Dr. Bettina Aptheker is a prominent American activist and distinguished professor in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dr. Aptheker was a co-leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley University in 1964, which was the first mass act of civil disobedience on an American college campus in the 1960s.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Bettina Aptheker’s thoughts on:
- The biggest she’s learned on how to organize successfully (3:45)
- What successful activism achieves (5:16)
- The history behind the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote (6:01)
- The activist tactics women used to gain the right to vote (8:00)
- How to keep protesting when you’re feeling discouraged (12:53)
- How to get involved with local activism (14:34)
- What intersectional feminism is (16:13)
- The history of intersectional feminism (17:55)
Want to hear more from Dr. Bettina Aptheker?
Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m talking to Dr. Bettina Aptheker, a distinguished professor in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
She’s also a prominent American activist. Dr. Aptheker was active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and in fact, she was a leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley University in 1964. This was a first mass act of civil disobedience on an American college campus in the 1960s and was the catalyst for the countless sit-ins and student-led protests that followed and defined the era.
Today, we’re hearing about her experience and her insights on feminism, activism, and social justice. She’s also sharing the big lessons she’s learned along the way, as well as how you can get involved.
Let’s go ahead and dive in.
[00:00:55] You have a long history of activism, so I’d love to hear more about what your first protest was like.
[00:01:01] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: The first protest I actually remember very vividly, I was nine years old, and it was 1953, which is the height of the McCarthy period.
And it was related to the pending execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which is a very famous case, and involved them being accused of conspiracy—not the actual action but conspiracy to transmit the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians. It was pretty much a fraudulent charge, and there’s a long, complicated industry related to it, which I didn’t know when I was nine years old.
[00:01:39] But I did know their children. Michael and Robbie were childhood acquaintances, and my parents were very, very involved in trying to save their lives. They had been sentenced to death, and we picketed the White House. Eisenhower was the president, and I remember being at the White House with my parents and insisting that I carry my own sign, which was bigger than I was.
I was a little scrawny kid and trying to hold it up, and that’s the first protest I really remember.
[00:02:09] Coursera: From that experience, did you know at that young age that you were always going to be out with a picket sign or protesting? Did that feel like the start of something?
[00:02:19] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: It’s very hard for me to separate out the formation of my personal identity, which happened later, from the kind of intense period of childhood.
We were under constant surveillance by the FBI because my parents were Communists. My father was very prominent in the Communist movement as an intellectual.
You’re glued to your family, and it wasn’t until later that I sort of embarked on political action in my own volition.
But I will say that I think I was pretty committed to some kind of political activism, social justice activism from a very young age.
[00:02:58] Coursera: When did you make this switch where it felt like it was the first cause you were fighting for—where it was your own?
[00:03:06] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: The really big one was a few years later at Berkeley when I co-lead the Free Speech Movement. I was away from my parents. I was on my own, so to speak, and I was living in Berkeley. I was an undergraduate.
And I became very much engaged in that movement, and that’s where I really first found my political voice and my independence.
My identity was still closely tied with my family, but it was also separating at the same time.
[00:03:33] Coursera: What were the big lessons that you learned from that activism that you did at Berkeley when you were first starting out that led and shaped all the organizing and events that you still do today?
[00:03:45] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: In the sixties and seventies—in addition to the Free Speech Movement—there was the massive movement against the war in Vietnam. And I think the thing that I learned the most is that you don’t go anywhere alone. Everything is about coalition. Everything is about working with community, working with other people, listening to other people, and forging an alliance across gender, across race, class.
You united with people and tried to find the common ground upon which the principal sat. With the Free Speech Moment, it was the principle of freedom of speech, the principle of the First Amendment. You could reach a lot of people with that.
[00:04:23] Whenever you’re involved in a social justice movement, regardless of what the particular issue is—in our case, freedom of speech—but sometimes it’s also a union struggle, or a civil rights issue, or these days, reproductive justice issues or mass incarceration.
You can’t take on the power structure as a single entity. Obviously, you can’t take it on as a single individual. But even as a group, you need allies. And so, you have to build some kind of a movement that can contest power.
