Interviewee: Eldridge Cleaver
IWY TX 111
Interviewer: Rachael E. Myers
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Eldridge Cleaver, 42, was a writer, lecturer, and political activist who was an early leader of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas in 1935 and he lived in Stanford, California at the time of the IWY conference. Cleaver attended the conference as an observer and he considered writing a short book about the conference. Interview includes discussion of women in the Black Power Movement, the connections or relationship between women’s organizing and black community organizing, how the Black Panther Party addressed women’s issues including assault, abortion, and Cleaver’s impression of the tactics of the women’s movement. He also discussed the experience of women internationally in comparison to American women and he uses the position of women in Algeria as a comparative example. In the 1980s, Cleaver joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a conservative Republican. Cleaver died in 1998.
Rachael E. Myers: Okay, first of all, what is your full name and your address?
Eldridge Cleaver: My name is Eldridge Cleaver. My address is PO Box U, Stanford, California, 94305. Telephone area code 405-393-1702.
RM: And your occupation. Age and Occupation.
EC: I am forty-two, and my occupation – I’m a writer and a lecturer
RM: Okay; why are you at the conference?
EC: I’m here as an observer, to experience this historic event, occasion. And to inform myself as to what is going on, as far as the women’s movement is concerned. I personally don’t view this as something compartmentalized and marked for women only. I think it’s very important to all human beings, not just here in the United States but all over the world. I am very impressed that what happens in the United States has a very powerful impact on the rest of the world. And, it’s my opinion that the American women are the freest women in the world. And, there are other women in the world who are much more oppressed than they are – and it really goes to some extremes – that I have seen myself. And I think that this exercise, this assembly, this convention – particularly since it represents the transformation of a movement into a concrete plan and program – will go a long ways in inspiring other women all over the world and thereby enhancing freedom for all people.
Like John Omar Bradley said that, “any plan is better than no plan.” And with all of the negative criticisms that want to bring about on a convention of this type being a first effort. And, the criticism that want to launch against the plan. I keep that in mind that this is a great step in the right direction, and I think that as we go along we can go back. We find a bit of pride and a sense of accomplishment. And, I’m proud of the American women that have brought this about.
RM: And you’ve been a leader of other movements. Can you tell me what the evolution of the woman’s has been in other movements that you’ve been involved with?
EC: Well, I’m actually looking back over, say, a 10 year period to the time when I remember the first rumblings amongst women, when they were first struggling with the same fervor that I see here, to establish women’s caucuses inside a male dominated organization. And, I remember when that was viewed with consternation by men and with all kinds of fear and trembling by women, who were just taking their first steps and they were uncertain as to what the consequences were going to be to those first steps. And, between those first steps and this great convention I think marks a lot of suffering, and a lot of struggle, and a lot of sacrifice on the part of a lot of people. I think it really marks the progress looking back on a continued perspective. And, of course, in order for this kind of thing to take place, it means that consciousness has had to be elevated. And, to me, the difference between the level of consciousness amongst women now and what it was back in the sixties is, like, light years.
I used to go around making speeches calling for women to develop organizations – specifically because I recognized that men were blocking, not just women, but they were blocking the whole movement. They were blocking the whole struggle that was going in the United States. And they were doing this by very tricky and deceptive means. And, after, you know, struggling with them over a long period of time. I recognized that they were doing it consciously. That they were pretending that they didn’t understand, and pretending that they were confused. But, I came to conclude that they knew very well what they were doing. That they just used different tactics and strategies of confusion to make it look as though all this was happening ‘willy-nilly.’ So that in every organization that existed at that time, there were just two or three women who were willing to stand up and take the lead in urging independent initiatives in the name of women by women.
RM: What did they have to stand up against?
EC: All kinds of blocking by men. Particularly the fact that men controlled everything. If you’re caught up in organizations where you don’t have the power to convene the assemblies, where you don’t have the power to move the agenda, where everything you have to do goes through men, it’s really analogous to the situation that black people were in. This is what gave rise to the whole black power movement and the call for independent organizations by men. I mean by blacks. So that they could avoid the blocking that whites would impose upon them. And, I noticed that whites used the same kind of tactics of confusion, of they didn’t understand, of they didn’t know , they weren’t sure – that men then used toward women. And having gone through that with whites, when I saw men doing the same thing with women, it was quite transparent.
RM: Can you tell me about the position of women within the Black Panther Party when you were involved with the party?
EC: Well when the party just started, there were no women in the party. The first women in the Black Panther Party were the girlfriends of the men. And, the only time they came around was when they came to meet their boyfriends. And, tt wasn’t a mass phenomenon in the first place, because it was quite scary. So there weren’t even a lot of men around. So the only men around were the really hardcore and dedicated people. And, the only women around were the hardcore dedicated girlfriends. And, as the party grew, more and more men, and more and more girlfriends, and a point developed where we had to institutionalize their presence and the first thing that was done was to call them and an auxiliary. Which is what people always do, you know, to their lessers. Yesterday, here, a woman, quite proud of what’s going on here, told me, maybe we should start an auxiliary for men and let you guys be an auxiliary. It was the same kind of thinking that was going on then. It all came to a head one time over some concrete issues. We had been holding meetings. We didn’t have any offices, this was the time before the Black Panther Party had its first office.
