THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Felt Like I Had a Solid Standing Because of Women’s Liberation.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, May 2022
JW: Please give us your full name and place and date of birth.
RDO: My name is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and I was born on September 10, 1938, in San Antonio, Texas.
JW: Please tell us a little about your life before the women’s movement.
RDO: I was 26 or 27 when I became a militant feminist, but I wasn’t really meant to do that. Both my mother and father were of Scots-Irish heritage dating back to the colonial period when Scots Irish Calvinists began migrating into the Appalachians, and many in the tracks of Daniel Boone. He led settlers into Kentucky and later to Missouri when it became a state in the 1820’s, and my family migrated in that way.
Many migrated on to Texas or Oklahoma when Oklahoma was opened as a state. Moving for land, losing land, not succeeding, moving on, until many ended up in California during the Depression. My father’s family moved to central Oklahoma, then many of them moved on to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and San Antonio. My father stayed in Oklahoma and married my mother when they were 16. I was the youngest of four children, and the year before I was born, they moved to San Antonio for jobs, and that’s why I was born there. But they returned to my father’s hometown when I was three months old. So, I’m from rural Oklahoma, Southern Baptist, devoted at that time, certainly no longer, and very quickly when I looked through a microscope and got a little bit of education, I definitely was no longer even a Christian.
When my dad married my mother, they were teenagers, and he began sharecropping and tenant farming. They had two children during the Depression, and they were desperately poor. My life was somewhat better. My older brother and sister didn’t even have shoes. They had cardboard tied around their feet to go to school. That was my life, the first six years that I don’t remember much of, except moving all the time from one sharecropping place, sometimes also picking cotton in the migrant cotton season.
When I was six, they moved into the tiny farming community where my father grew up, about a hundred scattered around a two-mile square town, for me to start school because I was asthmatic. (I’m still an asthmatic). My mother didn’t want me to walk to school, and I think she wanted to be near her church, and she was sick and tired of the life of sharecropping. It was such hard work. So, my dad started driving a diesel truck, delivering diesel to well-to-do wheat barons in the county.
In my last year of high school, as my older sister had done, I moved to Oklahoma City to work full time and finish high school at a trade school. She had gone to a secretarial school. I went to a trade school that was a public school. I went from three people in my class for eleven years to more than three hundred. I graduated number 1. That was an interesting transition. It was also the first year of school integration in Oklahoma, 1955-56, and my school was the only one integrated that year. I quickly became a devoted anti-racist, observing the treatment of the Black students.
I hadn’t been raised to be an anti-racist at all, but being that young and impressionable and seeing the brutality toward these young Black students–one woman and about five young men–how gracious they were in response. Of course, they had been educated in the civil rights movement. I didn’t know that, but I greatly admired them. So that was my first political experience in which I had to choose sides. I shrugged at being called an “N-lover to which I said, “Yes, I am.”
I became very combative against racism. My last year of high school was quite a powerful experience. I worked 30 hours a week and went to school 6AM to noon, then walked to my job. At the school, I chose secretarial as my trade, but then I got recruited to journalism somehow, maybe a teacher talked to the journalism director and said I was a really good writer. I worked on the daily newspaper. Printing was one of the trades, and journalism was the trade that fed the printing students content. So that put me on a totally different path than my older sister who became a secretary. That had originally been my only objective.
My journalism teacher persuaded me to enroll at the University of Oklahoma to study journalism. He was anti-racist and admired the Beatnik literary movement that was in full swing in New York and San Francisco. Our group of students, all juniors or seniors, were kind of wanabe beatniks. Being special and in a small group of serious thinkers and writers was my first experience of that kind, and I loved it. This is how I wanted to be. I had no consciousness at all of being female and felt no discrimination as such. I was very lucky.
I went to University of Oklahoma, and I washed out. It was far beyond my capabilities. I had no science; I had no mathematics. I had nothing but reading, writing and arithmetic, and I was a good writer and I had always made good grades, a straight A student, first in my class. But at the university, requirements for science, foreign language, and higher math, while I had only simple math and algebra and no science or language beyond English.
