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An Anti-Imperialist Feminist’s Tale

Rosalyn Baxandall, who has taught at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, and the City University of New York’s Labor School, is the author of Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1987) and co-author of Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (2000). A feminist activist for nearly a half-century, she has written on day care, working women, sexuality, reproductive rights and class, and race and gender in suburbia.
Roberta Salper, Domestic Subversive: A Feminist Take on the Left, 1960–1976 (Tucson: Anaphora Literary Press, 2014), 236 pages, $20, paperback.

Since second wave feminism is the largest social movement in the history of the United States, it is surprising that there are fewer than a dozen autobiographies written by the activists of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Roberta Salper’s Domestic Subversive is a welcome addition, especially because it is well-written, often with humor, and promises an anti-imperialist feminist analysis. In 1972 Salper edited Female Liberation, History and Current Politics. Her collection was the first to include radical male writings like Hal Draper’s essay “Marx and Engels on Womens Liberation” and radical women’s writings like Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays.

Domestic Subversive is a feminist’s take on a range of organizations of the left from 1960 to 1976: the student movement in Spain, New Left movement in the United States, Marxist-Leninist Puerto Rican Socialist Party in the United States and Puerto Rico, and a prestigious liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., the Latin American Unit of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), where she worked as a Resident Fellow. The early chapters are meatier and give a fuller picture of her work, thoughts, and how her feminist and Marxist consciousness developed.

Salper grew up in the 1950s in the vanilla suburban community of Caldwell, New Jersey, only fifteen miles from New York City, but miles apart in ethnic population and values. She was one of the few, and often the only, non-gentile student, “albeit one with red hair, blue eyes, freckles, a small nose; who nonetheless was called a ‘dirty Jew girl’ every morning.” When the mother of one of her high school cheerleader friends remarked that, “Hitler should have killed all the Jews,” another cheerleader commented out of earshot that her friend’s mother did not mean her, and the subject was dropped. Essex, the next town over from Caldwell, was restricted: no Jews were allowed.

Her discussion of this anti-Semitism is engaging. She shared these indelible barbs with no one. She asserts the isolation from family and friends made her stronger and more unique, but not trusting, and helped her develop a critical edge that would serve her well in academia and in socialist circles. As Salper puts it, “I developed the sharpened sensibility and wakefulness of an outsider, but I was an involuntary outsider.” She credits this sense of difference with eventually propelling her to become a non-conformist and a radical in search of social justice. Even though she belonged to organizations, one senses that she has kept this loner position throughout her life.

She writes that she identified mostly with her dad, calling him her earliest intellectual inspiration. Her mother represented everything she did not want to be: a woman trapped in the “feminine mystique.” Her dad introduced her to New York City and the Metropolitan Opera and made her an opera buff. She reports that when her father died suddenly, she realized that she could only keep herself together emotionally if she ignored her family’s needs. She “learned that if you wanted something you fought for it yourself and you counted on no one else.” She discovered later that this was known as “rugged American individualism.”

Salper dedicated her book Female Liberation to her two sisters, Martha and Gay. However, Martha appears in this autobiography only when she is bringing her daughter home from the hospital; otherwise there is no mention of the siblings. English feminist Juliet Mitchell, in her book Siblings, criticizes Freud for his hierarchical family vision that emphasizes only the mother and father. Mitchell finds that many times the horizontal relationship with siblings is even more significant. Perhaps the discussion of horizontal relationships would have enhanced the book.

Also, no close friends or lovers are discussed in depth. There are friends and colleagues, but they come and go with her work. One wonders about her daughter’s dad. Did he ever see his daughter, contribute to her support?

Salper’s biography does include important teachers. She had a significant high school Spanish teacher who brought a progressive Spanish man who played the guitar to class. The Latin male, dark and sensual, the opposite of the blonds she grew up with, became her romantic fantasy. Her only female professor at Boston University suggested that she get a Ph.D. at Harvard. She went, studied hard, and got all “A”s, but felt unconnected and mildly discontent. A professor suggested she go to Spain and teach a bit. She discovered that it was more of a plus to be Jewish there than a WASP American, and that Spanish men, especially elegant intellectuals, found her alluring, unlike U.S. guys. She married the upper-middle-class Gabriel and ironically became politically aware in fascist, Francoist Spain through its left-wing opposition politics and the power of striking students, whom she joined. It was in Spain that she acquired a beginning class consciousness with both a Marxist and a feminist perspective. This chapter is amusing and original and gets the flavors and tastes of Madrid and the excitement of student rebellion. But she is neither Spanish nor totally part of the movement, although she feels the power of the group for a time.

