When many people think of the Black Panther Party today, the image that comes to mind is male-centered and violent: a powerful man wearing the Panther’s signature black beret, with gun prominently in hand. This image has been seared into the collective conscious and appears on thousands of posters and t-shirts. It may be surprising, then, to learn that by the early 1970s the Black Panther Party was two-thirds female.
Historian Ashley Farmer, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, offers an alternative to the conventional, macho portrayal of the Black Panthers. Farmer’s research shows that women played an instrumental role in shaping the black power movement. Their participation created new political models that encouraged women to be active and public revolutionary figures alongside men.
Farmer combed through publications such as The Black Panthernewspaper to find evidence of black women’s public role. She looked particularly at newspaper artwork produced by women artists. What she found is that these women defied gender roles by depicting women as strong, gun-toting revolutionaries. In addition, women set a community-focused revolutionary agenda that supported programs for daycare, groceries, and housing. This research forms part of Farmer's future book, tentatively titled What You've Got is a Revolution: Black Women's Movements for Black Power.
The Black Panther Party formed in 1966 with the goal of protecting black neighborhoods and ending police brutality. The organization’s rapid expansion into multiple cities across the nation, along with high-profile arrests and protests, soon made the Black Panthers an icon of 1960s counterculture.
Key to the Panthers' iconic success, according to Farmer, was a series of commanding drawings and photographs of the black male revolutionary. These images were first included in the organization’s newspaper, The Black Panther (1968-1980). The revolutionary artwork contained within the newspaper's pages produced a striking visual lesson in how to be a revolutionary, explains Farmer. What's more, the enduring popularity of these images today helps fuel the common belief the party was largely male-centered.
But, by purposefully seeking out female artists, Farmer discovered that women played a crucial role internally in the creation of Black Panther revolutionary art and in shaping the black power movement.
Farmer examined the work of Tarika Lewis, whose artwork appeared in the first issues of The Black Panther in the late 1960s. Lewis helped create the popular image of the black male revolutionary. As Farmer explains, this shows how African-American women were integral to shaping the masculine Panther image from the Party’s earliest years. However, Lewis also challenged this early focus on the male image—by depicting women in similar revolutionary poses.
In Lewis’ depictions of both male and female revolutionaries, the revolutionary apperas as a strong and fierce paramilitary figure standing alone among the ruins of a decaying urban landscape. Often, Farmer points out, these images were accompanied by captions that emphasized combating power structures such as police brutality, while thinking about specific ways to improve daily life in the black community. The images emphasized the ongoing black struggle and the need for armed self-defense and control of urban spaces – rather than simply the ultimate fate of the revolution.
As the Black Panther Party grew in size and popularity, the FBI in 1968 declared it to be one of the greatest threats to the country. The bureau killed or incarcerated many male leaders of the party. But the FBI failed to take into account that by the early 1970s women made up two-thirds of the organization’s membership, leaving a base from which the Panthers could continue to organize.
The remaining women Panthers turned toward local-level activism, providing food, housing, and health care in local black communities. Farmer traces this political shift through the work of another female artist, Gayle Dickson, whose drawings appeared in The Black Panther by the early 1970s.
In her sketches, Dickson often depicted older African-American women. For example, one image shows an elderly woman smiling and holding a grocery bag filled with food from the Panthers’ Free Food Program. The woman also wears a pin stating “vote for survival” and holds campaign propaganda supporting candidates endorsed by the Black Panther Party.
Dickson’s revolutionary images underscore the change in the Panther political message, according to Farmer. Unlike Lewis’ images of confrontational and menacing revolutionary figures, Dickson portrayed women with softer expressions that reflected a more inviting and concerned Black Panther Party committed to rebuilding the black community.
Farmer’s research exposes how women in the Black Panther Party diversified the image of the male revolutionary ideal. Farmer contends that these artists also made a direct impact in real women’s lives by paving the way for more equal gender relations. For example, the Panthers held political education classes designed to end gender bias in the black community.
Understanding how women of color have historically incorporated gender into movements around racial and economic disparity is, for Farmer, the first step in rethinking how to approach the place of gender in socially complex settings today. In particular, Farmer’s research resonates in twenty-first-century America, where minorities are set to become the largest segment of the population.
“A more nuanced understanding of minority women’s previous quests for gender equality can inform contemporary discussions of gender equality, and ensure these efforts represent the increasingly diverse population of America,” says Farmer.