From the cover of "Red Diaper Daughter" by Laura Bock
From the cover of "Red Diaper Daughter" by Laura Bock

How a ‘Red Diaper’ baby grew into a full-spectrum activist

When Laura Bock was a child growing up in a radical, secular Jewish household in San Francisco in the late ’40s and ’50s, the conversation was always about social change.

Her parents, the offspring of Jews who left Russia before the 1917 revolution but brought to America their working-class fervor, were active in the labor movement. Bock’s mother, Mini, was a member of the American Communist Party, and her father, Albert, an anarchist, distrusted all leadership. San Francisco leftists often joined the family around their dining room table, many of them Jewish, some not. They all perceived themselves as being part of “the resistance” to the U.S. political norms of that era.

“There was a lot of argument in my household,” Bock, 72, said in a phone interview from her home in a Marin retirement community. “I never got a word in edgewise. It was a little scary. I always feared our family would disintegrate.”

But it did not. Her family intact, she was instead raised with the values of resistance and defiance to all forms of oppression.

Laura Bock
Laura Bock

“I treasure and value the legacy,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be a red-diaper daughter.”

“Red Diaper Daughter: Three Generations of Rebels and Revolutionaries” is the title of the memoir she self-published in 2017. The term “red diaper baby,” referring to the children of socialists and communists in the U.S., is perhaps better known on the East Coast than out West.

“There are fewer of us out here, but we do exist in the Bay Area, too,” Bock said. “Many times I have to explain what it means. But I am an only child, and I wanted to document what my radical parents and grandparents accomplished out here, and in their lives.”

Bock will discuss the legacy of her parents and their political cohorts at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, a senior living community in San Francisco, at 10:30 a.m. on June 26.

Over the course of her life, Bock came to define herself not only as a political progressive but as a feminist, a lesbian, an advocate for the disabled, an advocate for older adults and a “fat-liberation” activist. But before that, during her younger years, her father would occasionally stop the loud group conversations to ask her, “And Laurie: what do you think?” She would freeze, she said, feeling too ignorant to say anything.

Although she plunged into the civil rights struggle and the early anti-war movement as a student at the University of Oregon in the early 1960s, it was not until the 1970s that she really dared to examine her identity as a woman.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 10.42.43 AM“I found my voice, finally, in the second wave of the feminist movement,” she said. Part of that examination involved her shame at being, as she put it, “a fat woman,” having internalized both societal and family stigma around body size. She also came to realize and accept that she was a lesbian, a process that is poignantly described in the book.

It was, in fact, because of a lesbian memoir-writing group she founded later in life that she finally decided to write the book.

“I proclaimed for years that, unlike most people, I did not have an inner book in me,” Bock said. But in the process of collecting material and writing memories to share with the group, Bock realized that, in fact, she did.

Among other things, the book describes how she suddenly lost her eyesight when she was in graduate school, which cut short her aspiration to become a radical historian but also brought her back to San Francisco (and all the area’s opportunities for self-actualization).

The memoir’s threads are tied together by the question of what she had made of her parents’ legacy. “Did I follow in their footsteps? Fulfill their values? Do them proud? What choices did I make and how did they differ from those of my parents?”

The nature of Bock’s upbringing also meant that she would have to figure out her Jewish identity for herself.

“Growing up, I knew I was Jewish, but didn’t know what that meant,” she said. “My parents were atheists. We had Christmas trees with red doves of peace on top. I never learned Yiddish or Hebrew. We sang labor songs. How to be Jewish? I didn’t even know what to do.”

In her 20s and 30s, after returning from graduate school, she visited several Bay Area synagogues including Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s first LGBTQ congregation.

“The problem for me was that all of these synagogues believed in God,” she said. “I wanted to be Jewish but not religious.”

It was in those years that her atheist, anarchist father, perhaps acknowledging her quest for Jewish belonging, uncharacteristically bought her a beautiful menorah.

“There was something that pleased him in the fact that I was looking for a part of my identity in Judaism,” she said. “Then I knew that I didn’t have to hide it, that he was in my corner.”

Of all the previous traits or beliefs that marked her as a member of a marginalized group, Bock writes, disability has been the hardest one for her to accept. As a legally blind person, “I denied the extent to which I was impaired, and the degree to which I had to adjust my life. The thought of being dependent was abhorrent and so I overcompensated,” she writes.

Early into her eighth decade, Bock said her identity is, finally, hers and hers alone. And yet she ultimately came to realize that preserving her parents’ history was a task only she could perform. Since writing “Red Diaper Daughter,” she has reunited with long-lost friends — and made the acquaintance of many others who share a similar if not identical background.

Today, Bock groups all of the strands of her activism under the “romantic socialist” label.

“I am an ardent feminist,” she writes. “I am a disabled person. I am a fat woman who has freed herself from much of her internal oppression and is working on the rest of the world. I am fiercely independent. I have a strong commitment to social change.”

Also, she added, “I worry a lot.” And that too, she says, is part of her legacy.

Laura Bock book talk at 10:30 a.m. June 26 at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, 2180 Post St., S.F. Free. Open to public with advance reservation. (415) 345-5084

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.