After six months of living as an upper-middle-class wife with Gabriel’s father constantly intervening, she felt her life grow tedious and start to take a physical and mental toll. This also must have also raised her feminist feathers. She returned to the states and then went back to Barcelona, but not to Madrid where her husband’s family weighed her down. She met left and communist intellectuals, and most importantly a feminist bohemian writer, Carmen Martin Gaite, who spoke defiantly about women’s conditions in Spain. Her feminist consciousness was sprouting as she read and researched more about feminism for a lecture she was invited to give on women: “But I knew, even then, that the arena I would be most effective in promulgating progressive change for women would be in academia, for middle-class women. My roots were there and the stimulus to revolt had come from this world.”

Most of the great advances in women’s lives have come from the women’s liberation movement, not from women in the university. Many professors like Sara Evans, Linda Gordon, Amy Kesselman, Naomi Weisstein, Marlene Dixon, Ellen Willis, and Carol Giardina were also activists in the women’s liberation movement. Their activism in the late 1960s and ’70s was essentially outside the university. The women’s liberation movement and the National Organization for Women (NOW) spearheaded most of the social, cultural, judicial, and legislative victories, including the partial legalization of abortion in 1973, federal guidelines against coercive sterilization, rape shield laws that encourage women to prosecute their attackers, affirmative action programs that aim to correct discrimination, and some progress in wage parity. There are many less obvious accomplishments in the way women live, dress, dream of the future, and make a living. Why didn’t Salper ever join a women’s liberation conscious-raising or action group? Didn’t she think they could teach her anything?

Salper’s first direct feminist group experience comes from New University Conference (NUC), an important organization made up principally of radicals in academia that is rarely mentioned in articles about the 1960s and ’70s. Women were prominent in the group. Salper conducted oral interviews and dug up documents in personal archives about NUC that will be important for future historians. NUC’s mission was to theorize a new U.S. form of socialism and to replace “an educational and social system that was an instrument of sexual and racial oppression with one that belonged to the people. It was to be the higher education section of a yet to be created socialist party.” Now this idea may seem delusional, but in the late 1960s and ’70s when revolution was in the air it was not.

At that time Roberta and Gabriel were both teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. During a summer apart in Madrid, Gabriel fell in love with a Spanish woman and Roberta would never have a serious sexual relationship again, although she did manage to have sexual partners and romance. She writes that she was self-sufficient and never asked for alimony. Her daughter Ana, now a lawyer and married with children, was Roberta’s ongoing important relationship. Salper is an example of the many single mothers who have raised healthy, well-rounded children—albeit in her case with a governess and a well-paying job.

Ana was a center of a feminist action by Salper at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), the last job she writes about in detail. Meetings at the Institute took place after 5:00 PM when she had special time with Ana. Salper says she protested with action, as words had no impact on the men. She asked her governess Mercedes to bring an unfed Ana to the 5:00 PM meeting at the Institute. Ana whined and wailed. Meetings thereafter were scheduled during the day and “Operation Ana” was a success. Her other work and successes at IPS are less fully explained or substantiated.

Her criticism of the New Left, which she sees as a cultural, not a political, movement is astute. She writes:

The driving force of the New Left was a determination to be its own agent of change and to reject the perceived authoritarian structure of America’s Old Left of the 1930s…. Lack of contact with experienced folks on the Left meant it was difficult to keep longer goals in sight. This was one of the causes for irreparable acts of violence born of frustration at failing to achieve immediate victories, like ending the Vietnam war, that hastened the demise of the New Left.

Through NUC she went on a trip to Cuba in the beginning of Fidel Castro’s rule, which she describes as her “magic reward” for renouncing marriage. Cuba opened her eyes to the Caribbean and Latin America. Cuba, unlike Spain, had all different colors, an “africanity” unlike the all-white NUC delegation. The group met with the Cuban Federation of Women, which brought together all the revolutionary women’s organizations, including its head, Vilma Espin, Raul Castro’s wife. Salper’s feminist eye was quick to notice the gender inequality, even though women carried guns. She observed that half the doctors were female, but other professions were closed to women, which she calls a “Soviet model.” Salper was so influenced by this trip that she continued to devote a large part of her work life to Caribbean and Latin Studies. This chapter is detailed and amusing. She even makes fun of her NUC group and their politics.

