Bettina Aptheker honored for lifetime commitment to social justice

UCSC Professor Emerita and alumna recognized with UCSC Ethos Award

Bettina Aptheker (Ph.D. ’83, history of conciousness) receives the UCSC Ethos Award on Oct. 27, 2023.

The Alumni Association at UC Santa Cruz is proud to present this year’s honorees of the UCSC Alumni Awards. These awards recognize and honor alumni who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements, made distinct contributions to society, provided impactful contributions to UCSC, and who have embodied the values and spirit of the university. 

For her dedication to causes amplifying social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, Bettina Aptheker received the Ethos Award on Oct. 27, 2023. 

Dr. Bettina Aptheker (Ph.D. ’83, history of consciousness) is many things: a Distinguished Professor Emerita of UC Santa Cruz’s Feminist Studies Department, an author, civil rights and anti-war activist, and a trailblazer in radical teachings. 

A scholar-activist, Aptheker co-led the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley 1964-65, was a leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and co-led the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis (1970-1972) that organized a transnational movement for her freedom. She was also an avid supporter of the LGBT movement. 

In recognition of Aptheker’s deep and abiding commitment to causes of social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, she was awarded the UCSC Ethos Award. 

Aptheker says her upbringing influenced her morals and values at an early age. 

Her parents were communists, and many of her parents’ friends were refugees, Jewish, or Black Communist intellectuals, artists, and writers. Aptheker says the values she was taught included struggles against fascism, racism, antisemitism, and for social justice, equality.  

“All of these friends were exceptionally kind and loving towards me. My earliest memories are infused with the values of social justice, and for peace. It was natural for me, in this sense, to participate in [civil rights and anti-war] movements while a UC Berkeley student.” 

She became involved in the Free Angela Davis movement a couple of years after graduating from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree. 

“The building of a transnational movement to Free Angela Davis in the early 1970s was a foundational experience for me in antiracist, social justice, and international organizing,” says Aptheker. “My scholarly work and my activism are intertwined,” she adds. 

One example is the first book she published, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, which she and Davis co-edited and wrote essays for. It was published in England and the U.S. in 1971, then translated for editions in several countries. Her second published book was The Academic Rebellion in the United States: A Marxist Appraisal (1972). 

“This was a more scholarly work and very much came out of my experiences in the student movements of the 1960s.” 

Her most recent book, Communists in Closets: Queering the History, 1930s-1990s, means a great deal to her personally. 

“It allowed me to fuse my queer identity with social justice politics,” Aptheker said. “It’s based on 10 years of archival research and focuses on the struggles of lesbian and gay peoples in Communist and Left movements that were extremely homophobic even after the Stonewall rebellion for LGBT Rights in 1969.” 

Graduate School, Academic and Professional Influences

Aptheker chose UCSC’s History of Consciousness graduate program because it allowed her the most flexibility in pursuing feminist and Marxist works that interested her. Plus, in 1979, as a single parent with two small children who was struggling to claim her queer identity, she thought Santa Cruz was a good fit.  

Many former UCSC faculty and staff made an impact on Aptheker’s journey. She lists Billie Harris, Hayden White, Diane Lewis Chaney, Donna Haraway, and Nicolette Czarrunchick, all of whom were instrumental in her time at UC Santa Cruz. 

“Billie Harris, who was for many years department manager for Hist Con, was welcoming, encouraging, and loving. Hayden White was an amazing mentor and strongly influenced my thinking about history and historical methods. He also facilitated my swift move though the Hist Con program. I had my doctorate by 1983. Likewise, a very important mentor was/is Donna Haraway, an extraordinary intellectual presence, mentor, so encouraging, and formative. And Diane Lewis Chaney, a medical anthropologist deeply supportive of my work in African American feminist history. Nicolette Czarrunchick was for many years the Women’s Studies program (and then department) manager. We worked together daily and in tandem for 25 years building Women’s Studies (renamed Feminist Studies in 2004).  She was remarkable.”

Teaching Career

Earning a master’s degree in communication studies from San Jose State University enabled Aptheker to teach there and at UCSC. She first taught Black Women’s History for Afro American Studies and Women’s Studies at San Jose State, then taught this class for Kresge College in 1978. This was before she became a history of consciousness graduate student.

After she entered graduate school at UCSC, she began teaching as a lecturer for Women’s Studies, which was then a fledgling program. She started with Introduction to Feminism in Winter 1981. The first class was a 35-student seminar. It grew more popular each year: 100 students in 1982, 200-plus in 1983, eventually reaching 475-500. She taught it every fall except two sabbatical years. 

According to the Humanities Division, Aptheker taught over 16,000 Intro to Fem students over the course of her career at UCSC.

“I immensely enjoyed teaching it. As feminist, anti-racist, and liberatory issues also changed, the course changed over the years. I taught it for the last time in 2008.” The class was filmed; a DVD of all lectures is available at McHenry Library.

In 2009 Aptheker taught the new entry-level course Feminism & Social Justice, which she continued until retirement. 

In 2018, a vignette of Aptheker's course was developed in collaboration with the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) as a massive open online course that is hosted on Coursera. The course furthers Aptheker's legacy of impact as an educator by transforming how people think about feminism and social justice.

“As of October 2023, 112,000 people had taken the online version of this course, literally forming a global feminist community,” says Aptheker. 

She is amazed by the email correspondence she’s had with this course’s students. “I have corresponded with people in India, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and all over the U.S.” 

Aptheker, who is 79, retired in 2018, but still continues to mentor, especially graduate students. 

Following her retirement, an endowed scholarship was established at UCSC in Aptheker’s honor. The scholarship supports students whose work relates to sexual, gendered, and/or racial violence to further their research, or to do community service.

Awards and Accolades

Aptheker’s numerous awards include the 2004 Award for Excellence in Education by the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, receiving the 2017 John Dizikes Teaching Award in Humanities, and being named the inaugural appointee of the endowed Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies (2017-2021). 

“I am honored and deeply appreciative for all of the accolades I’ve received,” she said.

Aptheker added that she particularly enjoyed receiving the UC Presidential Chair in Critical Race & Ethnic Studies (CRES) alongside Karen Tei Yamashita. They received $75,000 each year through 2012-15 which allowed them to mount multiple programs in CRES, a newly established program major at the time. 

“We brought poets, writers, artists to UCSC, and sponsored courses. We collaborated with the Living Writers Program in the Literature Department, the research cluster in Science & Justice, The Humanities Institute, and so on. Among our most successful events was hosting Anita Hill in February 2015. This generous award allowed us to be of benefit to a very large number of students, staff, and faculty.”


Aptheker lives in Santa Cruz with her wife Kate Miller. They have been together 44 years. Their daughter Jenny lives in Santa Cruz with her partner Andrea and their son Sasha, a high school senior. Their son Jacob is at Arizona State. Their son Joshua lives in Berkeley with his wife Eka and their son Luca, who is at University of Washington, Seattle. Their daughter Lisa lives in British Columbia with her husband Conrad. 


Asked if she has any advice for alumni or current UCSC students, she replied with this suggestion “for everyone: Follow your passions insofar as you can so that you feel life to be full and deeply satisfying to you intellectually and emotionally. And be of as much service and benefit to others as you can.”