Free Speech Movement: Womens' Experience: Sources

Bettina Aptheker, 3/24/2014 as part of article on The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary

I was 20, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley at the FSM launch. I came from a prominent Communist family, raised in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s, through the worst of the McCarthy Era. I went to Berkeley intent on a pre-med major and escape from parental strictures. Steeped in politics all my life, myself ‘manning’ a table for the W.E.B. Du Bois Club (a socialist organization I had helped launch two years earlier) I was in Sproul Hall Plaza as Jack was arrested. As cries went up, “Sit down! Sit down!” I did, and launched my foray into the Movement.

FSM leader Bettina Apthecker sits on the police car housing Jack Weinberg, October, 1964. Students surrounding the car prevented the police from taking Weinberg off campus.

My first public speech was from the top of that police car at night, the guys helping me to scramble up to the roof of the car and offering encouragement, television news camera lights blinding my view of the students around it. When I quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” the crowd of thousands roared its approval. The roar soared through my body with an energy that propelled me into co-leadership of the Movement, and most importantly into a sense of personal and political empowerment I was never to forget. A year later my picture appeared in the Sunday New York Times under the headline, “The American Communist Party’s Foremost Ingenue”! None of the male leaders of the movement ever received the “ingénue” distinction!

On the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the FSM, and as we recognize March as Women’s History Month, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality may effect one’s access to freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment embraces a universal ideal in its wording, it was written by white, propertied men in the 18th century, who never likely imagined that it might apply to women, and/or people of color, and/or all those who were not propertied, and even, perhaps, not citizens, and/or undocumented immigrants. A woman’s freedom of speech is often inhibited by fears of reprisal, for example, if she reveals sexual or domestic violence. There is almost always denial, her speech vilified, her character assassinated. Incest survivors seeking acknowledgement of their suffering and redress are viciously attacked virtually without exception, even the men who as boys were molested by their parish priests, until it became too many, the evidence too overwhelming to sustain the denial. In other words, freedom of speech is a Constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without the chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography.
--Bettina Aptheker 3/24/2014

Cooperatively Yours Spring 2014

A WOMAN’S PERSPECTIVE on the Free Speech Movement
by Lana Brown Muraskin

We were on the cusp of great changes for women but, of course, we didn’t know it. In the fall of 1964, the young women living in the Co-ops who participated in the Free Speech Movement were focused on furthering civil rights for African-Americans. The previous school year we had seen evidence that demonstrations and sit-ins organized at Berkeley could play an important role in ending some of the most blatant job discrimination the Bay Area. Now, university officials were trying to end those efforts by implementing policies that would result in expulsion for students who organized a demonstration that resulted in arrests. That a university would seek “revenge” against students who were risking their futures to do the right thing was truly appalling.

Yet my anger at university efforts to stifle on-campus organizing never led me to question the discriminatory practices that governed the lives of women at Berkeley. At the time, I was a sophomore living at Stebbins Hall. Women had weeknight and weekend curfews (11pm and 1am, as I recall—with one later night per week). Staying out beyond those times meant being locked out of the building and having your name sent to the university for disciplinary action. If your parent wrote a permission letter, you could sign out for an “overnight” to a specified location. Fortunately, I had permission to take “overnights” to one location--the home of parents of a friend who lived in Oakland. In order to get arrested, I signed out to that home. (Here’s hoping the statute of limitations has expired and my Berkeley degrees will not be rescinded.)

I guess the idea of curfews was to protect young women from certain hazards of college life. If so, the effort was probably unsuccessful. In the pre Roe v. Wade environment of my freshman and sophomore years, I attended several hastily arranged wedding showers. Right after the shower, the young women left school. I have no idea if any of them ever returned. I do know that the much-touted “weeding out” process that we heard about (“look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here next year”) did seem to happen in occasion—but rarely because of academic performance.

Despite the limitations, without the co-ops I could not have afforded Berkeley (even with free tuition). It was a warm environment full of lively young women. I was barely 17 when I arrived, and even if I had been wealthy I probably would have been lost in one of the large, impersonal dorms. At Stebbins, I quickly met just about everyone. My “job” for most of my two years there was working the switchboard seven hours a week in the tiny social room at the front of the building. There was a record player and a very limited choice of albums. People drifted in and out, selecting records to play. One song seemed to get the most exposure. To this day, when I hear Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” I’m still transported back to that room and that era before the world changed.

Gender in the FSM
Sulamith Potter, PhD

    In the FSM, we questioned authority, and we questioned racism, but we did not yet question the familiar assumptions about gender that we had grown up with. In my experience, the behavior of people in the FSM reflected the assumptions about gender that we were all used to from high school. For example, in my high school days, the student council president was always a boy, and usually the vice president and treasurer, as well. It was only in the role of secretary, recording the important things that other (male) people had said, that a girl could hope to get elected. In the FSM, generally speaking, women listened when men spoke, and I remember being invited to "help out" the more senior leaders by David Goines, once, when I wore a rather tight dress to an organizational meeting. Gender was a basis for rank and status within the FSM -- not the only basis, but an important one.  (I was always a foot soldier, never a leader, or even a leader’s gender-constructed helper – the David Goines thing didn’t appeal to me.) I thought that the articulate leading women in the FSM were an interesting exception to the prevailing social inequality, but inequality was still the general order of the day. When we were in the act of demonstrating, women did not provide the cocky, assertive response to male authority (police and administration) that men did. After years of being trained to be compliant, I needed to see responses like the men’s to keep me going, and when we were arrested and the men were separated from the women, my heart sank like a stone, because I didn’t see how we were going to manage without them.

