Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975
Reviewed by Aaron Shuman
Sunday, June 30 2002, 10:16 AM
At the outset, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz warns us that "it is difficult to extract from those years the seminal threads of my political radicalism and hard-core feminism," and the story she tells suggests she is still struggling to. We know how the story ends: Dunbar-Ortiz is an activist professor, a friend and mentor of the San Francisco Bay Area Left. But too much of Outlaw Woman is written as if this were the inevitable outcome of growing up "poor, female, and part-Indian in rural Oklahoma," as the back cover explains.
This is especially problematic when she recounts her radicalization in the years leading up to the watershed of 1968. For example, Dunbar-Ortiz tells us that she canvassed "to get LBJ elected in the fall of 1964, or rather to prevent Senator Barry Goldwater|from being elected," that the Rumford Fair Housing Act was at least as important to her as the Presidential race, that she could not bring herself to vote for the "lesser evil" of LBJ on election day, and that the defeat of Rumford convinced her "never again to work on an electoral campaign." All this occurs in the space of two paragraphs. And that makes its treatment of a pivotal decision in a revolutionary's life, the renunciation of electoral work, too cursory.
There are far too many moments like this in the book, where Dunbar-Ortiz presents paragraph-length histories of events and the conclusions she drew from them as self-evident. Too often, Dunbar-Ortiz adopts a prophetic tone that describes her political development as a matter of coming into her own destiny, rather than creating it. The mysticism at the heart of this narrative approach reveals a "consciousness transferred to me through [the] tragic death" of a friend in the struggle in 1967, along with sudden revelations, premonitions of death, apocalyptic pronouncements, and moments of clarity after the storm of events. This is odd for political memoir and, while comrades who lived through those events may nod along, it can render them opaque to people who do not share her immediate ideological and historical background.
Once the book reaches 1968, it settles into its groove as a litany of organizations formed and folded, statements made and retracted, positions taken and denounced. As Dunbar-Ortiz moves from watching history to creating her own in the early women's liberation movement, her storytelling ability and her gift for the telling detail come to the fore. Yet she consistently fails to engage with the most interesting questions that her story raises. Meeting the Bay Area Revolutionary Union in 1970, Dunbar-Ortiz remarks the authoritarianism of its leadership and "the Left's romanticization of the working class, a kind of objectification that I couldn't help but feel personally" given her roots. Yet by 1971, Dunbar-Ortiz is accused (accurately, she concludes) of spouting similarly "bourgeois crap." The story of the intervening year -- in which she goes underground to support workers' struggles; establishes an "almost exotic" cover life with "an ordinary workingman who spoke the language of my childhood, which "made me feel more real than I had in years"; and accepts his beatings as the price of the ticket -- is harrowing.
How did Dunbar-Ortiz become an agent of her own objectification, and what does this say about the era's revolutionary politics and her own? She doesn't say much, except to acknowledge being "caught in a bundle of contradictions that would take me years to unravel." There may be important lessons here about the intersections of identity and ideology, and the replication of patriarchy and authority within the movement, but analyzing them presumably will have to wait for the next book, her memoir of the 1980s. In this book, it's sufficient for her to recall "my own female liberation slogan from 1968: 'For women, all men are the police'" and to move on to the next scene. Long before the end -- which she passes in Tahoe, riding out probation and recovering from the years' abuses, while watching the revolutionary Left play itself out in a televised blizzard of scenes -- you sense a writer still mesmerized by the scenes of her own life, struggling to gain a critical perspective on them. This is powerful testimony to the transfiguring importance of an era, though not of the inspirational kind Dunbar-Ortiz set out to write.
Outlaw Woman is available from City Lights