Her next step up was to become the head of the first autonomous women’s studies program in the country at San Diego State in 1970. The students were to run the program and Salper would be the only full-time faculty, a precarious and complex position that resulted in many clashes. To raise funds for the program meant appealing to the big foundations like Rockefeller and Ford. As she clearly notes, these foundations had a stake in the status quo and were not interested in women’s self-determination or democratic governing structures.

Meanwhile, without informing Roberta or the students, the Dean had grown tired of what he saw as petty women’s quarrels, and appointed a Faculty Advisory Committee of four male and two female faculty to run the program. As Roberta says, “I began to feel like a piece of glass inside a turning kaleidoscope—confined within well defined parameters and bumping around with no direction and no way out.” She writes that she would find out years later when she secured her FBI file that the agency had its finger in this divisive mess. She left San Diego a year later “frustrated with the lack of structure and clear strategy in our nascent women’s studies program and in our outreach to the community.” She concludes, “My greatest achievement was to have been part of a group that established a viable curriculum and demonstrated that the study of women could be a doable academic pursuit.” However, Salper and some others felt that women’s studies could also bring about social change. She is not clear on how this change could have come about. She says, I think somewhat naively, “Women’s studies was going to be part of the academic branch of a new socialist party.” What could have made her think so? We do not catch any socialist thinking in this chapter, but we do see some utopian thinking, which totally ignores the power of the state, be it a state university.

In total contrast with the women’s studies job, her next one was with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PRSP). As she says, “I was attracted to the uncompromising anti-imperialist focus on third world revolution, clear structure of accountability and responsibility (the ‘centralized democracy’) that Marxism-Leninism provided.” The PRSP was committed to Puerto Rican independence from the United States and to socialism. Though island-based, the party was about to open a U.S. branch to address the almost three million Puerto Ricans, over a third of the Puerto Rican nation, who lived in the United States. Roberta would edit the new bilingual supplement of Claridad, the Party’s weekly newspaper. She joined the PRSP in 1971 and began work as its general manager. She coordinated production, wrote and translated articles from the Puerto Rican edition, and sometimes went to cover a story in the field. This work was all new to her, but she dove in undaunted and learned it. Feminist issues were on the back burner. She leaves us wondering about this sudden transition. Was it another adventure and a paying job? The opposite of the messiness that she found in feminist work?

Finally in late 1973, after a Party conference, the leaders expelled her for disobeying Party orders and staying in San Juan too long. She says she had no idea what the real issue entailed and never cared to ask or protest. She does attribute her joining such an international Party as “undeveloped and impulsive,” but this does not explain why she never inquired or protested their allegations. Was she ready to leave the party anyway? Again, did her work accomplish anything? Did more U.S. members join? Does she have a critique of Marxist-Leninist groups? What are her politics? Does she believe that the third world will inspire revolution, not the United States? Will the leaders of revolution be left, Latin intellectuals? This chapter is probably the weakest in the book because there is no analysis of the PRSP.

There are many other questions left hanging. Was the work that she was doing at the PRSP and IPS so secretive and subversive that she cannot write about it? Does Salper feel that change comes from conferences of the elite such as she organized at IPS rather than people’s movements? Her biography implies that rugged individualism with the help of decently paid jobs allowed her to become a radical. Nowhere in the autobiography do we see the power of ordinary workers, students, or peasants, except during the brief Spanish student sit-in.

The biography is called Domestic Subversive, a term she gets from her FBI file. What else did it say about her? Except for the mention of the FBI in San Diego, her file is not integrated into her narrative. It is implied, however, that going to Cuba when it was illegal and joining a Marxist-Leninist party and working with revolutionaries at IPS was risking your life. Her closest colleague at IPS, Orlando Letelier, previously the Chilean Foreign Defense Minister and Ambassador to the United States, “was the leader and single most effective organizer in the international struggle against Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile.” Letelier and another comrade were assassinated near IPS. What was the content of her work with him?

One wishes her activities and assessment of them were more explicit, especially in the PRSP and in the ISP. Nevertheless it is rare to have such a spectrum of the left in the 1960s and early ’70s embodied in one person, especially one with a feminist critique. Salper is a good storyteller and keeps the reader interested and smiling. Read it to learn about the politics of the era and the pervasive sexism, which she points out well in all her jobs.

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