It’s about power, and it’s about systems of domination. And even if you don’t overturn the system of domination, which we’ve never done—I mean it reasserts itself, whether it’s racism or patriarchy or whatever—if you can for a time at least push it back, then you have the possibility of success.
[00:05:16] Coursera: And is that, in your mind, what progress looks like? Keep pushing that line back so that eventually those systems of power could change in some monumental sense?
[00:05:27] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: Yes. That’s how you do it. It’s incremental—people’s consciousness changes when they’re engaged in movements. And, yes, you make some progress.
We have some system of democracy. It’s under a lot of attack in my view right now from the Trump administration. But those freedoms still exist, and there is still a Constitution. And we are pushing against it, and we still have elections. And we have possibilities of making change.
[00:05:53] Coursera: On that front, it’s a hundred years since women gained the right to vote. Can you talk about the importance of women voting?
[00:06:01] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: Well, the victory of women’s suffrage in 1920—August 1920—so this year, correct, is the hundredth anniversary. This was our momentous event in the history of the country. And again, it’s a very good demonstration of expanding democratic rights.
Because the original idea of voting was for white men who had property, that’s who could originally vote. And over the years, we expanded that, and there was increasing male suffrage. At the end of the Civil War with the Fifteenth Amendment—tried to get it extended to black men for newly freed African-American people in the South.
And, of course, that failed. The amendment passed. But the terror that was directed against African Americans basically suppressed the vote for a hundred years until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which in 2013 the Supreme Supreme Court eviscerated.
[00:06:54] So, now we are faced with a situation of increasing efforts to prevent people from voting and so big coalition—now back to that theme—is to expand voting rights, expand the numbers of people that can vote. Take away the restrictions, and so on.
I hope women everywhere will exercise their right to vote—however they choose to vote.
[00:07:16] But the other vote that I think is essential. The black vote is absolutely crucial, and black women are a backbone of the electoral process in this country—and may that continue. That’s what I would say.
And I would say that after women’s suffrage was passed in 1920, it was still very problematic for black women to register to vote in the South. They couldn’t until 65, 1965, but black women were the backbone of that voting rights movement.
And, in particular, a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped found something called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 that challenged the all-white Democratic party primary in the South. She was a heroic figure.
Activists for Women’s Suffrage Movement
[00:08:00] Coursera: I’d love to hear you talk a bit more about how women gained the right to vote.
[00:08:05] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: It was an extraordinary movement. Historically we say, 1848, the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention, which is where the first public enunciation of the right to vote, which, by the way, was controversial at that meeting.
And, there was a black man present at that meeting. His name was Frederick Douglass, and when Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the motion that they should demand the right to vote, there was silence, and he—Douglass—seconded that motion. And that’s an important historical moment and an important lesson for us to learn.
[00:08:39] That, historically in this country, the black vote has always been connected to the women’s vote, and that movement—they needed each other. That’s another thing I want to emphasize. Black women were very important in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
And of course, white women were the majority, and they campaigned in every state. There are two ways that they fought for suffrage.
[00:09:00]The first was to get the right for women to vote in different states, which meant they could vote in state elections, even if they couldn’t vote in federal elections. And the allied method was a federal amendment that granted all women the right to vote. So, both things happen simultaneously.
And, Utah and Wyoming were the first states to grant women the right to vote, and that means that men voted for it.
And you have to think about that in terms of they were rural, and women worked as hard as the men did on the farms—and that gave them a certain cache of equality that men could see in terms of the labor that women were performing as well as the fact that women were campaigning for it.
[00:09:42] You also have examples in New York and California and other places where women won the right to vote before 1920 in the state elections. And I will say that black vote in those states—free black men—was very important because, again, the two things were tied together.
Finally, it got out of the Senate, and it got stalled in the Senate. So, you need two-thirds of the Senate—three-fourths of the states—in order to get a constitutional amendment, and it was stalled in the Senate for decades by Southern whites, who didn’t want to see any expansion of the right to vote for anybody because of the implications.
[00:10:18] So, when it finally got passed through the Senate, then it had to be every state. And there was a woman named Carrie Chapman Catt, and she had a huge oversized black book. And in it, she had the name of every state legislator, state by state, and all of their female relatives.
