Roberta Salper, Domestic Subversive: A Feminist’s Take on the Left, 1960-1976 reviewed by Ti-Grace Atkinson

(Tucson, AZ: Anaphora Literary Press, 2014), 234 pp., $20.

Roberta Salper’s political diary recounts her development as a feminist and as a progressive. These two ideological strands often seem to grow independently of each other, although Salper is usually conscious of her desire to either merge or to somehow blend them.

Her peripatetic journey encompasses geographical changes as well as cultural and political ones. These three aspects are intertwined with one another. This account unfolds at lightning speed. It reflects not only Salper’s evolution but also the rate at which change was occurring in the United States during the 1960s and 70s. However, my impression is that the writing of this book gave Salper an opportunity not only to relive these various events – to reflect upon them individually – but also to contemplate how they might fit together.

Roberta Salper’s trajectory reveals one constant theme: her imperative for independence and critical thought (autonomy) and her yearning for “community.” To belong. This may be true for all human beings but in Salper these two necessities often appear as a dilemma.

Roberta was born in Caldwell, New Jersey. This is a smallish town (11,000 or so) about 15 miles from New York City. She is the only Jewish student in her schools growing up. This experience inculcates in her what it means to be “different” and outside the group she associates with. This becomes a kind of purgatory—neither quite “inside” and yet not completely an “other” either. Because of this, Roberta is painfully conscious of being alone. And she has the courage to acknowledge this. However, this loner status obviously takes its toll.

In part because Roberta is on the “outside,” she is aware of wanting to belong and yet at the same time needing to protect herself from the group and the hurt which might emerge from any individual within it. This situation leads to a desire to excel academically (a power which might protect her and also provide an escape out of the insularity of a small town).  This early training, which teaches her the pain of estrangement, also prepares her to be a feminist in the larger world which is at best ambivalent towards women. Women are allowed enough independence so as to be less of a burden on men but not enough to determine their own lives according to their own inclinations.

I’ve noticed that those feminists who exhibit the most far-reaching sensibility in their politics have usually travelled extensively. They have experienced, for considerable periods, other cultures and ways of doing things. This gives them a broader perspective and greater flexibility of mind and imagination in terms of political possibilities more generally.

Roberta educates herself (University of Michigan, Boston University, Harvard) and focuses on Romance Languages and Literature. This takes her to Spain where she lives for seven years and marries. While this frees her from the narrow confines of small-town life and mores, she discovers larger institutional prisons dictated by culture. Perhaps because Spain is a “foreign” culture, the constraints on women appear particularly stark. Still, there is a material aspect to these restraints both in terms of the fascism of Franco-Spain at that time (1961-68) but also imposed by the rigidity of the very conservative Catholic Church, which has wedded itself to the most conservative and reactionary of state establishments.

Roberta’s life is further complicated by the fact that her husband, Gabriel, comes from a liberal family within this repressive regime, so he appears liberated in this context in some respects. Unfortunately, this more expansive attitude does not extend to the “family” or the male/female relationship, except on the most superficial of levels and usually ones which benefit him (or men more generally). These seven years sharpen and deepen Salper’s feminism. Somehow, and to her credit, she never gives in to the attempts to repress her but rebels, even if sometimes obliquely. Many women, including myself, have “sidled” out of our marriages. There is always the fear of what being alone might mean. In part, this fear includes an insecurity about one’s own abilities to face the world independently. We yearn for that independence while at the same time being anxious about our own capacities, on many levels.

Salper remains in academia until 1974 and seeks to express her politics within that sphere, both in terms of her feminism and her radical visions. She functions in the university by teaching and some administrative ventures. In Chicago in 1968, she meets Marlene Dixon and Naomi Weisstein, both of whom influence her. She teaches one of the first Women’s Studies courses at the University of Pittsburgh (1968-70), spends four weeks in Cuba in 1969, and moves to San Diego State in 1970 to start the first Women’s Studies Program. From California, Salper returns to the East Coast, with tenure at SUNY Old Westbury (1971-74). She lives in New York City, which gives her a lot of opportunity for political action apart from academia. She joins the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (1971-73) and experiences yet another variation of confinement through rules/roles and hierarchy. Put another way, the organizational form can obscure the political content, especially as concerns women.

All of Roberta Salper’s talents, skills, knowledge, and experience came together in 1974 when she created the first Latin American Unit at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. This Unit brought into play her scholarship, her organizational abilities, and her first-hand familiarity with the Hispanic world. 1974 was a watershed moment in American history. Nixon had been forced to resign over the Watergate revelations. And the Viet Nam War appeared to be winding down, as the architects of this War were exposed and removed. The Church Committee Hearings continued unabated, uncovering the secret and coercive machinations of the US government, through the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the IRS, etc.

The Institute for Policy Studies brought in Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the US, who had opposed the Pinochet coup and continued organizing against the Pinochet dictatorship from exile. Letelier was Salper’s colleague and friend. His assassination in 1976 appears to have been the denouement of Salper’s political odyssey. Why, exactly? My best guess is that this assassination represented a violent collision between Roberta’s idealistic political vision and the material reality of power politics. Salper recounts a conversation with Letelier, after a speech he made at Madison Square Garden, in which he said that the Pinochet government was going to kill him. (This remark was made one week prior to his car being blown up.) Roberta’s response? “Orlando, don’t be silly. This is America. They can’t kill you here.”

Salper remained at the Institute until 1979 and stayed in D.C. until 1982. She then went to Israel, with her young daughter, Ana Simone, where she lived until 1987. After this point, Roberta’s travels and political adventures are left unexplained until she returns to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2004.

What impresses me most about Roberta Salper’s book is her independence, her intellectual curiosity, her courage to go it alone. These are characteristics which mark many of the pioneers of second-wave feminism whom I have known. We have all felt estranged from the worlds we initially found ourselves in. And while we have yearned for a community of kindred souls, I believe we have also tried to foster and to accept a fortitude which recognizes that to emulate Chaucer’s “I am my own woman, well at ease” – to maintain our autonomy – we may often feel isolated. Isn’t independence like a Janus-faced coin? Doesn’t autonomy have two sides: the freedom of self-discovery and sometimes loneliness?

Overall, I admire this book very much. It has reminded me of a time long gone by. My one reservation is an apparent oversight. By 1974, the political radicals in the United States had been decimated by the dark side of our government, both in the Black movement (e.g., the Panthers) and the anti-war movement (e.g., the Weathermen). But the underpinnings of the Deep State remained intact – laying back in the cut, like a crocodile silently submerged just beneath the surface of the bayou, ready to leap out and snap up its prey in an instant. The crocodile got Letelier. Why was Roberta Salper shocked or even surprised by this?

Reviewed by Ti-Grace Atkinson
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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