Elaine Brown and the Hidden Truths of the Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party Central Committee member Elaine Brown released an album entitled

Roaring permeated throughout the city of Los Angeles, California, as over ten thousand people joined for a political rally honoring the pending trial of Huey Newton. Elaine Brown sat at the top row inside of the L.A. Sports Arena, surrounded by waves of powder blue and black. Posters exclaiming, “Free Huey!” suffused the room and congested onto the streets.1 Huey Newton was one of the founders of the Black Panther Party and epitomized the urgency to end all forms of oppression. Members from the Party gathered in protest to spread awareness of the social injustices Black Americans faced, all while recruiting new members to help their cause. Finding herself in a state of indecisiveness, Elaine Brown debated whether or not she wanted to “be part of the solution or part of the problem,” as these words echoed the room.

Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program | Courtesy of the Online Archive of California, UCLA Special Collection

By the end of April 1968, Brown made a decision that would soon change her life; she joined the Black Panther Party. Not knowing what she was getting into, Brown was introduced quickly to what the Black Panthers advocated for, their strict rules and protocols. This included the Eight Points of Attention, their Platform and Program, Rules, and the Ten Point Program.2 Black Panthers were instructed to follow these rules or else they risked being banned from the Party. They advocated for the equality and fair treatment towards Black Americans and minorities. A significant percentage of these racial groups fell into the categories of being underemployed, unemployed, and unemployable.3 It was important for racial minorities to speak out of their mistreatment. Black women were and remain one of the most oppressed groups in America and around the world. Unlike most men that joined the Party in hopes of proclaiming their “manhood” and respect from their peers, Brown joined the Party “for the duration.”4 In spite of Brown’s eagerness to be a part of this movement, it was soon very clear what a woman’s role in this organization was.

Women in the Black Panther Party were told that as a member they “might have to have a sexual encounter with ‘the enemy’ at night and slit his throat in the morning.”5 Although it was never stated in print, it was explicit to the women in the Party that their “sexuality–once a source of female empowerment” would be used as a “weapon against them” versus the role the men played who were seen as heroic figures to the public.6 Women were to use their bodies in order to gain information from “the enemy” and to produce the next generation of Black Panthers, no questions asked. Much like the government, men in the organization “feared the political potential of black women.”7 Women in the organization were never given leadership roles and were inducted because they looked “safe” and provided services for the men. This was detrimental to women’s self-esteem and self-worth. Black women faced the same forms of oppression that Black men faced, yet were still seen as subordinate to others of their own race. Women who face sexism tend to have a poorer sense of belonging, which hinders their ability to perform well in male-oriented environments and puts women at a greater risk of having mental health issues. Not only did Elaine Brown and many other women in the Black Panther Party have to worry about dealing with racism or mental health issues due to unequal treatment within the Organization, but also women also had to deal with hyper vigilance and carry that fear of just encountering sexism and sexual harassment from their peers. 

Four women protest as six members of the Black Panther Party are being detained in Connecticut, 1969 | Courtesy of Library of Congress

However, this was not Brown’s first encounter with sexism in an oppressed group. Before Brown joined the Black Panther Party, she attended a meeting for the Karenga’s US Organization where they discussed freedom and the revolution. As food was being served, Brown and another woman she was with got in line and waited to be served. They were then confronted and told that they had to wait until their Brothers were served because “our Brothers are our warriors” and they “must be fed first.”8 Brown was appalled, but she did not feel threatened by these men. She knew her place in the Party and she understood that, like Black men, she too was oppressed for many of the same reasons. Brown was willing to violate “all the ‘sisterly’ rules” then, and now as she faced another form of oppression that the men in this organization did not. What men failed to recognize, was how much sexism can limit the ability and potential that women have in order to be as successful as men were during this time period. Women lacked access to the same opportunities and privileges that men were given, and this was why they were not seen as equal to men. Exposure to sexism and sexual harassment can have a psychological effect on women that allows them to be subordinate to men. This is a result of sexism continuing throughout generations and had become seen as a norm in society. Strong women like Elaine Brown understood that women and men are equal.    

Huey P. Newton and Elaine Brown co-founder and future chairwoman of the Black Panther Party c. 1970s | Courtesy of Flickr Images

At this point in Brown’s association with the Black Panthers, she was very aware that the men within the group were equally as sexist as the white man were. Black women were seen as a threat, even to those already oppressed. Brown was told that “a woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant.”9 This never stopped Brown; it only pushed her to rise to power and assert herself to the top of this organization. By the year 1975, Brown had succeeded in making a name for herself. She ran for a City Council position and became the first and only chairwoman for the Black Panther Party. She advocated for equal rights for Black minorities, especially Black women. In the United States, Black women are one of the most oppressed racial and social groups; “black women are unlikely to speak” out about their experience with harassment and violence because throughout history they have faced tremendous costs for doing so.10

Before this, Brown had never thought of herself as a feminist, as the word was always associated with a negative connotation and “was an idea reserved for white women.”11Feminist” was now a word that carried a great weight for who she was as a human. Sexism is a social construct that has been unconsciously taught; various forms of this inequality are imposed on women before they are even born. Although women in society have come a long way to become more equal to men, women are still considered minorities due to their lack of equal opportunities, power, and wage. However, it is vital for women to know that they are meant to be powerful, not submissive. They have potential and intelligence; women are not objects, and they should not be dismissed or overlooked. Elaine Brown is a significant figure to women of color and deserves recognition for rising to power in a male-dominated organization. Sexism will not end today, or even tomorrow, as long as there are people who continue to push the boundaries that society places on women, we will be one step closer to equality. It is women like Elaine Brown, who are considered double-minorities, that break through all stereotypes and barriers in order to advocate for the greater issues that women across the world have faced throughout generations. 

