Sisterhood Is Powerful

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.”

Working in Boston with a group of like-minded feminists, Dunbar-Ortiz helped to produce No More Fun and Games, an influential journal that was widely read in women’s study groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The organization that she helped form, Female Liberation, “favored the non-elitist method of organizing” and was initially committed to collective forms of leadership. With a reputation as an intellectual activist who promoted self-defense training for women, Dunbar-Ortiz was wary of “[r]evolutionary organizations made up of mostly privileged whites” that tended to “exoticize the working class and people of color.” Nor was she amused by the slogan used by the conscientious objectors’ movement to recruit GIs--”girls say yes to boys who say no.” Her encounters with the sexism of male heavies in the antiwar movement made her worry that “fascism was not limited to the right wing.”

The media stardom that Dunbar-Ortiz’s circle so distrusted soon catapulted her into the public eye. Photographed in a tae kwon do pose by Diane Arbus and given prominent coverage in Time, Life and Newsweek, by 1970 she was able to earn a living off speaking engagements around the country. When she moved to New Orleans to organize Southern women, she also gained a following among FBI agents, local red squads and police informers who infiltrated her group, the Southern Female Rights Union. Months of harassment and surveillance, she recalls, took their toll on her sanity and sense of security. For a brief time in 1970-71, “caught up in a current of repression and paranoia,” she went underground, moved to a safe house and joined the National Rifle Assn. Her group, which had “clearly fallen under the spell of guns”--not unlike the Symbionese Liberation Army and Black Panthers--flirted with the idea of sabotaging Louisiana’s oil industries. “I lost my bearings for a time,” she admits. “I was about to make some very unwise choices.”

By 1973, realizing that her life was endangered by a “nihilistic, even suicidal, mission,” Dunbar-Ortiz had abandoned her brutal boyfriend and clandestine adventurism. She moved back to California, where she found a new political home in the American Indian Movement and cultural solace in her deranged mother’s roots. But feminism remained a central force in her life. She celebrated the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975, knowing that she had been a participant in “something deeper and more radical than ever before in history: Women of all ages and backgrounds rose up and would not be put down.”


The book concludes, unfortunately, on a false note of bravado. In a perfunctory epilogue--written after Sept. 11, but with no reference to its consequences--Dunbar-Ortiz expresses her disappointment that efforts to “eradicate capitalism, patriarchy, racism and war ... didn’t turn out that way. Not yet.” Today, she observes, we face the same problems of war and inequality that “confronted us during the Vietnam period.... Our project as socially conscious beings must be, as it was during the war years, nothing less than the total transformation of human societies.”

Though I share this hope, I think it is also incumbent on leftists of my generation to understand how dramatically the world has changed since the 1960s and why the 20th century utopian models have failed us. A post-Cold War world, marked by the demise of communism, economic polarization and the precarious ascendancy of the United States as the sole superpower, requires new ways of imagining social equality and of mobilizing revolutionary change. Moreover, we have a responsibility to the next generation of activists to explain why a movement devoted to social justice reproduced within its own organizations so much that was antithetical to democracy and how we both escaped from and remain enmeshed in our past.