Bettina Aptheker

American political activist, feminist, professor and author

Bettina Fay Aptheker (born September 2, 1944) is an American political activist, radical feminist, professor and author. Aptheker was active in civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and has since worked in developing feminist studies.


  • I was very young, just 20, in 1964. A lot of people were speaking on top of the car, [including] Mario Savio 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.
  • (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.
  • 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.
  • (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.

Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)

  • The formation of a lesbian (and gay) identity, divested of Freudian origin, is in process. (p 119)
  • We have to stop thinking in oppositional categories. We have to stop thinking that one line is "correct" and that others must be "won over" to it, while those who disagree are "defeated." (p 252)
  • I find myself again cut off, babbling "buts." I find myself then, also, drawn to Catharine MacKinnon's eloquent "discourses on life and law," in which she argues that viewing gender as a matter of sameness and difference covers up the reality of gender as a system of power, hierarchy, and privilege, of imposed inequality. The point is that more than one thing is true for us at the same time. A masculinist process, however, at least as it has been institutionalized in Western society, accentuates the combative, the oppositional, the either/or dichotomies, the "right" and the "wrong." What I have been about throughout this book is showing that the dailiness of women's lives structures a different way of knowing and a different way of thinking. The process that comes from this way of knowing has to be at the center of a women's politics, and it has to be at the center of a women's scholarship. This is why I have been drawn to the poetry and to the stories: because they are layered, because more than one truth is represented, because there is ambiguity and paradox. When we work together in coalitions, or on the job, or in academic settings, or in the community, we have to allow for this ambiguity and paradox, respect each other, our cultures, our integrity, our dignity. As we have pressured against racial and sex discrimination, institutional doors have been opened, however tenuously and with whatever reluctance. Some of us have been allowed in, but nothing about the values of those institutions or their rules of success has changed, whether they be academic, corporate, ecclesiastic, political, medical, or juridical. The point is to change the values and the rules and to change the process by which they are established and enforced. The point is to integrate ideas about love and healing, about balance and connection, about beauty and growing, into our everyday ways of being. We have to believe in the value of our own experiences and in the value of our ways of knowing, our ways of doing things. We have to wrap ourselves in these ways of knowing, to enact daily ceremonies of life. (p 253-4)
  • The desert is a metaphor. For how long women have endured. Like creosote. Waiting for the rains. We are the rains. (p 254)

Woman's Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982)

  • It was my experience in the Angela Davis trial that propelled me into a study of Afro-American women's history and, ultimately, into women's studies.
  • History does not repeat itself, but our reading of history shapes our perception of the world and our vision of how to change it. With the collective rendering of woman's legacy still to come, we will reckon a course that transforms our reading of the human experience and allows us to navigate through hitherto unknown waters. (p 151)

Quotes about Bettina Aptheker

  • One particularly poignant aspect of the debate within the American CP's National Committee was that it pitted Bettina Aptheker, who denounced the invasion, against her own father, Herbert Aptheker. Bettina was one of the liveliest of the young people who rose to prominence in the Party in the 1960s, and also one of the warmest human beings I've ever met. She adored her father, so it could not have been easy for her to oppose him that day.
    • Dorothy Ray Healey California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party with Maurice Isserman (1990)
  • women did not have such exciting lives in the Sixties. A man had a much more dramatic life. I think about the literary scene in the Sixties when I was writing, also, in Berkeley. You'd go to a party, and what I'd love about the party is that the poets would get up and read, would entertain one another with poetry-but it was always the guys that would get up and read, and the girls were always in the back listening to the poems. And so to write about that time, even during the times of the demonstrations, the men had all the exciting jobs. Even Bettina Aptheker complains about having to run the mimeograph machine. And then also, men had a more dangerous life, too, because they had the draft. They were always susceptible to having to go to Vietnam. So there's that dramatic story that they had that the women did not have.
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