  1. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 126.
  2. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 131, 134-135.
  3. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 136.
  4. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 137.
  5. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story< (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 136.
  6. Marquita R. Smith,  “Afro Thunder!: Sexual Politics & Gender Inequity in the Liberation Struggles of the Black Militant Woman,” Michigan Feminist Studies, no. 22 (Fall 2009): 63.
  7. Marquita R. Smith, “Afro Thunder!: Sexual Politics & Gender Inequity in the Liberation Struggles of the Black Militant Woman,” Michigan Feminist Studies, no. 22 (Fall 2009): 67.
  8. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 109.
  9. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 357.
  10. Rachel Zellers and Naava Smolash,“If Black Women Were Free (Cover Story),” Briarpatch 45 (5): 9.
  11. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Womans Story (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 367.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I have never heard about the Black Panther Party and thought this was really interesting. One thing that struck me about this article was how big of a problem sexism was at the time. Elaine Brown was a very inspiring person because she saw the true potential that women carried throughout the hardships she faced. She was such a driven individual who worked hard to make a difference and speak out for those who couldn’t.

  2. Avatar

    Throughout high school I’ve heard of the black panthers, but never did much research into their history. This article does a really good job at showing their history from what they stood for to empowering figures in the organization. I believe that the Black Panthers had good motives with their intentions, promoting social justice for all minorities and African Americans, equality and to bring awareness to the mistreatment [they] faced. However, due to the group being a lot more violent than spoken about, it’s quite terrifying to think that they felt the need to use violence on order to set forth their values, especially with women in the group.

  3. Avatar

    Prior to reading this article, all I knew about the Black Panther party was that they advocated for equality for Black Americans. After reading this, I learned that there were killings involved and that the party was a lot more violent than I thought they were. It was surprising to me that black women were still seen as irrelevant in this party. But even after all the sexism, Elaine Brown decided to join and ended up breaking stereotypes and barriers that all women face.

  4. Avatar

    I have never before heard about the black panther party but I feel that I gained great knowledge from reading this article. I was also able to get a women’s perspective on being a part of the movement and how sexism was something that was expected in their situation. It really allowed for you to see all the great things Elaine Brown wanted to change and stood up for. A great article that shows us how far we have come from then.

  5. Avatar

    I’ve never read about the black panther party. It was very interesting that they had sexism!. Elaine is a true queen! she faced sexism and destroyed it, she became such an icon!! I have also never heard of this queen named Elaine Brown. She was oppressed and found the courage to find her voice during an era were a female-voices was worth less than a penny.

  6. Avatar

    I’ve never really realized how violent the black panther movement was until I read this article. It was really sad to read about Browns experience with sexism in the black panther movement. I always assumed they would have treated women as equals considering they were fighting for racial equality. It really shocked me that they even wanted women to sleep with white men in order to hurt them in the morning. This article really taught me a lot about this organization and how strong Elaine Brown was and what she accomplished.

  7. Avatar

    I knew quite a bit of information about the Black Panther Party and about Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, but I had never considered the level of sexism within the Party, probably because when I think about the Party I think about their main purpose; to fight oppression and violence against blacks, but it was interesting to read about the Party in a different way. Malcolm X once said, “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” And considering the fact that black women are at the crosshairs of being victims of both racism and sexism, I would agree with Malcolm X, and this article does a good job of displaying that as well.

  8. Avatar

    I had heard about the Black Panther organization but this article helped me understand more about the organization and what it is they did. This article also provided great detail about Elaine Brown. Prior to this article I had no idea who she was nor what she did, this article highlights her get accomplishments and lets us know how strong she was. She became the first and only chair women in a organization that was dominated by men. Elaine Brown is a true inspiration to the female party. Not only did I learn about Brown but through this article I learned just how bad the conditions for these women were, not only were they being oppressed by the world but they were also being oppressed by the oppressed.

  9. Avatar

    Elaine Brown was a strong willed person and she saw the potential she could bring if she were a woman of great importance. Like many other women in history Elaine Brown is not very well known I had no prior knowledge about what she did in the Black Panther party until I read your article. She is one of those hidden figures that we do not learn about in textbooks because either history forgot or they decided she wasn’t as important as a man in the same organization.

  10. Avatar

    This article was so incredibly interesting! I had heard of the Black Panther Party before, however, I had never heard of sexism being a major problem within the socially oppressed group. I’m very impressed with Elaine Brown and her tremendous accomplishments. It’s hard to believe that she became an important icon within the male-dominated organization, and it’s even harder to believe that I wasn’t aware of her contributions until now. I find it appalling that women were treated so bad in the 1960s! That really wasn’t too long ago; that is around the time my mom was born (which is crazy). I admire women who have the mental strength to react as Brown did in such a terrible, oppressive situation. The fact that women were used as sexual objects in order to hurt “the enemy” is terrifying and sad at the same time, so I’m glad to hear that a woman really stepped up and did her part to change the social norms of her society.

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