At its beginnings, the Black Panther Party reclaimed black masculinity and traditional gender roles. A notice in the first issue of The Black Panther, the Panthers\' newspaper, applauded the Panthers—by then an all–male organization—as \"the cream of Black Manhood…there for the protection and defense of our Black community\". Scholars consider the Party\'s stance of armed resistance highly masculine, with the use of guns and violence affirming proof of manhood. In 1968, the Black Panther Party newspaper stated in several articles that the role of female Panthers was to \"stand behind black men\" and be supportive.
By 1969, the Black Panther Party newspaper officially stated that men and women are equal and instructed male Panthers to treat female Party members as equals, a drastic change from the idea of the female Panther as subordinate. That same year, Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton of the Illinois chapter conducted a meeting condemning sexism. After 1969, the Party considered sexism counter-revolutionary.
The Black Panthers adopted a womanist ideology in consideration of the unique experiences of African-American women, affirming that racism is more oppressive than sexism. Womanism was a mix of black nationalism and the vindication of women, putting race and community struggle before the gender issue. Womanism posited that traditional feminism failed to include race and class struggle in its denunciation of male sexism and was therefore part of white hegemony. In opposition to some feminist viewpoints, womanism promoted a gender role point of view that men are not above women, but hold a different position in the home and community, so men and women must work together for the preservation of African-American culture and community.
From this point forward, the Black Panther Party newspaper portrayed women as revolutionaries, using the example of party members such as Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Erika Huggins, all political and intelligent women. The Black Panther Party newspaper often showed women as active participants in the armed self-defense movement, picturing them with children and guns as protectors of the home, the family and the community.
This had direct implications at every level for Black Panther women. From 1968 to the end of its publication in 1982, the head editors of the Black Panther Party newspaper were all women. In 1970, approximately 40% to 70% of Party members were women, and several chapters, like the Des Moines, Iowa, and New Haven, Connecticut, were headed by women.
During the 1970s, recognizing the limited access poor women had to abortion, the Party officially supported women\'s reproductive rights, including abortion. That same year, the Party condemned and opposed prostitution.
Many African-American women Panthers began to demand childcare in order to be able to fully participate in the organization. The Black Panther Party responded to the women by establishing on-site child development centers in multiple chapters across the United States. “Childcare became largely a group activity”, the children would be raised collectively during the week. This was following the Panther’s commitment to collectivism and an extension of the African-American extended family tradition. Childcare allowed women Panthers to still be able to embrace motherhood, while at the same time allowing them to fully participate in the Party. Creating Childcare to the Party allowed women Panthers to not to have to make the choice between motherhood and activism.
The Black Panther Party experienced significant problems in several chapters with sexism and gender oppression, particularly in the Oakland chapter where cases of sexual harassment and gender division were common. When Oakland Panthers arrived to bolster the New York City Panther chapter after twenty one New York leaders were incarcerated, they displayed such chauvinistic attitudes towards New York Panther women that they had to be fended off at gunpoint. Some Party leaders thought the fight for gender equality was a threat to men and a distraction from the struggle for racial equality.
In response, the Chicago and New York chapters, among others, established equal gender rights as a priority and tried to eradicate sexist attitudes.
By the time the Black Panther Party disbanded, official policy was to reprimand men who violated the rules of gender equality.