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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Introduction to Feminism: Co-chair Bettina Aptheker has encouraged many UCSC students to major in women's studies.

Intro to Life

Bettina Aptheker's Introduction to Feminism classes have influenced generations of UCSC students

By Jessica Lyons

BETWEEN BITES of a tofu scramble at Ristorante Avanti, professor Bettina Aptheker says that her role as a women's studies teacher is "to be a bridge." The remark offers a clue to Aptheker's personality. She has clear blue eyes, short gray hair, a calm voice and a soothing presence. Many UCSC women's studies majors say Aptheker is the reason they chose this field of study. In turn, Aptheker says, women's studies and the feminist movement gave her her life.

"I owe my whole life to the women's movement," Aptheker says. "It gave me permission to live my life as who I was. I've been with my partner 20 years, and it's a tremendous experience to be able to live my life as a lesbian, or to be able to come into alignment with who you are, whoever that may be."

Aptheker has been teaching for almost 25 years now, starting in the mid-1970s at San Jose State University. As a student in the 1960s, she saw the women's movement happening around her, but she was reluctant to get involved at first. She was a closet lesbian, married to a man, and she shied away from feminism. All that changed in 1970, when childhood friend and political activist Angela Davis, now also a UCSC faculty member, was jailed and tried for kidnapping, murder and conspiracy in the famous "Soledad Brothers" case. Aptheker joined the defense team, and Davis was ultimately acquitted.

"It was because I worked on her defense and saw the terrible pain and suffering that not only racism produced, and not only sexism produced, but in her case, it was the combination of the two," Aptheker says. "That led me to do my graduate work in black women's history. It led me to the feminist movement."

Aptheker, who had moved to Santa Cruz in 1979 to pursue a Ph.D. in UCSC's History of Consciousness program, started teaching Introduction to Feminism as a part-time lecturer a year later. Back then, there were no tenure-track faculty in women's studies, which relied on professors from other departments to teach classes. In 1986, the university awarded women's studies committee status, which allowed the program to hire its own tenure-track faculty. "At this time, we had 114 women's studies [student] majors, no faculty, and I was the part-time lecturer," Aptheker remembers.

In 1987, Aptheker was appointed assistant professor of women's studies. She was appointed co-chair in September 1999. Now there are eight women's studies faculty members, some 50 affiliated teachers and close to 170 students. "So part of why I do this is to give back to future generations," Aptheker says. "I love the theories. I love breaking down these old canons. I love the history. I love the stories. And I love the courage. I love watching students' eyes pop open when they see the light."

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From the April 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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