We were holding our meetings in the house of a girl, who had an apartment. So that, after the meeting was over, there were three girls there who lived in this apartment. So, after the meetings were over, the guys would be hanging around to see who would be able to stay there that night. And, it wasn’t anything about consulting the girls as to who would stay there, it was a question of which guy would get the others out. It was something that was being decided between the men. The girls protested this. And, this particular time, myself and Bobby Seale and some other guys, we all left, and we left about four or five guys there. The next day we got a complaint–actually got charges filed against these guys, by the girls who had–owned the house; that the guys had become very abusive, and cursed them out, and had threatened them with force over the question of sleeping with them that night. So they demanded a trial, and this was the first trial that the Black Panther Party ever had, and it was over the question of women’s rights. So that, Bobby Seale was chairing the meeting where this was taking place, and the girls got up and brought their complaints against the guys, and it came to a vote as to whether or not these guys were guilty.
And, so, all of the–Bobby Seale called for the vote, and the men put up their hands. And, he started counting hands. He told the women, you can’t vote, put your hands down you can’t vote, because you’re not members of the organization. That was it, that was the spark that set the whole thing off. He counted the men’s votes and the guy got exonerated by a couple of votes. So the women just were furious, and the leader of the women walked out along with several others. The only way we could get them to come back in was to agree to take a recount. And then the guy said that would be double jeopardy to have a recount. And that brought the whole question down front, and from then on the women were saying we’re taking the same chances you guys are taking and if we can’t vote, then we don’t want anything to do with this. So obviously we changed the whole procedure and, from then on, they had full on and equal voting rights and so forth as men. But it took that incident to make us realize the deficiency in the process.
RM: And, but you did realize that–you did come to some understanding about the women in the organization?
EC: Immediately, I mean, it wasn’t ill will on our part. I think this is often misunderstood. A lot of this stuff that goes on is like conscious and unconscious racism, there’s conscious and unconscious sexism. Men are not omnipotent, where everything they do is conscious. A lot of stuff they do is conscious, some of the more obvious stuff they do. There is a lot of stuff that men do that women don’t like that is not conscious behavior. It’s programmed behavior.
RM: Can you tell me, did the Black Panther Party ever relegate or lift the women’s movement above the classifications of white bourgeois, middle-class movement that really had nothing to say to the black woman.
EC: Well I think the attitude was more, like, dealing with what was going on at that time. What was going on that time was not as advanced as what was going on in the black community. You know? On the west coast the women’s liberation movement started in the offices of Ramparts Magazine. And was really about the rebellion of the wives of the editors against their husbands. And I remember being invited to go to a meeting, where the men like Bob Shear and Saul Stern, and Anne Shear you might know as – was Bob Shear’s wife – she was quite a spark for the women’s movement on the west coast.
They invited me to attend this meeting – the women did. Their rule had been that no men could attend, see, but because I was making speeches in support of them when other men wouldn’t, they gave me the privilege of going to this meeting. So these men, they went outside and picketed the house. Bob Shear was outside picketing his own house, because he couldn’t attend this meeting. They imposed the condition that if I came, then I had to bring with me at least two women from the Black Panther Party, this is what the men said. So they came down and the discussion was had, but they were – the white women there were more concerned about their relations with their husbands and all this. While we were on a real uptight collision course with the cops. You see? So there was no patience from our side with those kind of ‘namby pamby’ issues, as we saw it at that time because there was blood and fire in the streets. You see?
RM: Do you believe that it is possible that the rest of the world views this conference and the women’s demands in this country in the same light?
EC: I believe there is some tendency because, even myself, when I left the US – I began to look back with a lot of disdain towards even the black struggle. And, I began to see that if black people are oppressed in the United States, they are pressed between two pieces of silk; you know what I mean? Compared to what is going on the rest of the world. There’s no comparison. I am sure that women in Algeria would look at this, and they would have difficulty understanding how you here, together, in control of your own meeting, could feel so uptight when they’re in constant risk of being killed – you talk about battered wives, they get killed. They get – for instance in Algeria, I found out that – someone told me that the most beautiful woman they ever saw was in prison for life for killing her husband, her mother-in-law, and her aunt–the mother’s sister – What do you call it? – aunties-in-law. She killed almost the whole family over not being able to deal with the oppression that was put on her by her husband and that whole arrangement. It caused me to look into that whole situation.
And, I found that suicide rates are extremely high amongst young ladies over there. And the prisons are full of women who killed their husbands over there, and killed other men and so forth. What happened here, for instance, with Joanne Little–killing the cop –it happens all the time over there. Where a man who has power positions abuse women, so a woman can’t even go out on the streets after dark, if she does she is considered to be a prostitute on sight. A woman walks down the street – they throw rocks at her. Just on principle; and they say, ‘beat your wife every day, if you don’t know why she does’, this kind of thing. You talk about battered wives – I mean – there’s no comparison.
