoric and images that had placed them on equal playing field in the militant years of the past to demand equality in issue representation, and sexual rights. Bobby Seale told the press that Panthers were, “moving on that principle of absolute equality between male and female: because male chauvinism is related to the very class nature of this society as it exists today.”
Panther women used the Party’s socialist rhetoric as a means of achieving the gender equality in their professional lives as activists and their personal lives with Panther men. In one interview, Angela Davis recalled the effects of the 1965 Moynihan Report, in which Daniel Monnihan argued, “Black oppression could be attributed to the matriarchal structure of the Black community.” She goes on to explain that the report, “attempted to exploit and distort the male/female relationship within the Black community, which, while of course it was informed by sexism, was much more egalitarian that in the white community.”
By the late 1970s, the Black Panther Party began to focus on successful community survival programs and more openly endorsed socialism as a solution to the problems of Black people. An article titled “L.A. Pigs Vamp on Free Breakfast Programs,” featured in the Black Panther, the author writes, “We, the Black Panther Party have taken upon ourselves the struggle of not only prepare for the total liberation of all people, but the temporary alleviation of the some of the ills which the great masses of people suffer.” Some mass media did pay attention to the shifts in the Panther’s political style, but usually downplayed it as the Black Panthers giving up on revolution.
In the next decade, Davis would focus more on individual projects and became a leader of the prison rights movement, as well as an advocated for women’s and LGBT rights. In 1980 Davis ran for Vice President of the United States on the Communist Party ticket with Gus Hall. In the same year, Davis won the Lenin Peace Prize for her work with civil rights in the US. She became a touring speaker at Universities, and two years after coming out as a lesbian in Out magazine, she delivered an address at John’s Hopkin’s “Living Out Loud” event hosted by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance. At this speech, as well as in her activism in the 1990s, she focused on the importance of issues of race and class in the gay rights movement. Sexuality is something Davis is fine with as a political statement. She states,“[Sexuality can] enter into consciousness and become the focus of struggle.”
Davis dedicates much of her time to educating the American public on the inability of the modern prison system to reform criminals, or solve our nation’s social problems. In “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex” Davis states,
“Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category ‘crime’ and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color…prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.”
Davis is a voice for the voiceless in a nation where speaking out against mainstream views increasingly puts citizens in danger of discrimination and persecution. Today, Davis is a distinguished visiting professor at Syracuse University.
Annie Brown – Richmond, Virginia
 Spencer, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle,” 11.
 Angela Davis, “From: Angela Davis, an Autobiography,” Herb Boyd, ed., Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told By Those Who Lived It, (New York: Doubleday), 440.
 The Black Panther Party, “Ten Point Program,” http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm, Accessed 13 December 2008
 Robyn C. Spencer, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California,” Journal of Women’s History, 20 no. 1 (2008), 3.
 Spencer, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle,” 5.
 Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Angela Y. Davis, “Complexity, Activism and Optimism: An Interview with Angela Y. Davis,” The Feminist Review, No.31, (Spring 1989), 70.
 “L.A. Pigs Vamp on Free Breakfast Program,” The Black Panther, 13 September 1969.
Featured Image From: http://www.blackpower.com/politics/civil-rights-icon-angela-davis-says-shes-more-than-just-an-afro/
Free Angela Image From: http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/images/AngelaDavis_Button.jpg
Annie is journalist and activist living in Richmond, Virginia. Her journalism focuses on issues of gender, health and economic inequality. Check out her portfolio here: http://anniebrownportfolio.blogspot.com/ Also, Annie helps run a independent publication entitled, Lips Richmond: http://lipsrichmond.wordpress.com
If you had asked me back in the 1970’s, when LGBTQ activism in Virginia really emerged, “What do you think will have changed in 40 or 50 years?” I would never have guessed marriage equality.October 8, 2014
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