Woman : A Memoir of the War Years
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
published by City Lights Books
440 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 0872863905; (April 2002)
Review by Anitra Freeman
Originally published in Real
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes of living and making history. She is open
about both her personal life and her public life, her failures and her
victories. And she writes with the sensibilities of a novelist. The story
of her journey from timid teenage bride to radical revolutionary parallels
the journey of the country through the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam
era. The way she tells it is intellectually analytical at times, gripping
and often emotionally jarring at others.
Unlike the memoirs of our local activist Bob Santos (Humbows Not Hot
Dogs!), which I reviewed for this same issue, I did find several reviews
of Outlaw Woman that I could cheat from. However, I disagreed with
all of them.
It would be difficult to squeeze enough into 440 pages to satisfy all
readers. For instance, Roxannes account wasnt intimate enough
to satisfy Publishers Weekly. Yet she does get intimate,
as in her emotional turmoil over leaving her husband and child; shoplifting
"like a natural" for a drug-dealing boyfriend; her anguish over
the death of her good friend Audrey Rosenthal in the apartheid struggle;
her reactions to the rape of another friend during the founding years
of the feminist journal No More Fun and Games. But if she detailed
her subjective reactions to all events from 1960 to 1975, this would be
fifteen 1500-page journals instead of one book.
She doesnt describe the Lefts agenda explicitly enough for
one of the Amazon reviewers. In my experience, only simplistic philosophies
can be summed up in a small pamphlet to be handed out on street corners,
and remain the same for all time. What Dunbar-Ortiz describes is the evolution
of a radical: from a liberal working for reform, to an armed revolutionary,
to a root reevaluation of the legitimacy of the American system itself
a dismantling of "the American origin myth" that supports
white male supremacy, corporate capitalism, class oppression, and McDonalds
She grew from being one of the first advocates of the militant feminist
platform that all men are the oppressor, that violence against
the patriarchal system is not only moral but morally mandated, that female
biology confers a mystic wisdom and innate superiority upon all women
to questioning and finally openly opposing these precepts when
advocated by others. She continues to be a passionate feminist, but considers
herself to be working for human liberation, liberation for all.
Over the period narrated in this book, Dunbar-Ortiz wrestled with issues
that the Left movement has and still does wrestle with, including: the
legitimacy of violence vs. non-violence; the frustration of working-class
and non-white people with a movement usually dominated by middle-class
white intellectuals; rumors and propaganda designed to make members suspicious
of each other; being passionate about what you believe and still able
to work with others who arent "100% Ideologically Pure."
Another reviewer laments that she has not yet resolved these issues. I
am pleased that she confronts them, because not enough of us do.
This is a valuable book, in my opinion, for anyone who wants to understand
an important period in our nations cultural history. It is also
a good book for any liberal, radical, progressive, or other Lefty to invigorate
their own confrontations with the issues that still trouble the Left,
like class divisions and other infighting.
Roxanne doesnt have any final answers. You and I may not come up
with any either. I have seen a lot of damage done by clear and simple
answers, and more good done by people who continue to wrestle with the
Another good book on the independent radicals of the 1960s and 1970s,
recommended by Dunbar-Ortiz, is Revolution
in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che,
by Max Elbaum, Verso Books.
You can see and hear Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz herself speaking about the period
if you can get hold of a copy of Rebels with a Case: a Documentary
of the SDS Years, by Max Elbaum, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Susan Martinez.