Black Women Leaders, Then and Now

In August 1966, Ebony magazine published an entire issue devoted to “The Negro Woman.” In it was an article by television personality and journalist ...

In August 1966, Ebony magazine published an entire issue devoted to “The Negro Woman.” In it was an article by television personality and journalist Ponchitta Pierce that addressed the “Problems of the Negro Woman Intellectual,” a year before Harold Cruse would release a book describing the “crisis” of Negro intellectuals. She began by writing, “The Negro woman intellectual is easily one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated and problem-ridden of all God’s creatures.”

Just as the Black Power Movement was getting underway, following Stokely Carmichael’s impassioned call in Mississippi just two months before, the readers of Ebony were treated to a rare essay detailing the struggles of African American women as intellectuals. Female-identified people such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Pauli Murray, and Dorothy Height populate the essay, but it also could have included others such as the communist intellectual Claudia Jones or the Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver.

These women, whose work combined intellectual interrogation of discrimination with activism in the field, would have understood what the “problems” facing Black women intellectuals included—a need to navigate both the sexism and racism of American society. With the exception of Murray, the African American women who were on the radical edge of activism in the 20th century were absent from the essay. Their erasure here matches the traditional erasure of such women from the historical narrative, a problem historians have only recently begun to address.

The recorded history of 20th-century American radicalism has, until recently, left out many important voices. However, of late, numerous historians have utilized seldom-accessed archives and new interpretative frameworks to emphasize the centrality of African American women to left movements in American—and international—history. Robyn C. Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power have added immensely to understanding how African American women played a crucial role in the rise and continuation of what is called the “Black Radical Tradition.” After reading these books, it becomes clear that the Black Radical Tradition, and its ties to the worldwide tradition of radicalism, would not exist without the work and leadership of African American women.

Such work is urgent today—the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, makes little sense unless one understands the centrality of African American women to African American organizing. In fact, the Black Lives Matter website features a section titled “Herstory,” which reminds readers that the original founders of the movement were all women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Future histories of the Black Lives Matter campaign will talk about the feminist and queer ideologies at its center. “As a network,” BLM’s website reads, “we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people.” But, to understand BLM as it exists today, we need to realize that African American women have long been at the forefront of radical activism, organizing, and theorizing. Remaking Black Power and The Revolution Has Come both argue that the history of black radical thought cannot be understood without centering black women.

the Black Radical Tradition, and its ties to the worldwide tradition of radicalism, would not exist without the work and leadership of African American women.

The two books complement each other well. Where Farmer studies a broad, internationalist grouping of African American women, Spencer zooms in on the city of Oakland and the Black Panther Party. Farmer’s work begins in World War II–era America and ends with the 1980s. Spencer, meanwhile, marks the rise of the Black Panther Party in the middle of the 1960s to its fall at the end of the 1970s. The two books deepen the burgeoning field of Black Power studies by enhancing our understanding of the Oakland Black Panther Party (in the case of Spencer’s monograph) and stretching the timeline of important African American female leadership among radical activists (with Farmer’s book).

Remaking Black Power engages with a long history of Black radicalism and internationalism. Farmer’s thesis is important not just for the subfield of the Black Radical Tradition, but for African American history at large. Farmer argues that the women activists chronicled in her book attempted to redefine black womanhood. As she put it, “Gendered imaginary—or activists’ idealized, public projections of black manhood and womanhood—was a critical site of Black Power activism and theorizing.”

Debating the role of women in the Black Power movement and its linked Black Nationalism struggles from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s offered activists a chance to rethink the very nature of blackness and political organizing. They wanted to move beyond thinking about womanhood in a European, white context. “New ideas about black manhood and womanhood,” Farmer writes, “were the scaffolding on which they could erect new ideas about Black Power and empowerment.”

Each chapter in Remaking Black Power emphasizes a different vision for radical black womanhood—from militant domestic workers to revolutionary women, to Pan-African and Third World Black women. Each of these versions of African American radical womanhood helped women in different eras of American history think deep and hard about their relationship to the larger Black Freedom Struggle and Pan-Africanist ideology. Farmer’s study allows historians to get away from thinking about “black feminism and black nationalism as oppositional theoretical and activist pursuits” and start to understand how these two ideologies often interacted with each another.


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For Farmer, one of the important ways in which activists tried to change the framing of gender among African Americans was through the visual arts. One of her most important contributions to the historiography of African American radicalism is her description of how art came to be used as a battlefield for intellectual debate and change. Artwork by artists such as Black Panther Party member Gayle Dickson receives considerable interpretative attention by Farmer, because such imagery allowed African American women to think about themselves in new ways.

