Women and the FSM

by Bettina Aptheker

From the panel "The Story of the Free Speech Movement" at the 1984 FSM Reunion.


Editor's note: The core of Aptheker's reflection about women here has been published elsewhere in much briefer form. Yet its substance is so rich with feeling that we prefer to offer it in its full context of feeling and thought, as the lightly-edited transcript of a speech to a responsive audience of her peers and younger participants. Aptheker's talk was one highlight of a broad proceeding that helped nourish the resurgence of Berkeley campus activism in the anti-apartheid movement of 1984-85.


Nancy Skinner: Bettina Aptheker is currently an instructor in Women's Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz . She kiddingly said to me that she is still fighting with the Regents and the administration there. She was on the Free Speech Movement Steering Committee; she is very involved in the Women's Movement now, as she was then. She was very active in Angela Davis' defense during her trial twelve years ago; and I am very pleased to introduce Bettina Aptheker. [Applause.]

Bettina Aptheker: I can't tell you what a joy it is to be here. How many of you are FSM vets? Raise your hands -- wooooooo! [Applause.] Aren't you beautiful? Glad to see you again!

I walked onto the campus tonight and I saw the exhibits in the Student Union building, and I started to cry. And I came in here and I saw Michael, whom I haven't seen in I don't know how many years. And I saw Jackie Goldberg, who . . . I don't know how many years, twenty years anyway. I saw Art and I saw Suzanne -- I had seen Mario recently, but you know -- and it's overwhelming. This is a beautiful evening; this is a fantastic week; and what's happening in this room tonight is the re-kindling of the joy and the spirit that was the Free Speech Movement, and I feel very honored and privileged to still be alive and to participate in this evening with you. [Man's voice from audience: "There is no 'Big Chill'!" - Loud applause.]

I have a couple of stories I want to start with. One of them is, you know -- yeah, I need to talk louder? I'll get wound up, you know, then you'll hear me! [Laughter.]

You know, I came to Berkeley and everything in '62; I remember the election that Art was talking about. And when the Free Speech Movement started, just after the incident with the car, Clark Kerr announced that 49 percent of the demonstrators were Communists [laughter] or Communist Sympathizers. [Laughter.] And we had a meeting, you know, about this.

And I was actually -- I wasn't the only Communist on the Berkeley campus at the time, but I was the only one that was really involved with the Free Speech Movement; and I hardly represent 49 percent of anything! [Laughter.] And at this meeting, Mario said -- he sort of slapped his knee with terrific joy, and he said: "I know what!" And everybody said, "What!" You know, still sort of reeling in shock from Clark Kerr's statement. He said, "Bettina should speak at the noon rally." You know, the next day. And that's how I started speaking. That was what happened, because he thought it would be a very good idea. And the whole Steering Committee, everybody thought it was a terrific idea to throw the warm, live Communist in the guy's face! [Laughter.]

Now another note about this. In the newspapers my name was, "Bettina Aptheker, avowed Communist," [loud laughter] and then it was, "Daughter of Herbert Aptheker, renowned Communist theoretician, historian, blahblahblahblah." And I want you to know, my parents are here tonight; they came up from San Jose. [Applause.] They're sitting right there! [Long, continuing applause.]

I want to tell you something -- I want to tell you something! I am the daughter of Herbert Aptheker. I am also the daughter of Faye Aptheker. [Applause.] My mother will celebrate her 80th birthday this year. She is a beautiful woman, and a great revolutionary, and taught me every bit as much as my daddy taught me, and maybe a little bit more! [Applause.] And there's another way in which I can be introduced; just a little bit different, which I'd like to share with you and which each of you could also do. And that is to introduce myself through my matri-lineage. I am Bettina, daughter of Faye, daughter of Sarah, daughter of Bellah; daughter of a woman from the Ukraine! [Applause.]

Couple of other stories I wanted to share with you. I recently was the commencement speaker -- please, I don't know how to explain this to you! [Laughter.] But I was the commencement speaker at the University of California at Santa Cruz because the students elect [the speaker] -- that explains it! And so, I got up to make my commencement speech and, you know, beforehand they introduced me with all the accolades of [my] accomplishments, and so on and so forth, and yadada-yadada. And then the Provost of this college says, "And she served on the Steering Committee of the Free Speech Movement." All of a sudden, this was a credit! [Laughter.]

