An Interview With Bettina Aptheker
Written and Illustrated by Natalie Friedman
I was lucky to interview Bettina Aptheker, a current distinguished professor in the Feminist Studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In the fall of 1964, she was a leader of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement, a movement that fought for civil rights and later, opposed the Vietnam war. She writes about her experiences in Intimate Politics: How I Grew up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. In this interview, we speak about her experience in this time period as a woman, as a Jewish woman, at one point as a Jewish woman prisoner, and as a victim of sexual harassment.
On Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement
Natalie Friedman: During the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, Jack Weinberg, sitting at the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) table, was placed under arrest. Many students sat around the police car [which you mention as] a critical moment in your life when you spoke on top of the car. What compelled you to get on the police car and speak?
Bettina Aptheker: I was very young, just 20, in 1964. A lot of people were speaking on top of the car, [including] Mario Savio, [the leader of the Free Speech Movement] and Art Goldberg, who later became an attorney. They were almost all men, and I thought I might have something to say and that a woman ought to get up there and say something. Later on, the other person who spoke on top of the car was Jackie Goldberg, who is wonderful and later became one of the most important state legislators. Later, when we were surrounded by the police and it looked like they were going to break us up, a woman lawyer spoke on the top of the car. I didn’t have any feminist consciousness, it was just a feeling. I had a great time speaking on top of the car. The crowd was marvelous, it was at night, the lights of the cameras were blinding me, so I couldn’t see, but I could hear them and feel them. I quoted Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The crowd roared back.
NF: Mario Savio was a very important leader in the Free Speech Movement. You describe your friendship with Mario in your book as special. Can you tell me more about your relationship to him?
BA: [1964 was] when I met him. He was a year older, a junior and a philosophy major, very brilliant. [There was] a thing about him that was so marvelous for me. I was the daughter of this very famous communist, so in these radical circles, that’s how I was always thought of. It was hard for me to establish a person who wasn’t the ‘daughter of’ [my father]. It was also a part of the sexism at the time and again, I wasn’t conscious of it, but I knew it made me uncomfortable. Mario didn’t care who I was the daughter of. What mattered to him was human to human connection. Of course, the movement was very very intense, and we were meeting all the time, often until the wee hours of the morning. There were 11 of us on the steering committee, [and] there was a larger executive committee that met. Also informally, we hung out together a great deal of the time. We would go to a movie, talk about a book, have a cup of coffee. It was never romantic, but the right-wing papers would say, this young (Jewish) communist is corrupting this blonde hair blue eyed fellow.
NF: In your book, at the Oakland Jail, you describe the booking process in which an officer accused you of being a Russian Jew, and not an American. Were you surprised by the officer’s accusation of you lying about your Jewish identity?
BA: Yes, I was shocked. You know, it was so off the wall. Being booked was so routine: you give your name, they didn’t usually ask about nationality. In the other times I was arrested, it never came up, so this guy was an anti-semite. He knew who I was. I was very prominent; I was in the paper all the time, the movement was even in the New York Times, we were on television all the time, I spoke at every rally.
On Sexual Harassment
NF: You describe the times when the leader of the Communist party of the Bay Area was sexually harassing you. At the time of the sexual harassment, you mention that you didn’t think of control of your body as a civil right. In your current, working definition of feminism you include that the control of your own body is a civil right. How did this shift come about?
BA: It was the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wasn’t conscious of it before. The women’s movement was later and I was a latecomer to it. It was in the air! I was at San Jose State University and it became a very important part of the definition of feminism for me. This includes reproductive control but also sexual control.
NF: Do you wish you would have reacted differently to the sexual harassment? What would you tell others who are struggling with this dilemma now?
BA: If I had the consciousness, I would have done something very differently. Also, you have your boundaries. [This comes from] the way you are socialized. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. The female child often thinks there is something wrong with her or [that she] in some way invited this. It gets very complicated emotionally.
My consciousness has changed very much. The way I handled it was the way many children handle it. I was a young adult, I went to his wife. Many children go to their mother. They were my foster family, my family brought me to them. It was a second home, that would make sense. She didn’t believe me [because] he denied it. It was very hard, but [my telling her] stopped it. He [only] made one more attempt after I told her.
NF: It seemed like your Jewish Identity surfaced in the 80’s. Can you elaborate?