Dickson’s artwork envisioned African American women as the heart of radicalism in 1960s and 1970s America. Her image in the June 3, 1972, issue of the Black Panther newspaper was of an older African American woman holding a paper bag full of groceries bearing the words “Bobby (Seale) for Mayor.” The woman was also wearing an “Elaine Brown Councilwoman” button. Such images, argued Farmer, were Dickson’s attempt to convey “a sense of power, warmth, and community,” and at the same time tie black women to the radical rhetoric of the Black Panther Party. Through her artwork, the Black Panther Party “foregrounded black women’s everyday acts of militancy.”

Likewise, centering writing from African American women such as Claudia Jones, Mae Mallory, and Audley Moore, as Farmer does, helps us to understand how serious these activists were about thinking through the problems and opportunities of radical ideologies associated with Pan-Africanism. For example, Jones’s writings are seen, from the perspective of Farmer, as centering the plight of black domestic workers because they were “superexploited” by society for their race, gender, and class. Jones refused to allow, as so many other communists and other members of the left did, black domestic workers to be forgotten by purported revolutionaries.

Centering African American women thinkers and activists is also a hallmark of Robyn C. Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come. While she devotes considerable time in her work to the thinking of Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, Spencer puts black women activists on the ground in Oakland at the center of the Party’s day-to-day operations. The fact that the Panthers “grappled with social reproduction, collective living, housework, individual autonomy, and leisure” makes the group an important one to study regarding gender and radical ideologies. Where Farmer’s work covers a wide range of activists, Spencer’s focus on one group—albeit one of the most important of the radical late 1960s—allows her to spend more time on how the BPP’s ideology developed and changed over time.

Farmer’s study shows how the theoretical and activist pursuits of black feminism and black nationalism have often interacted with each another.

One of the strengths of Spencer’s book, and what allows it to stand out from the explosion of books on the BPP in the past 10 years, is that she documents with clarity the ideological changes within the party that shaped it in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, her understanding of the links between guns and the imagery of the Panthers is strengthened by her analysis of how the party, with mixed results, tried to tamp down the use of gun imagery and masculinist language in the propaganda of the group’s later years. Where today many activists on the left have reignited the debate about gun control and self-defense, they would do well to understand how the Panthers wrestled with the complicated subject of being black and being willing to use armed self-defense.

Another critical advantage of Spencer’s work is that she gives a nuanced interpretation of how the BPP’s ideology changed over time. Contrary to the popular perception of the Panthers, the BPP of 1966 was not the same in 1968, or in 1973. Also, Spencer makes clear that African American women in Oakland joined the Party for many of the same reasons as African American men, with both groups facing “issues of poverty and political powerlessness” that pushed them to look for radical solutions. In Spencer’s book, the Black Panthers of Oakland aren’t trapped in ideological amber—they change with the times, adjusting to local, national, and international political pressures.

Perhaps Spencer’s greatest contribution to Black Panther historiography is her thorough examination of the BPP’s political and ideological changes after 1972. Adjusting to a United States increasingly clamping down on internal dissent and building up the ever-present juggernaut of white backlash, the Black Panthers in Oakland displayed a willingness to adjust their 10-point plan in order to build more alliances with groups in Oakland once seen as too “bourgeois” to work with. Working with African American churches and businesses in Oakland became necessary to survive—but the Panthers did, nonetheless, stick to their core principles of working for the freedom of all people.


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Both books demonstrate the importance of African American women to an internationalist movement based on Pan-Africanism. For far too long, historians interested in the intellectuals and organizers of such movements have paid attention only to the men among them. Both Farmer and Spencer make it clear that African American women propelled these movements—even in the face of both gender discrimination within the organizations and federal repression and white backlash from without. Their understanding of African American radical history should inform both scholars and modern-day activists who must remain aware of embracing diverse people to maintain ideological and organizational strength.

The legacy left behind by Black Nationalist and Black Power organizations reverberates today through Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the national campaign for universal health care. Acknowledging African American women’s voices as key to past campaigns means understanding not only the need to lift up such voices today, but also how the Black Freedom struggle is the essential human rights movement at the center of movements in the United States and across the West trying to better the condition of all people.


This article was commissioned by Keisha N. Blain and Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

Featured image: Pauli Murray (1910–1985). Courtesy of Carolina Digital Library and Archives