Since the Civil War, black women had endured the pain of segregation, the terror of white violence, the weight of discrimination in employment and education, and the demoralization of verbal abuse. They had also felt the urge to liberate themselves from economic, political, and social oppression just as deeply as black men, and perhaps, at times, more deeply. Yet during the civil rights era, most organizations relegated women to positions behind the scenes, shadowing the men on the front lines. Despite the fact that women spearheaded the Birmingham Bus Boycott, galvanized the "freedom rides" and sit-in demonstrations, and served as important political representatives, men controlled the organizations, often disregarding the weight of these contributions. For instance, in 1963, at the height of the movement, tens of thousands of women, including activists and organizers such as Jo Ann Robinson, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, joined the March on Washington, yet the all-male march committee neglected to invite any woman to make a speech before the crowd.
Some women involved in the movement chose to remain behind the scenes and were able to find fulfillment supporting male leaders. Others, like young Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur, Ericka Huggins, and Kathleen Cleaver, refused to accept lesser positions. For them, service roles—typing meeting minutes, washing dishes, preparing food, and providing male activists with moral support or even sexual gratification—were demeaning. They sought, instead, an equal partnership alongside their male peers in the movement. They believed in their own ideas and intended to lead their people.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense captured the imagination of these young women seeking prominence in the civil rights struggle. The underlying promise of equality in the Party's platform attracted female recruits. According to co-founder Bobby Seale, class structure was the root of all types of oppression, including male chauvinism. Male and female Panthers, then, were to treat each other as "comrades" and share equally in all group activities and responsibilities. For women itching to become warriors on the front lines, this was the ultimate invitation.
Once in the Party, female members, or "Sisters," found that they had to earn respect. Male Panthers expected women to assert toughness, defying any evidence of weakness or vulnerability. They were to prove that they could stand against the enemy, gun cocked and loaded, prepared to shoot. "The way we see it," Bobby Seale explains, "the pigs in the system don't care that she's a Sister; they brutalize her just the same."19 Each Panther woman trained herself to set aside "the pretty things" to be accepted as a "revolutionary first, Sister second."20
As many female Panthers discovered, male chauvinism penetrated the ranks despite Party rhetoric promoting an equal partnership between men and women. At a memorial gathering for a fallen Panther, Elaine Brown found that while all men sat in one room discussing the "revolution," the women were relegated to the kitchen, expected to cook and prepare food to serve the "Brothers." Arty McMillan, under the direction of her husband Bobby Seale, took notes and typed minutes for Party meetings.21 Kathleen Cleaver discovered that in these gatherings ideas offered by men were immediately implemented while the same ideas when posed by women were ignored. "The suggestion itself," Cleaver explains, "was never viewed objectively. The fact that the suggestion came from a woman gave it lesser value."22
Panther women, dedicated to the goals of the movement, often looked beyond these obstacles and performed many of the basic tasks necessary for the functioning of the Party. They wrote articles for the Black Panther newspaper, tutored children in the Liberation schools, offered legal advice to prisoners, organized rallies, distributed flyers and pamphlets, and spoke to their local communities about solutions to economic and social problems.
Black Panther women also rose to positions of leadership. Ericka Huggins served as Deputy Minister of Defense for the Connecticut chapter; and in 1974, Elaine Brown became the second-ranking member of the Central Committee, the core leadership of the organization, second only to the Party's founder, Huey Newton. "I have control over all the guns and all the money of this party," she announced upon accepting the position. "There will be no external or internal opposition I will not resist and put down... So if you don't like the fact that I am a woman, if you don't like what we're going to do, here is your chance to leave. You'd better leave because you won't be tolerated!"23
According to the women who served in the Black Panther Party, the organization allowed them room to grow as leaders, to build self-confidence, and to develop a sense of pride for themselves and for other black women in the struggle for civil rights. Despite gender discrimination within the Party, these women agreed that they were able to transcend the limitations of sexism to see the immediate results of their contributions. Years after the fall of the organization, Sheeba Haven explained that the Black Panthers offered her the chance "to know my own strength. I think that there was no [other] organization that could've afforded me that opportunity."24