Any graduating senior was automatically accepted at Oklahoma public universities. But rural or poor urban graduates, who didn’t have a college prep program, and most athletes were placed in “university college,” doing makeup courses in math and science and even English, which I had excelled in. I was so ashamed of being placed in an English grammar class with football players and wealthy sorority girls. It was like my 6th grade English class.
So, I got married to an engineering student, working secretarial to support us until he graduated. Then we fled to San Francisco in 1960. That was the beginning of being further politicized, with the civil rights movement and the students at Berkeley already organizing. The famous protest of the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco took place 2 months after I got to San Francisco. I happened to walk past the City Hall where the police were power hosing the young student protestors and said to myself, “Boy, these are incredible people.”
I enrolled at San Francisco State college, and quickly got to know some of the students who had been in the HUAC protest. I became an activist pretty quickly, then left my husband and daughter. In 1964, I went to graduate school in History at UCLA, and there I got involved with anti-apartheid activists who were in exile from South Africa, also in the campus protests of Ethiopians against Haile Selassie, and Iranians against the Shah.
As the Vietnam war escalated, it was a learning curve. UCLA didn’t have a huge movement; it wasn’t like UC Berkeley or Wisconsin. It was a very conservative, and mostly local undergraduate student body, and of course, mostly white and on the wealthy west side right up against Beverly Hills. But I became a kind of leader in the anti-war movement on campus. Although our protests were small, they were very engaging, and we were in touch with other people around the country.
I spent the summer of 1967 in London working with the African National Congress international office. There in a foreign setting for the first time I recognized male chauvinism in the English young men who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement. I was shocked at young women being called “birds,” and spoke up. A few of us women began talking, and by the time I returned to UCLA I was a raging feminist. I took out a student loan and left UCLA, moved to Boston with the intention of starting a women’s group in the original site of 19th century feminism and abolition. I had no idea there were other radical feminist groups already formed. I’d heard about NOW, but that didn’t interest me. But Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had a big effect on me at that time.
I was at the dissertation stage, so I figured I could do research on women in the abolitionist movement who were also feminists. William Lloyd Garrison called himself a feminist. At the same time, I could form a women’s group. Boston was the main anti-war center where churches provided sanctuary for those who refused to go or refused the draft, and there were two huge anti-war organizations.
My idea was to recruit the women who were filling the ranks of voluntary draft councilors. Women were doing all the work. There was a poster at the time featuring an attractive mini-skirted girl saying “girls say yes to boys who say no.” That is where I would start, girls, learn to say no. I set up a women’s anti-war study group at the Boston Draft Resistance Group’s building. I thought I was starting something totally new. I quickly met the Bread and Roses people and wonderful activist feminists like Linda Gordon, Meredith Tax and many others.
But before I found the others, the class I set up to study The Second Sex attracted a half dozen women, one being Dana Densmore, who worked full time as a physicist at MIT to put a man on the moon, as well as volunteering draft counseling. The two of us then started recruiting from the wonderful National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO] that was very big and active in the Boston area, mostly Irish and French-Canadian women, who were also Catholic, which was interesting, but poor, single moms, very militant.
The NWRO called for a shoplift-in, and we had no idea what this was. They said, be at the Macy’s store in Medford, at 7:00 in the morning, opening time. It was not clear why they would be protesting Macy’s, and they wouldn’t tell us what was going to happen. In the parking lot gathered a large crowd of women, and there were a few speeches, then the person speaking said, “Let’s go, sisters,” and these hundreds of women on welfare, with us pushed along, rushed into the store, and the women began snatching children’s winter clothes, boots and jackets and caps, glove and running out with them, yelling, “Charge it to the welfare department.”
A massive shoplifting. That was incredible. They really made us more militant, I think, than we would have been. My tendency being a graduate student is just read and study and publish a journal. But we were out on the streets all the time. They were used to being on the streets and leafletting and yelling at people. When we got the journal, No More Fun and Games, going, they hawked it on the streets.