The other story I wanted to share with you also speaks to women, a little bit, you know. My son, who is now seventeen years old -- I know, all of a sudden he towers over me, which wasn't tall -- he's seventeen years old, and he was born on the Thursday of "Stop the Draft Week." [Laughter.] Those of you who remember "Stop the Draft Week," from down at the Induction Center . . . I was marching around out there with my belly distended, you know, he had already dropped. [Laughter.] I'm protesting the draft, and it was Bobby Mandel -- I don't know if Bobby is here tonight, I know Bill is here -- but his son, Bobby Mandel called me up on the telephone on Wednesday of "Stop the Draft Week," Wednesday morning. He said, "Bettina, you have to come to a noon rally -- we really need you tomorrow, 'cause Thursday there's all this stuff going on and so forth." I said, "Bobby, I really can't come; I'm very sorry. I'm in in labor!" [Laughter.] I was going into labor! He said, "Oh my God! You need a doctor; what should I do?" I said, "I'm fine: I'm fine; I'm just in labor and I'm not going to make it to the rally!" [Laughter.] Well -- the rest of this story is that Joshua was born at 11:54 a.m. and when I told people this, they said, "So where you -- you had six minutes to get up there!" [Laughter.]

That was a lot of stories.

I have some things I'd like to say to you about women in the Sixties. [Applause.]

You know, there were scores of documentaries, anthologies, histories, memoirs about the sixties; there's a lot of them. And most of them, the vast majority, have been written or edited by men. And often they have not included even the most minimal representation of the ideas, reflections, experiences, and articulations of women. We have, therefore, only a partial history of the Sixties. It's not that what is written is wrong, it's that it's partial. It only reflects part of that movement.

One of the things I have noticed about these anthologies and materials that have been produced is that they tend to dwell excessively on issues of power and control. I have often thought that if we were to put together an anthology of women activists from the sixties, with memoirs and ideas and thoughts and reflections and experiences, they would dwell in part on issues of power and control and politics, but they would also talk about the dailyness of struggle, of making connections, and of a long, slow process of meaningful change. They would also talk about other issues that are far more painful and far less pretty to look at, but that are absolutely essential for us.

Within my experience in the student movement, in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movements, it was women, primarily, who staffed the offices, answered the telephones, assembled the mailings, ran the mimeograph machines, often all night. And it was the men who held the press conferences and established the parameters of publicity around the movements. This reflected the sexual division of.labor that exists in this society. But if we're a radical movement, about the business of changing society, we need to change how we go about our business of making change! [Applause.]

On a more difficult note, it was also the case that there were women who in one way or another found themselves in situations of performing sexual favors for important movement leaders. That's a fact; that happened. It is also a fact that women activists were also more seriously abused, physically and sexually, both by the police, which is to be expected, and also by men within the movement, which is something that is no longer tolerable. It is impossible to conceive of making significant social change in this society and in this world at the same time that one has personal relationships which are merely a reflection of the social reality in which women are sexually or physically abused by men. It's not acceptable. And we cannot make any kind of permanent change if we do not take the issues of women's personal experiences and place them onto a political plane where we understand the nature and dimension of women's oppression. [Applause.]

To speak personally about this, a favorite accusation of the right wing press during the Free Speech Movement was that Mario -- wonderful Mario, I love Mario -- that Mario was an innocent, if misguided, youth who had been seduced [laughter] by me, the villainess and evil woman, into criminal and seditious acts. It was generally assumed, even in the mainstream press, that Mario and I were lovers. So much so, that when Mario announced his engagement to someone else, [laughter] I was bombarded with questions from a dozen reporters. How was I taking the news? Was I upset? [Laughter] Was I crushed? What revenge would I visit upon this sainted fellow? This is really true, this really happened.

Now, it wasn't until the women's liberation movement in the Seventies that I could begin to process this and figure it out in terms of the sexism that was involved. And that was just a variation on the old theme of "a woman as either a virgin or a whore with nothing in between." You know, so that it was this same notion . . . that I was somehow this evil, and, of course, the fact that I was a Communist helped!

The other thing about this was that it was also very painful for me, because, you see, I loved Mario and I had a wonderful friendship with Mario, and Mario was the first man with whom I had an intimate friendship that was not sexual. And that was very important to me! I was very confused about my sexual identity and who I was, and all of those kinds of issues. So that relationship was crucial for me, and to have it broadcast in that way with the innuendoes it had -- when I didn't have, out of the traditions that I came from, any kind of analysis, of political analysis where I could understand what that was about, you see -- made it very difficult for me. And it was very clarifying when the women's movement came along, and I began to understand what the politics of that accusation were.

This leads to another point. Because of my upbringing and experience in the revolutionary and Communist circles in which I was raised -- and I was an only child, very cherished by my parents, I was not a gendered "female" in traditional ways, in a traditional sense. You know, gender is socially constructed. See, you are born one sex or another -- you all know that -- I mean, you're either one or the other. But your gender, how you are socialized, is culturally constructed, right? So, I was raised in a family where baseball was my presiding passion as a child. I was completely crushed at the age of ten when I found out that I couldn't play in Little League because they didn't accept girls; it was a devastating experience for me. It really was. And I was taught in my family and in the circles in which I grew up, to write what I thought, to speak my views, and that I was as capable and as intelligent as anyone else. I didn't have a socialization that made me unable to speak in public, or unable to act. And when I hit Berkeley I was, after all, [Herbert] Aptheker's daughter, so I was ushered in to the inner circles of the revolutionary movement in Berkeley despite my sex, right? And I became part of that. In fact, I was treated as one of the boys.

