This summer I moved into an old house in the Catskills full of the random possessions of those who have used it as a retreat since it was built in the 1920s. With most of my books in storage and no television I entertained myself by reading a stack of Time magazines from the late sixties and early seventies that I found in a trunk in the small attic. Flipping through them nearly every evening, I enjoyed countless articles about the hippies, the Yippies, Richard Nixon, the Black Panthers, and the inevitable revolution on America’s horizon. I read the ongoing coverage of the Chicago Eight (turned Seven) trial, sensational portraits of California’s fringe cultures, and panic-stricken reports of the now too-often forgotten wildcat strikes of the early seventies.
But one article was my favorite, a feature piece on “women liberators,” or, as they are more commonly known today, feminists: “Sexism is their target and battle cry—as racism is the blacks’. They regard twentieth century America as a rigid, male-dominated society which, deliberately or more often unconsciously, perpetuates arrant inequalities between men and women—in pay, in kinds of jobs and, more subtly, self-expression.” Needless to say, it seems the same still holds for twenty-first century America. But what actually first caught my attention about the article was a photograph: a ferocious looking woman caught in the glare of a flash, bravely karate-chopping at the camera. A closer look at the caption revealed the woman to be Roxanne Dunbar of “Women’s Liberation hard-core Cell 16,” who is described as “one of the movement’s few acknowledged leaders.” Roxanne is quoted only once in the three-page article, but it’s a doozy: “Sex is just a commodity.”
In Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975, Roxanne Dunbar (now Dunbar-Ortiz) tells the story of this photograph, which was, in many ways, a pivotal shot. After forming Cell 16 with a small group of other women (one of whom was Abby Rockefeller, David Rockefeller’s daughter) they rapidly began to gain notoriety. The group published the seminal journal No More Fun and Games and emphasized self-defense (thus the Tae Kwan Doe). One night at martial arts practice an unknown individual slipped into the gym holding something silver. Dunbar, convinced it was an assailant with a knife, stared, terrified yet defiant, into what was actually the lens of a camera held by none other than the legendary photographer Diane Arbus.
Arbus’s snapshot made the rounds, published in countless periodicals including London Times Magazine, Life, and, of course, Time, radically transforming Dunbar’s relationship to the women’s movement by forcing her into the spotlight as a spokesperson despite the aim of women’s liberation to remain leaderless. Perhaps more significantly, the publicity raised Dunbar’s profile in the eyes not only of the her comrades and the broader public, but of the FBI (the book is punctuated by the FBI’s extensive and often inaccurate records of where Dunbar was, on what date, with whom, and with what intent).
Almost everyone, it seems, was threatened by women’s liberation in general and by Roxanne Dunbar in particular: not just the feds, but also those in the movement. In fact, many of Dunbar’s most pointed critiques were geared towards the left, which housed some of her most impassioned antagonists. Dunbar brilliantly reveals and resists the sexist assumptions of revolutionary icons from Che Guevara to Tom Hayden (who in one scene dismisses a young female comrade as a “groupie”). Many of the activists she encounters are hostile to the idea of women’s liberation, dismissing it as a distraction from more important issues like the war in Vietnam or racism. Similarly, open-minded Marxists feared the “woman question” would only divide the working class, while those less sympathetic derided Dunbar’s cause as “bourgeois” and even “counterrevolutionary.” Indefatigable and determined, Dunbar crisscrosses the country speaking in schools and on army bases making connections between classism and sexism, militarism and patriarchy. Having assumed that the “women’s liberation movement would automatically trigger connections and create female revolutionaries who would be actively antiracist, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist,” Dunbar is bitterly disappointed when she realizes this is not necessarily the case (a realization that comes after witnessing the women’s movement’s first round of infighting and noticing that social and political issues such as race, class, and war were happily left off a feminist conference agenda). What is important, however, is that she continues to believe these connections are the ones that ought to be made and, if not triggered automatically, concludes they must be generated through the hard work of theorizing, consciousness raising, and organizing.
All of this takes place at the end of the sixties and early seventies, but when the memoir begins, the year is 1960, and there are few signs that Dunbar’s life would cause so much controversy or garner such attention. In the opening scenes, picking up where her early volume, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, left off, she is 21 and fleeing Oklahoma with her first husband, Jimmy, for California. Though she heads west, Dunbar carries the legacy of her home state with her: she understands the importance of her grandfather’s involvement with the Wobblies, has a first hand knowledge of being poor and working class, and wrestles with the pain caused by her alcoholic and abusive mother, a woman who was part-Native American and shunned for it. These factors certainly contribute to Dunbar’s keen sensitivity to inequality that, when coupled with her natural intelligence and curiosity, made her one of the most formidable figures of the 1960s.
