Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sisterhood Is Powerful

OUTLAW WOMAN: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975; By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; City Lights Books: 412 pp., $17.95 paper

July 14, 2002|TONY PLATT | Tony Platt is the coauthor of "The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police," published in 1975, and, more recently, "E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered." He is a professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento.

"I had not expected to live to be thirty-six years old," writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in "Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975," a panoramic look back at her experiences in the trenches of the American left during one of this country's most volatile political eras. In the early 1960s Dunbar-Ortiz had given up her graduate studies at UCLA and hit the road. She was tired of trying to infiltrate academia's old boys' club and being groped by the chairman of her doctoral committee. By the time she returned to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to complete her doctorate in history, she had acquired real-world credentials as a revolutionary feminist.

Dunbar-Ortiz counted among her allies the 11% of American university students who described themselves as radical leftists in a 1970 Life magazine survey. Unlike most of the New Left's middle-class activists, however, she was a "dirt-poor half-breed" from rural Oklahoma who grew up with the firsthand experience of exploitative jobs as a secretary in San Francisco, hospital clerk in Lake Tahoe, factory worker in New Orleans and "slots change girl" in Nevada.

This book is not for those looking for an analysis of why the second American revolution failed, but there is no better experiential account of what propelled her (and my) generation of activists into an "irreversible direction and life-time commitment," as she termed it at a recent San Francisco book reading. Dunbar-Ortiz, a professor of ethnic studies and women's studies at Cal State Hayward, threads historical contexts and expressive prose into a chronological narrative relieved by diary entries, excerpts from letters, reconstructed conversations and newspaper accounts. We are transported into the cultural-political ferment of Marxist study groups, international solidarity campaigns, black liberation rallies, rock concerts and be-ins, antiwar demonstrations, a trip to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and underground cells. "I felt like the luckiest person in the world," she concludes. "I was a part of history in the making."

But her personal life was anything but lucky. The story begins where her first autobiographical book, "Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie," ends: leaving the hardscrabble landscape and "cauldron of hatred and meanness" that was home in Oklahoma. Her father, Moyer Haywood Pettibone Dunbar, named for her grandfather's Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobbly) heroes, ironically turned into an embittered supporter of George Wallace, while her part-Cherokee mother degenerated into an out-of-control drunk who terrorized Roxanne into running away from home in her junior year of high school.

She never looked back, never reconciled with her parents, but the brutality of her past haunted the next "decade of rootlessness" and warped her personal life. With her first husband, she created what she called a "prison of marriage." Later, a drug-dealing lover turned her on to shoplifting. Her second husband tried to make her into a compliant wife. And in the early 1970s, a recognized leader of radical feminism, she again found herself "in the world of the damned"--strung out on booze, living with a construction worker who beat her bloody when she got too uppity. Dunbar-Ortiz writes about this time in her life without rancor and is generous to men trapped in misogyny. She finds no pathos in her victimization, nor does she write to expiate her past or settle old scores. What is surprisingly missing from her memoir, however, is any reflection about why she was repeatedly attracted to personal relationships and political organizations, such as the Revolutionary Union, that contradicted her feminist principles.

The core of the book follows Dunbar-Ortiz's efforts to forge a radical practice rooted in the lives of working-class women. If Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" first introduced her to the ideas of feminism, it was Valerie Solanas' failed attempt to kill Andy Warhol in 1968 that connected her to women's rage. "I saw madness in Valerie's eyes," she said after visiting the author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto in jail. "I saw my mother's eyes." The author draws upon her own bitter experiences to explain why she chose to participate in building a women's movement that would be "part of a global revolution against greed, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and racism." She had little patience for NOW's middle-class feminism or the macho posturing of the extreme left. "[W]e were an outlaw faction," she observes, "trapped somewhere between the mainstream and the embarrassing Weatherwomen."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|