As Black Lives Matter continues to shape the upcoming election cycle and national discourse, the Urban Democracy Lab hosted a conversation on feminism in the Black Panther Party to further explore the impact of these earlier organizations that paved the way for the current civil rights movement. Lynn C. French, an attorney and former member of the Black Panther Party, and Salamishah Tillet, associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, convened at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study to discuss the role of feminism in the party and the legacy of the Black Panthers.
The Panthers were not “asking for permission to envision this world” according to French and it was this unapologetic attitude that initially attracted her to the party. By 1968, the Panthers’ female membership was up to two thirds of the party. Tillet explained that both the government and the media placed a chauvinistic lens on the party that disproportionately emphasized “black men with guns” while invisibilizing the black women working in the party and in leadership. This disparity between the male dominated memory of the Black Panther leadership and the reality, according to French, depicts a common misconception about women’s roles in the party. These heteronormative media reactions created a history that writes out Panther women, according to Tillet.
French started an early childcare program because she had a child, but these duties were not only relegated to the women in the party. French stated that many undertakings, like the free breakfast program, were run by a combination of men and women. One woman in the audience, who ate at the free breakfast program as a child, said the men of the party cooked the breakfast while the women would help her with homework after school. Tillet explained that examining the flexibility of gender roles in the party offers a narrative of feminism that is often not associated with the Black Panthers.
This inaccurate portrayal by the media also affects police brutality and the activism around it. According to Tillet, black women’s deaths are rarely the catalyst for nationwide action around police violence. Tillet goes on to clarify that “these girls live at the deep intersections of different forms of violence which may be the reason why it is invisibilized.” Both French and Tillet echoed that by viewing violence as a public health problem and centering the experiences of the most marginal, the nation could work together to create a “radically democratic future.”
However, the “ritual of white supremacist violence against black bodies” seems to take a cyclical form, according to Tillet. French believes the U.S. is in the midst of a third reconstruction movement. The first reconstruction began after the Civil War, and the second was the civil rights movement of the 60s. French observed that after each movement there was significant pushback towards blacks, including through the rise of vagrancy laws after the Civil War, and Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration. These patterns should not discourage current activists according to French: “I don’t want to say because things are cyclical don’t struggle. Keep struggling.” Both French and Tillet affirmed that this generation of activists has the ability to make large steps towards equitability and accountability and that paying attention to history and the work of predecessors like the Panthers will help realize these goals.