But at 21 Dunbar, though sensitive to the issues that would later consume her, was not aware of the full extent of her own oppression and outrage. As though driven unconsciously she enrolls in classes at San Francisco State University and begins a process of intense self-education and information, a path she seems to intuit will lead to her eventual liberation. In the meantime, she remains the perfect wife and becomes the mother to a daughter though she grows increasingly estranged from her husband. It is not until she has had a crucial encounter with Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex and is safely enrolled in graduate school at Berkeley to study history that Dunbar leaves Jimmy. After this she juggles motherhood with her studies, transfers to UCLA, thwarts licentious academic advisors (“Well now I have you under my control and if I can’t fuck you, I’ll fuck you”), finds her first real friends, travels across the United States and abroad, and hones her interest in politics and social change.
In 1964, Dunbar participates in electoral politics for the first and last time as a supporter of LBJ’s candidacy: she “had become convinced of the ‘lesser evil’ argument.” Though unclear in her account of what caused her to change her mind, after this brief encounter with the Democratic Party Dunbar “vowed never to work on an electoral campaign” again. Instead she would “have to find other means of forcing the United States to change.” Outlaw Women documents the many ways that Dunbar attempted to stay true to this promise over the ensuing ten years. Whether through her anti-apartheid work with the African National Congress in Los Angeles and London, by organizing campus conferences on radical topics, or through her later involvement in Cell 16 in Boston and work as a feminist organizer and revolutionary in New Orleans, Dunbar never compromised her radical critique, though she readily questioned how best to put such a critique into action.
Dunbar’s short-lived commitment to and ensuing disillusion with electoral politics, recounted in a mere two paragraphs, is key. First, it signals her dedication to complete social transformation and to working outside the system, a commitment that manifests in its most extreme form when Dunbar goes underground with an armed group in Louisiana (though no violent actions are taken, only conceived). Second, and in my opinion more importantly, it illustrates Dunbar’s willingness to reevaluate her own viewpoint, to challenge herself, to change her position and not only admit it, but to actually discuss her reconsideration openly. The most compelling and instructive facet of Outlaw Woman is precisely this process of self-questioning and theoretical evolution that Dunbar goes through as she examines and re-examines the positions and ideologies of the New Left and the burgeoning women’s movement and thoughtfully interrogates the points of convergence between sexism, imperialism, and capitalism.
This second trait sets Dunbar apart from many other figures who have revisited their sixties selves, those who loudly denounce the folly of their youth after settling into middle age. In contrast, Dunbar’s memoir portrays a woman who constantly challenges herself, casting doubt on her past pronouncements and previously endorsed methods, all while the social movements of the sixties ran at full throttle as opposed to after the fact. Though constantly questioning and criticizing her own motivations and those of the movement at large, Dunbar nonetheless remains true to her fundamental idealism and deep-seated desire for social justice.
Dunbar, in other words, is not afraid to be wrong. This point is made most vividly when she writes a fiery article that she self-publishes as a special edition of No More Fun and Games in which she encourages activists to take up guerrilla resistance. In the midst of working as a feminist organizer and speaker, Dunbar and her coworkers agree to secure a number of safe houses in the New Orleans for members of the Black Panthers. Over time it becomes clear that the apartments will actually be used to house themselves: “gradually and imperceptibly, we ceased regarding what we were doing merely as a way of protecting political fugitives, but rather as preparation for our own project.” Following in the footsteps of groups like the Weather Underground (with whom Dunbar had many grievances throughout the book until this point), the group begins to make plans to arm themselves and sabotage industrial installations in southern Louisiana.
This is one of the most dramatic and simultaneously anticlimactic decisions Dunbar makes: she and her comrades assume false identities, store weaponry, spend an inordinate amount of time hauling guns back and forth between various safe houses, and make intricate plans that are never carried out. Going underground does grant them temporary relief from what was near-constant FBI surveillance, but the price they pay for this repose is high. Dunbar gets involved with a local who becomes abusive, and her relationships with her longtime friends become twisted by fear, insecurity, and lack of a clear purpose.
Over time Dunbar begins to question the group’s tactics, having come to believe they were on a “nihilistic, even suicidal, mission” and so begins the difficult and painful process of disassembling the reality she worked so hard to construct. Coming aboveground only leads to Dunbar’s arrest and another troubling stint with her abusive boyfriend, after which she moves west yet again, ultimately beginning anew in California for a second time. Her previous certainty about armed resistance now shattered, Dunbar does not hesitate to send out an anti-underground statement that directly countered her earlier essay, a thorough analysis of the “various left organizations and their sectarianism, repudiating all of them, including the strategy of urban guerrilla warfare.”
In the meantime the sixties have ended, and Dunbar, like so many others, finds herself disoriented. Throughout the book Dunbar gives an incredibly detailed lesson in the unfolding chaos of the era, putting everything in its historical context and against the proper political backdrop, from the assassination of JFK to the global uprisings of 1968 to the CIA-sponsored Chilean coup. Outlaw Woman ends when the Vietnam War does, but life goes on. Dunbar is beginning a new phase, but with the same values. In her epilogue written in 2002, she maintains that our “project as socially conscious beings must be, as it was during the war years, nothing less than the total transformation of human societies.” Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t provide a blueprint for such a plan or tell us how to act out such values, but does, at least, affirm the fact that they must somehow, and most likely imperfectly, be lived.