And they went state by state when it would come up that the state had to ratify the amendment. They would go to all the female relatives– most of them supported the suffrage— to talk to their guys, to convince them. And that’s organizing. That is organizing, and so then it passed state after state.
The last state to pass the suffrage amendment was Tennessee, and the question of black vote was central in that debate. And the last man, white man, who cast his ballot in the legislature for suffrage, when he was asked later why, he said, if he had not voted for women’s suffrage, his mother would have killed him.
[00:11:14] Coursera: It’s a great illustration of how these things don’t just happen. It’s like hitting the pavement day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
I think it really ties to a lot of what we’re seeing today—with the Women’s March. There was just the fourth annual one not too long ago, but the first one was in 2017, and it was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.
I’m curious if you see that as a success, even though they weren’t advocating for a specific policy like the suffragette movement?
[00:11:43] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: Oh, that’s a wonderful question, and the Women’s March in 2017 drew something like three and a half million people, which was unprecedented in our history, even with the larger population. And I can say that here in Santa Cruz, just little Santa Cruz, it was like the whole town turned out. That’s what it felt like. We couldn’t even fit on the street.
But I think what that was about was people were very, very upset that Trump had won the election. And he won it despite losing the popular vote by 3 million. He’s a minority president. He does not represent the majority of people in this country. And that’s very important to remember because he holds all this power, but he holds the power in a very tenuous way when you have that much opposition.
I think that’s the point of the Women’s March. You couldn’t undo the election then, but you could say, this man is not our president. We did not elect this man. And it was a broad coalition also.
[00:12:35] You don’t just concede to power. If you don’t make demands, power will take over. As Frederick Douglass said power concedes nothing without a demand. So, first you have to make a demand, and you have to make a demand as loud enough and strong enough and as powerful enough to at least say, “We do not ascent.”
[00:12:53] Coursera: From having done so much activism, how do you not lose hope and keep fighting when things are tough?
[00:13:00] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: For me, it’s a matter of conscience. You have to be able to live with yourself. You have to, for example, protest the atrocities taking place at our Southern border. It is unconscionable– nevermind that it is in violation of human rights, in violation of international law, and violation of U.S. Constitution even.
It’s all of those things. And we have a Senate—a Republican-controlled Senate—that is entrenched and is unwilling to budge.
[00:13:27] You have to keep protesting,and also, it makes a difference for the people who are suffering. After all, you want to relieve the suffering, let’s say, at the border, right? We can do that. We can give money. We can go down there. I know many women and men attorneys, for example, have gone to the border and represented and helped them.
And we’ve sent money and clothing and food and so forth to the churches.
[00:13:49] But the main thing in these social justice movements, besides contesting power and changing policy and so forth, is to relieve suffering. Every human life is precious.
And you do everything you can to help every human being—and, especially in my view, the children. So, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we do our best to relieve suffering.
[00:14:10] We, social justice activists, wherever we are, must not get discouraged. It’s tough, but you don’t get discouraged because it takes a long time, and there are setbacks. But there’s also progress.
And if you get discouraged, and you stop, then nothing is gained. And so, you keep doing the best you can with the resources and tools you have available to you to try to make change.
How to Become a Women’s Rights Advocate
[00:14:34 ]Coursera: On that note, what do you think is the best way for someone who wants to advocate for women’s rights, say, how can they get started? How can someone take that first step if they have an interest?
[00:14:45] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: For example, there’s some kind of group that is advocating for women in your community. And if you were interested in that, you could go and just listen, but then you would meet other people who were keen on that issue.
So, the main thing is you can’t do it alone. You need to find other people. They may be best friends. They may be people in your community, and that you start to talk to somebody and then somebody talks to somebody else and so forth.
There’s a feminist poet named Marge Piercy, and she said, one person can’t do too much, but if you put two people together, back to back, they can start doing stuff. And then, you put three people together, with the two and four, and she talks about you have a hundred people, you can have a march. But that’s what you have to do.
[00:15:27] Coursera: So, it sounds like even today, where you can find those online groups, you could find someone online to talk, you still think the core of activism has to be in person?