Now you see, there was a problem here for me, because I wasn't a boy! So I want to describe to you what happened, and this is something we need to work on, to think about. What happened for me was that I was treated as a pal by the men in the movement, right? But then I was neutered sexually. In other words, I didn't have any other kind of social existence, social life, anything else. Or, the other thing I experienced was that I became an object of sexual prey. If I was perceived [as] female, and not one of the boys, then I became an object of sexual prey. So I had these two extremes that I was trying to cope with, which were very confusing and very difficult. And again, it wasn't until the women's movement that I could understand what had taken place there, and see that there were ways of changing what seemed to be a natural ordering of relationships.

Now I want to say something else about the way I was gendered and the impact that this had. I internalized certain aspects of the oppression of women by believing. This is what happened to me. I believed that there were men, there were women, and then there was me! Because there was no . . . I didn't know what else to do with that, because I didn't seem to fit anywhere. And I didn't want to be like other women. Because I saw the women as being subordinated and unable to speak and unable to present their views. You understand what I'm saying? All those things that I saw taking place within the movement, that's [why] . . . So I didn't want to identify with women. And therefore I participated -- this is an apology, people. I participated in the oppression of women in the FSM, for which I -- oh, Christ! I didn't know, but I have learned. And what I want to do is take this experience that I have learned, and I want to give it back to you, all right?

So it is, that female activists of the Sixties encounter each other years later as we have this evening, with a kind of awed respect. It doesn't matter where we have been or what our political allegiances are now. The first greeting is a tender caress of memory, the second an almost incoherent staccato representation of key junctures in the arrangement of twenty years. We are everywhere now, scattered among workers, poets, artists, teachers, and children. And even within the secondary and, at times, humiliating roles women were forced to play within the movement of the Sixties, we were part of it. And we could, and did, march in the morning. And in apprehending the sound of those streets flooded with people, we heard the echo of our own liberation. It was the first and enduring piece of evidence. What we learned in the Sixties -- the great secret, as it were -- is that people have both the inherited wisdom and the collective strength to change the conditions of their lives. That we have identified ourselves as women and gotten that point is shifting the balance of power in the world.

The working definition of "feminism" which I offer for your consideration is, "The collective empowerment of women as autonomous, independent human beings, who shall have at least as much to say as men about everything in the arrangement of human affairs." [Loud applause.]

Now, for the past fifteen years, women have been about the business of naming our oppression, of breaking silence, of articulating another vision of change that refuses to allow women to be placed in a subordinate or peripheral position within either revolutionary theory or practice. For the first time, we are in a position in which we can envision an authentic freedom as women. A dinner party has been arranged, and although not all the guests have yet been invited or appropriately celebrated, the taste is irresistible.

Adrienne Rich has reminded us that "the feminist politics of the past have been turned back over and over again because we had no overall understanding of the transitory nature of patriarchy, and no means of articulating and handing on a collective, female vision." Alice Walker, in a ground-breaking essay, "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," observed that the act of knowing from our own experiences as women is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high when we should have looked "high and low." She goes on, "For example, in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., there hangs a quilt, unlike any in the world. In fanciful and inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures, it portrays the story of the crucifixion. It is considered rare beyond price, though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously a work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling. Below this quilt," writes Alice Walker, "I saw a note that says it was made by an anonymous black woman in Alabama a hundred years ago. If we could locate this anonymous black woman from Alabama, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers; an artist who left her mark on the only materials she could afford, and the only medium her position in society allowed her to use." [Just as] women in the Sixties were central to the process of social change, using the resources and materials we had available to us.

Part of our purpose in remembering our lives twenty years ago is our determination that we will never again permit the lives, experience, history of women to be erased. We will never again permit that to happen. There will be a continuity, and our children and our children's children will have a record of what women have done. And I call upon you to remember the women of the Free Speech Movement whose names I can recall only some of -- some of whom are here tonight: Jackie Goldberg who spoke this noon, Patty Iiyama, Suzanne Goldberg, Mona Hutchins, Margot Adler, Phyllis Willett. Margaret Wilkinson, Stephanie Coontz, Beth Stapleton, Joan Baez, Malvina Reynolds, Nancy Bardacke, Ann Wylie -- - who are among the hundred and thousands of women who organized, picketed, staffed, and were jailed in the Free Speech Movement. Let their names live in your memory and let you know what their lives have been about and where they have been, and what they have done, and let you pass that on to your children. [Applause.]

