Detailed Memoir or Esoteric Mantra? You Decide
Outlaw Woman, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, is one woman’s account of the revolution that occurred in the United States between 1960 and 1975. The press release on the book from City Lights Publishers describes Dunbar-Ortiz’s feminist group, Cell 16, as “too outspoken and too outrageous” for “mainstream advocates for women’s rights.” With such an introduction, I was salivating to read this book. Radical feminism has always been a favorite topic of mine, and I was interested to read an account of women’s liberation from the perspective of a poor, working-class woman from Oklahoma.
Dunbar-Ortiz explains her role in the feminist movement as that of organizer, though she prefers not to use that term, as she considers it to be limiting. “I thought of myself as a revolutionary,” she says, “and organizing activities to spread the word was simply a part of what I did. I wanted to see women liberated, thinking for ourselves, not just organized into a political constituency.” It can definitely be said of Dunbar-Ortiz that she reached this goal: thinking for herself was a forte of hers.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s attention to detail can provide an intriguing new perspective, especially for those well-versed in the feminism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which unfortunately I am not, having not been alive during this era of American history. While I admit to having no basis of my own with which to compare Dunbar-Ortiz’s experiences and to experiencing difficulty in following her train of thought most of the time, I applaud her for many of her accomplishments. For example, her group was instrumental in teaching self-defense to women and bringing about the physical empowerment of new feminists. She writes: “We formed a women’s class at the Tae Kwan Do studio ... and we began to promote self-defense for women. This was the beginning of a commitment to martial arts and self-defense for women, which ultimately became the signature identity of Cell 16.” Their cause was noble, and their commitment was unwavering. Unfortunately, their solidarity could have used some work.
The style of Dunbar-Ortiz’s account is overly academic and lacking in emotion, which is unusual for a memoir. It is clear that from a young age, Dunbar-Ortiz was always looking for a revolution; however, the book fails to bring the reader into her quest. Instead, I felt as if I were reading completely from the outside on this one, never fully allowed inside the mind of the heroine or her journey.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s experiences are choppy, and sometimes contradictory. For example, she is clearly a militant feminist and yet easily falls into relationships that force her into doormat status. Though she constantly searches for a sense of community, she rarely manages to do anything but isolate herself.
It is difficult for this reviewer to place a value on Dunbar-Ortiz’s work, lacking enough background knowledge to judge it intelligently. However, for those involved with the women’s movement during that time in our history and for fans of esoteric feminist literature, Outlaw Woman is a must-read. For those who are looking for a new perspective on a much-talked-about era, read this book now. But if you’re just looking for an interesting feminist manifesta that provides insight without confusion, you’d best get a different memoir.