RM: Okay, Can you tell me in reaction to – I don’t know if you really want to speak for other Christians. But, in reaction to the demonstrations outside – we were talking about this on the way over – the demonstrations against this conference by other people outside claiming to be messengers of god. Can you talk about that a little bit and how a Christian man feels about women?
EC: I don’t think the people–whom I saw, outside this hall–could be considered representative of any large body of Christians. They’re just—that was–I think, quite a local and parochial gathering–what you saw outside this hall…I’m speaking of outside this building, and outside the music (unintelligible 17:14) that I saw. Now, the meeting that took place – I think Friday or Saturday at the astrodome–may have been more representative of some of that concern. And, I think you find less disagreement with the Equal Rights Amendment. And, as you get to some of the other issues, the situation heats up. When you start talking about lesbian rights, abortion, those kinds of issues are emotional and quite – I think the American people are not unanimous on this issue. Women are not unanimous. I think it’s – the women who are here, who are represented here, represent a more militant wave of women than just female America as a whole. They don’t represent female America as a whole.
They may represent the best interests of female America as a whole, but they don’t represent the prevailing consciousness of female America as a whole. And to, to just fly in the face of that I think is stupid. What you have to do is deal with the opinion of people and bring them up to date and in line with the creative and moderate ideas. And, what I find always necessary is to distinguish between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the political, social, and economic opinions of men and women in society. Because I think that all along the line, Jesus didn’t even discuss abortion. I mean, this was never brought up, okay? But there are certain things that were said, that would lead to certain inferences that he would be opposed to it. So therefore, people are all free to give their own interpretations and then you end up with the kind of confused situation we have today. But, I do believe that the question of abortion, and the question of lesbian or homosexual rights are really the two – abortion and contraception, let me put it that way – these are the two issues that we have not heard the last of. I think the rest of it…it will go, you know? But those, you have to have some real heavy discussion. Now, myself, I take the position that– Are you going to be able to hear me with all this?
RM: Yeah, I can hear you…
EC: You think so…?
EC: Up until now, the question of unwanted pregnancies has been shifted onto women. That, if you look at the situation that exists, the culprit, and I just used this term, is sperm, alright. And it’s the transference of sperm from the male body to the female body. So at the present time, because sperm finds its final resting place in the body of a woman, man is able to walk away and wash himself off and the woman is left to deal with it. As far as I’m concerned this is passing the buck, or passing the sperm if you like. And really men are the guardians of sperm. Men are the ones who have to develop some kind of economy of sperm to see to it that it’s not indiscriminately just tossed around where it’s not wanted. And, the important thing would be – the ideal contraceptive method would be not to put sperm in bodies that don’t want it. Rather than having women using chemical, surgical, and mechanical devices that have untold side-effects, okay?
RM: Are you talking abstention then, on both sides?
EC: I’m saying that the reason that – I’m saying it is – because I know it’s possible – men have to relearn the ancient discipline that they used to know, and which was lost by the imposition of the fig leaf, of having the ability to separate orgasm from ejaculation. This is possible, because I can do it, and it has survived in the world as part of a tantric discipline. But it is possible, and I think this is the kind of sexual education that men need–boys need–so that they have more control over their organs. Other than being able to speed up and slow down their urine, or to speed up or slow down their excrement. There’s a much more conscious control that we exercise over our sexual organs that that. I think we need a kind of control over the ejaculation of sperm that will not create a situation where women have to butcher their bodies in order to avoid the unwanted pregnancies.
RM: What do you expect to take home, with you, from this convention? How will it manifest itself, say, in what you do when you go back?
RM: Are you here, basically as an observer, to learn?
EC: I think I’ll write a little book about this. About this convention and about women’s struggles. The whole situation. Because, I think men’s consciousness is lagging so far behind that a crisis situation does exist. We’re talking about amending the constitution, we’re talking about influencing legislation. It’s dangerous to do that when there is some much ignorance and confusion in the land. So that I will be able to talk authoritatively about this convention. I’ll be able to talk about what I saw, and I think that a lot of this will be missed in the transmission through media.
There are a lot of nuances and flavors that you just can’t capture electronically or through words. And, so I’m going to go and talk, and at the present time I feel like starting a magazine or something. Because, we have women organized from left to right, and we have what I call the she-men organized – very strong machinery. And, I don’t see anything for the he-men. And, I just use those terms because I want to. Okay? And, I’m referring to the homosexual lobby amongst men. And, other than caught up in traditional organizational forms that have been rejected by women. And, now there are organizations that grew out of past – that are called male-dominated – those organizational forms are passé and men don’t even know it. So I’ll have quite a bit to talk about, sort of shaking them out of their complacency at this point.
RM: Okay. Listen, thank you….
(Conference speaker heard in the background at 25:24)
End of Interview