BA: My partner, [Kate Miller], got me my first menorah. She kept saying, you’re Jewish [and] she encouraged me to look into my Jewish roots. I was at the funeral of my father’s older sister, Minna. She was elderly and she had died and I was driving home by myself. I was on the coast, just leaving San Fransisco into Pacifica. So, I looked out at the water with the waves coming in. I had an epiphany about how as humans we are so miniscule and I saw the pebbles on the beach and they just get washed out to sea and [there was] something about that and having been moved by the sermon.
Minna was active in the synagogue [and] very much a pillar of the Jewish community. So I thought to myself, I am going to find a synagogue. It happened that the rabbi [that I found] had been an activist in the civil rights movement. I was very comfortable, it was progressive, and I studied Hebrew myself. I got excited about this Jewish identity. I then met Paula Marcus at Temple Beth El, who is now the Senior Rabbi. We became close friends and still are.
My father never abandoned his Jewish identity but he was completely secular. My mother’s mother was totally Orthodox and I remember [my mother] describing being at Passover and being totally starving [because the Orthodox service was so long]. If you tried to skip part of the service, they would notice. It’s good to eat a little something before.
NF: In your book, you describe that your immediate family wasn’t religious. But, your grandfather was the principal founder of the oldest synagogue in Brooklyn. Can you tell me more about that?
BA: His name was Benjamin Aptheker [and] he died long before I was born. I haven’t been [to this synagogue]. I was thinking it would be interesting to go. My father was raised in this orthodox synagogue and he was Bar Mitzvahed with the rabbi’s son and that was a big deal. He spoke Yiddish because his parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. My dad spoke fluent Hebrew. Who knew? I was in my 40s when I found out. A cousin of mine lives in Hillsborough, said “oh yeah, your grandfather started it in Borough Park”. It was a wealthy Jewish area. They made their money here, and they came almost penniless. They owned a factory that made ladies underwear. Their house was a full city block – an estate.
NF: What are your thoughts on American Jewish engagement in politics now?
BA: We are a very small minority in the population. We have had over decades of very significant influence and [engagement] in progressive politics. A very disproportionate number of white students that went south are Jewish. Michael Schwerner [a Congress of Racial Equality social worker], and Andrew Goodman [a civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan] were Jewish, from New York. That was not unusual. [These numbers] are very disproportionate in relation to our numbers in the population. The Reform Rabbis that I have encountered were very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement. There is this historic connection between black and Jewish activists in the 30s and 40s. What I see happening today, [Jews] are still very progressive on domestic issues. [Jews] still generally vote Democratic. [There was an] overwhelming vote for Obama and for Hillary from the Jews.
Some of the students that come to me who are pro-Palestine – I say… don’t demonize Israelis and don’t demonize the Jewish people.
NF: In your book, you write, “I was split into two people, the private Bettina, living in desperation, and the public Bettina, going to classes and writing scholarly papers… In the public world I was Herbert Aptheker’s daughter, an organizer, visible on campus. In my interior world, I was lonely, confused, anxious. I felt crazy at times because I couldn’t reconcile the two realities.” How did you reconcile those two identities?
BA: I had this public persona. I was terribly wounded, [and] the reason I lay that out in the memoir that way is because I don’t think I’m that unusual. I think many girls and women experience this split of appearing totally together and on top of things but are internally a total mess. I’m an incest survivor, I’m dealing with sexual harassment, I have huge issues with low self-esteem, worthlessness, [and] suicidal tendencies.
I wasn’t a split personality. I always enacted characters who were almost always male. There is a picture of me smoking a cigarette reading the paper. I was in Bogart mode. It’s a hilarious picture.
NF: What do you wish you could tell yourself at the time? Girls your age now?
BA: I wish that I could have taken a class like what I teach. I wish feminist studies and women’s studies classes were offered [when I was in college]. [At my age,] You knew how you felt but you didn’t know what to do about it. I knew I was a lesbian [but] I didn’t have the language for it. There were lesbians in the Communist party, [but] the party was very homophobic. Some of [the lesbians] were living together openly but never talking about it. It was don’t ask, don’t tell. I had known one of [the lesbians] from my childhood. My father thought highly of both her and her partner, and in my 30s my dad told me. I said, “really?” It would have been so important.
NF: Thank you so much for your time.