Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
Outlaw Woman: a Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2014)

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an Oklahoman, describes the people who settled her native state, the people she comes from, this way:

The settlers who streamed in and grabbed Indian land were descendents of, or were themselves, losers. Not only had they lost the game of getting rich, but many had fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War. Some of them did not go down easily but rather became outlaws. Jesse and Frank James, the Younger Brothers, and Belle Starr were all Confederate irregulars whose families had fought alongside Quantrill in the bloody Missouri-Kansas conflict that preceded the federal government's declaration of war to prevent secession of the Confederate states. Outlawing carried on into the era of the Great Depression with Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd. They were losers, those outlaws, but no sad sacks. They lived life on the edge, not even trying to "succeed" or "make it" in the U.S. capitalist system; rather they were definitely intent on disrupting it. They were our childhood heroes.

These were the people Dunbar-Ortiz worshipped growing up; their philosophy was hers. For a while, she tried the straight life as a housewife trying to fit in the late-1950s, Eisenhower corporate mold, but that didn't take. By the early '60s, she found herself divorced and participating in San Francisco radical politics, reinventing herself as an outlaw radical feminist, traveling the nation on behalf of feminism and becoming one of the founders of the Women's Liberation Movement. This memoir, originally published by City Lights in 2001 and now reissued in a revised, updated edition by the University of Oklahoma Press, tells the story of Dunbar-Ortiz's life in the women's movement -- and quite a life it was.

Active in radical politics, she couldn't help but notice that it was a male-dominated culture. Men drove the action; women fetched coffee, ran the mimeo machines and and served the men. As any thinking person would, Dunbar-Ortiz objected to this structure and fought her way into a leadership position, a movement that carried consequences, such as losing a good college teaching gig and finding herself on a blacklist that prevented her from getting another one.

Still, she soldiered on. By the late '60s, she had become a national leader of the woman's movement and was crossing the country, getting new chapters off the ground, spreading the word and supporting local groups' fight for their local and national causes.

If there's a flaw in the story, it's that some will find aspects of the author's world view a touch odd. When she describes falling for the wrong men, she sees it as a betrayal of her feminist principles. When she talks about her battle with alcoholism, she blames her descent on going underground in the working-class world, saying, "heavy drinking, drunkenness and violence, including violence against women, were woven into that culture." That might be, to an extent, true, but it doesn't excuse us from taking responsibility for our own actions.

Still, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes well and tells an interesting story, one which ought to be read by all of my young women friends who tell me they don't identify with feminism while reaping the benefits of what women like Dunbar-Ortiz worked so hard and risked their lives and freedom for.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

19 July 2014

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