I want to say something else about this. Which is that because of a collision of racism and sexism in this society, the work of black women in the South in the civil rights movement has been substantially erased. And I want you to remember the names of the women who were active, and organized, and maintained the civil rights movement in the South in those early days of the Sixties and before. From Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, [applause] to Mary Church Terrill who, at the age of eighty-six, filed suit against the Thompson restaurants in the city of Washington, DC, which was a segregated city. Just like Jane Pitman, remember? Mary Church Terrill sued the Thompsons Restaurants, and it was her case that broke the back of segregation in Washington, D.C., a year before the Supreme Court decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools.

I want you to remember. I want you to remember the committee of one hundred black women in Montgomery, Alabama, who were the ones that organized and provided the transportation for the black community in Alabama during that bus boycott so that folks could get to and from work and the doctor and the grocery store and everything else in the dailyness of their lives that they had to do. It was black women who were the backbone of that movement. [Applause.] And I want you to remember May Mallory, and I want you to remember Ruby Doris Robinson, and I want you to remember Fannie Lou Hamer. [Applause.]

Okay. So we understand that we're not going to allow this history to be erased again. And we understand that we're also not going to allow the history of lesbian women to be erased again. Not ever again. There was a continuity, and there was a history, and it is going to be maintained.

So -- here we are. I want to tell you one other story about what the women's movement has been, and then I'll come to my close.

I went to a demonstration in 1978, which was the first "Take Back the Night" march I'd ever been to, and I saw a woman elder. She was part of the march, but she wasn't walking -- she was standing on the side, and she was weeping. Tears were coming down her face, and I thought to myself, "this woman, this woman has waited a lifetime to see this." And then I took my daughter, who was then four years old, to a Holly Near concert; and Holly Near sang a song about "we're going to fight back." And when she sings that song, she always has sign language [interpretation] going on at the same time, and the sign for "fight back" is like this -- see? The next morning, my four-year-old, walkin' around the house -- "Hey, we're gonna fight back!" [Applause.] Four years old. And what I saw between the woman elder weeping at the "Take Back the Night March" and my daughter of four who knew that she could fight back, was the work of the women's liberation movement. [Prolonged applause.]

I want to come back to the Free Speech Movement, and I want to say this. In this auditorium, before the fire -- there was a fire in here some years ago, but this was before the fire -- in this auditorium, on December 8th, 1964, the faculty gathered here in the Academic Senate meeting. This was after the sit-in at Sproul Hall, after the strike which closed the campus, after Clark Kerr's attempted resurrection of enlightenment and order. The Academic Senate met in this room, and before [they approved] a resolution which supported the demands of the Free Speech Movement, it was debated. It was broadcast over loudspeakers set up outside; there were thousands of us gathered outside, listening to that debate. And the faculty voted 824 to 115 in favor of the Free Speech Movement. [Applause.] [It was] one of the really courageous moments in the history of the faculty, which has not always been courageous.

Well -- it was a difficult moment, and as it was announced, the roar of approval rumbled across the Plaza, and moments later, the faculty emerged. We students parted rank, forming an aisle through which the faculty seemed to formally march, in a new kind of academic procession. Many of us were crying, and so were many of them. There were many among them and among us, who finally came to believe that the repression of the 1950's was truly at an end. Six days later, on December 14th, the Regents officially announced that henceforth their regulations, quote, "will not go beyond the purview of the First and the Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution!" [Applause.]

There were many tape recordings of the events in Sproul Hall during our occupation of it, but none of those recordings convey the energy which was instilled in each of us in those hours. The intense moment of connection between us, which infused a spirit of overwhelming and enduring love. Even twenty years after the events, with so many political and personal bridges to divide us, that moment of connection remains intact, touching each of us at an inner core that yet pulsates with the memory of it. This connection frames the essential meaning of the Free Speech Movement, and it is this connection that people seek to reproduce every day of their lives -- they're looking for it -- that feeling of connection that's beginning to happen in this room tonight, and which people are after and want .

You know what I wanna tell you? You can reproduce it, you can reproduce it as often as you want to. You know how you can reproduce it? You gotta be open; you gotta communicate with people; you gotta not keep secrets; you gotta not be on an ego trip, investing power in yourself. You gotta be outward, be focussed. You gotta have a lot of love -- a lot of love, and a lot of will to heal the wounds that this society has visited upon all of us.

It is that process of healing -- it's that process of healing which is so important.

A very wonderful woman named Florence Luscomb, who demonstrated for women's suffrage many years ago, is still living; she's about 90 years old. She said, "There is no end to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

[Long and loud applause.]


A truncated version of this talk was published as "Memories of FSM" in Takin' It to the Streets, A. Bloom and N. Breines, eds.; Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1995.

Copyright 1995, 1998 by Bettina Aptheker. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising, without explicit prior consent by the author.

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last rev. 20 Mar 2002