    We sat in the bus waiting to be taken to Santa Rita, terribly tired (we had been up all night) and rather demoralized, also hurting. Some of us had been willing to walk to the bus when arrested, others had been dragged. The policeman ("The policeman is your friend," I had been taught) had twisted my arm when I refused to walk. (It was painful for a surprisingly long time -- more than a month later, it still hurt.) The door of the bus was standing open, and a policeman came up to it and looked in at us, all women sitting tiredly together. (I would have said "girls" rather than "women" in those days.) As he turned away, I heard him say to another policeman, "I'll bet there isn't a virgin in the bunch." (I was a virgin myself at the time, but naturally did not say so.) The point is, of course, his perception that any woman who did what we had done must be a slut. One woman told us that she had been asked by the arresting officer, "Are you going to walk like a lady?" She said that she had answered, "No, I’m going to be dragged like a person of principle." I wondered whether she had had the presence of mind to think of this at the time, or if she only came up with it later. But in any case, the exchange neatly states the conflict between conventional expectations for women’s behavior, and how incompatible these were with any kind of political action. The Judy Collins song "It isn’t Nice to Block the Stairway" illustrates this dilemma, also.

    At Santa Rita, we were booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and crowded into a long narrow area called The Cage. It must have been designed as a place where inmates could sit on high stools at a counter and talk to visitors, who would stand on the other side of the counter, behind the chicken wire which ran from the top of the counter to the ceiling. We were crammed in, 30 or 40 people in a space that would be comfortable (if you can be comfortable in something called The Cage) for 6 or 7. Morale plummeted. But before it had time to plummet very far, we were rescued in a brilliant and subtle way that changed my life, by the leadership of Jackie Goldberg. Jackie said that she was going to use the time in a constructive way by carrying out a poll of our political views, ranging us on a hypothetical continuum between right and left. She wondered aloud which historical figure had political views that were the farthest to the right that any of us could possibly imagine. Attila the Hun was one contender for this role, Genghis Khan was another. We batted this around for a while, and then we tried to come up with someone just a tiny shade to the left of Genghis Khan. As Jackie led us from right to left, she asked if anyone present would describe herself as a follower of the leader we had just added to the continuum. For a long time, no one raised a hand, but as we approached the center of the political spectrum, people began to say, "Yes, I’d place myself about there." (In the FSM, and for several years afterward, including when I was in graduate school, 1967-1975, political identity was a crucial component of one’s sense of self. I could have arranged my 20 fellow graduate students in anthropology in order from right to left with quite a high degree of accuracy.) Most of us raised our hands at Jackie’s category, "a SLATE socialist." (SLATE was a student organization that most famously published the SLATE supplement to the UC catalogue, rating courses and faculty members. And perhaps I should say that I had been pleasantly seduced into socialism by reading George Bernard Shaw at the age of 14; I thought he made a lot of sense then, and I still do, now.) Then Jackie moved farther and farther to the left, with wonderful subtleties of classification  -- who was farther to the left, Trotsky or Mao? and so forth. The extreme left pole of the continuum was claimed by a certain Albanian youth group, which Jackie had encountered at an international conference. This group had simply refused to discuss any position other than their own, or to sign on to any position papers with the other youth groups, because they said that it was impossible for them to compromise on a matter of principle!

    By the time Jackie was done with us, we were laughing and cheerful. Each one of us had affirmed the political principles which had brought us to Santa Rita in the first place. She had created solidarity. The cliché in those days was that men had solidarity, but women, who were expected to cancel plans with another woman if a man asked them out, were incapable of solidarity. I saw for the first time something which dawned in my consciousness like a sunrise, that we didn’t need men to keep us going, we were perfectly capable of keeping ourselves going, under our own power. This was a wonderful revelation, infinitely empowering, as we used to say, and it formed the basis for my later feminism, and probably for my adulthood, too.

    Since I wasn’t a member of any steering committee, I’m not sure how leadership developed within the FSM. I knew later that some people had old lefty ties, and were in touch with such fascinating figures as Jessica Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft, but I didn’t know this at the time. Sara Davidson’s novel Loose Change has some interesting things to say about the inner working of the leadership, but I could not verify what she says from my own experience. Many people in the FSM had cut their teeth politically on the civil rights movement – and I still remember my fury and indignation when Stokely Carmichael said that the only position for a woman in SNCC was prone (or was it supine?) This gives a fair idea of the sexism that prevailed, even in supposedly enlightened political circles.

    I became part of the FSM on the day when I walked through Sproul Plaza and saw Jack Weinberg sitting in the car. I stayed to hear the speeches, was certain that the demonstrators were right, and sat down. I thought it was the only ethical thing to do. I was a junior at the time. I had come to Berkeley from University High School in Urbana, Illinois. At Berkeley, it was clear to me very early on, that if I wanted an education, it was up to me to get it from the available resources – no one was going to supervise or help. Independence had been thrust upon me. Since I had to find my own ways of dealing competently with a lot of things that the university administration could have helped with, but didn’t, I thought it added insult to injury when my political freedom was interfered with by the very people who didn’t give a damn about my development as a person in the setting they had provided. I felt that the administration tried to make me take all the responsibility and then wanted to restrict my freedom. (This still makes me hot under the collar.) So I was reacting against the University's failure to provide a better setting for students' learning and development. At the same time, I wanted to reaffirm primary values like free speech which should have been there already. I wanted to make the existing system into a system that expressed these values, which I believed were fundamental to American society. So, for me, the FSM was not so much a revolutionary movement as a revitalization movement -- a way of reasserting shared beliefs that were already supposed to be vitally important.