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Aptheker was raised in Brooklyn New York by her parents, Herbert and Fay, who were members of the Communist Party. Her father was a noted left-wing historian who wrote about slavery and the African American experience. Bettina Aptheker joined the CP as a teenager, and went to college at University of California Berkeley, where she was a leading member of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964-65. Later, she was a key member of the defense team for Angela Davis, another Communist Party member active in the black freedom movement, who had been charged by the government with kidnapping and murder. Aptheker wrote about the case in The Morning Breaks (1976). She eventually broke with the CP and, affected by the growing feminist movement, came out as a lesbian. Since 1979 she has been partnered with Kate Miller; together they have raised three children. Aptheker published a memoir, Intimate Politics (2006), in which she revealed years of childhood sexual abuse by her father. Aptheker has taught in the Feminist Studies department at the University of California Santa Cruz for more than thirty years.