[00:15:39] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: It’s in tandem. But I’m an old-time organizer, and there is nothing like talking one on one with somebody at their door.
It’s just like, you go, and you have a conversation. And you look someone in the eye, and you talk, and you try to help. Where their issues are and where your issues are and how to see your way to coming to some kind of understanding about issues.
Intersectional Feminism 101
[00:16:00] Coursera: That’s a great segue to talking about some of these social justice issues and how feminism plays into that, so what do you see as some of the biggest barriers facing women today on this front?
[00:16:13] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: The problem is where to begin.
One of the main things about the contemporary women’s movement is we see it as what we call intersectional. We mean that race is not separate from gender. Gender is not separate from disability. Race is not separate from class. Everything is intertwined because it’s all about an intertwined system of domination.
So, if you try to change one thing, it’s going to have an impact on something else. I’ll give you a really good example of this.
[00:16:42] So, when women first started organizing against violence, they started to organize in a way to change the laws. But when you try to not only change the laws but have men who are found guilty of sexual violence, arrested and incarcerated, then you run into the problem of the racism of the criminal justice system and a system of mass incarceration.
And that a disproportionate number of Black and brown men are the ones who get arrested by the police. So, if you’re going to have a women’s movement that’s multiracial, how are you going to carve out opposition to violence against women that doesn’t at the same time reinforce a racist criminal justice system?
So, you have to think about those things, and you have to think about the kind of coalition. So, one of the things that people have developed is restorative justice movements and transformative justice movements that are in communities. When you someone has committed an offense, and instead of just calling the cops right away, if you’re not an immediate danger, you try to have community intervention. And sometimes it’s quite successful.
So, I’m just saying that these movements are all intertwined with each other.
[00:17:47] Coursera: And on that front, you mentioned intersectional feminism, can you talk about the history of it and how it played into the movement overall?
[00:17:55] Dr. Bettina Aptheker: I’m a historian, and so I see that it’s always been true. Intersection has always been true, and I can point to many examples in our history where that’s been the case.
In the late sixties, there was a group in Boston of Black women, and it was called the Combahee River Collective.
And Combahee is the name of a river in Alabama and was the site of a guerrilla action by Harriet Tubman. So, they named themselves the Combahee River Collective, and they did organizing among the women in the Black community in Boston. And it was very, very productive.
And they worked around all these issues. They worked around sexual violence. They worked around reproductive health. They were also very concerned about sexuality and lesbian rights. And so, they wrote a statement—the Combahee River Collective statement—and I think it was published originally in the early seventies. That statement put all what I’m talking about, intersectionality, together at that point.
[00:18:54] And then in 91, Kimberle Crenshaw, who is a professor of law at Columbia, and also at UCLA, published a piece on the intersectionality, in the Stanford Law Review.
And it was a very important essay at the time that she wrote it because she was pointing out that in the law—civil rights law and affirmative action laws—if you wanted to bring a lawsuit for discrimination and you were a Black woman, you had to decide in the original law whether you were going to file it on the basis of race or the basis of sex.
You couldn’t file it on the basis of both, and her point was that was an impossible separation to make because a Black woman was not half this and half that. It didn’t make any sense. So, she was pointing out the flaw in the law. And it’s a much more elaborate piece than I’m representing now. But that was the core of what she was getting at. And so that piece on intersectionality became a sort of hallmark in feminist thinking, organizing, and scholarship.
[00:19:50] I was very happy to do the course on Feminism and Social Justice for Coursera. I’m very grateful and just sort of overwhelmed by this—that it should be in some way useful.
The first presentation is this intersectional approach to defining feminism, and then I talked about a social justice movement involving Mexican-American workers in New Mexico in 1951 in a strike. And the third lecture I did was on the trial of Angela Davis. Then, the last one was on the #MeToo movement.
My philosophy around teaching is you try to create an energy that is compassionate and loving and kind and articulate issues that matter, in people’s lives.
And then, give people ideas and create a space that they can choose to walk into and take what they need. That’s all.
[00:20:39] Coursera: To learn more from Dr. Bettina Aptheker, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in her course, Feminism and Social Justice.
And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.