We had what turned out to be an unusual group. Bread and Roses was meeting mostly in private. Then Dana and I drove down to New York and met with groups there, and met with Ti-Grace Atkinson and Black civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy, who were leaving NOW for a more radical group. We met with Roz Baxandall, Kathy Sarachild, Robin Morgan, and others, so happy to find such powerful angry women to be in contact with.
JW: What kind of actions did you do, let’s say in years past that? Did the shoplifting continue, and did you get involved in other women’s movement activities?
RDO: That was a one-time thing, but there were other actions like that. We took up the issue of violence against women. We had about ten people in our group at first, mostly women on welfare. We also had a sex worker in the group and a lesbian poet and an African American woman. All working-class people. Their mothers had worked, and they worked when they could. It was such low pay with childcare and having to pay for it. Welfare gave them more substance than being able to work had.
They were very sensitive to the factories along the river there in Cambridge. The factories manufactured cutting edge products like home stereo systems and computer technology. Mostly women were hired for the assembly work. It gets dark so early in the fall and winter months. Most of the year the sun goes down before 6:00 in the evening.
It was dark and creepy when the women got off work and had to await buses or rides, a perfect setting for women hating violent men, sometimes ex-partners to assault women. We began accompanying them when they got off work. That was our first action, but then we got very involved in writing pamphlets and dealing with the assaults and rapes. Rapes seemed rampant, and maybe it was all over the country, but in the Boston area, it was every day featured in the newspapers with gruesome descriptions.
Many of the victims of rapes targeted sex workers, and no one had much sympathy for them. “Well, that’s what they deserve. They’re sex workers.” We started working with the one sex worker in the group. She herself was raped by a former John. Of course, that seemed like an oxymoron to most people, that a wife or a sex worker can be raped. We took that up, that rape is rape. If it’s a “No,” it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, it’s rape.
She knew the name of the rapist. She lived in the building next door to me, and instead of going home to her husband and children, she knocked on my door the early morning hours, distraught and crying, her clothes muddy. I persuaded her to report it to the police. We took a cab to the local precinct. It was really courageous of her because no sex worker had ever done that before. We recruited this wonderful newly minted Harvard young lawyer, who was just an early feminist of some sort who really believed in the case and was very good, and we won. The court room was large and packed with curious people. I testified on her behalf, and she testified. That was really a great boost for us, that we were doing the right thing and made a breakthrough.
JW: What year was that?
RDO: That was 1968. Then we started doing self-defense because we felt that we could accompany these women, we could do these things, but we couldn’t even protect ourselves. There was a lot of violence, and we’d be followed in cars. In the evening, we always went in groups, and of course we’re safer in groups, but out alone, it could be very dangerous.
We settled on Tae Kwon Do and set up a class. We became notorious for this because it hadn’t been done yet. Police volunteered constantly to help train women how to protect themselves; mainly about wearing “non-seductive” clothes not high heels and don’t carry a purse. Take your total freedom away.
JW: “It’s not about the men, it’s about the women who aren’t dressed properly.”
RDO: Exactly. We started training. I was awful at Tae Kwon Do. I’m not an athletic person, but I was very enthusiastic. I learned the basics, and I never advanced very much, but some of our group became black belts. Dana Densmore did and she’s in her late 70’s now, and she still competes in Tae Kwon Do events.
Then we co-sponsored with Bread and Roses a two-day Northeastern regional women’s liberation conference. Two of our members were students at a Catholic college in Boston and were able to obtain free use of a classroom building that also had a sizable auditorium. That was one of the first WLM conferences. The Chicago Conference had already taken place in November 1968, and ours was in March 1969.
It was really an amazing conference. So many women came who hadn’t even heard the idea of women’s liberation. It was pretty much anyone who volunteered to be part of the organizing group. This was my style of voluntarism at the time. It’s risky because it’s a little chaotic, but whoever wanted to do a workshop, just signed their name and the topic, assigned a room, and posted the information on the door.
It seemed like every room in this building was occupied, and each of them had women crowded in them. None of them were just six or seven people, it was crowded. We also had a Tae Kwon Do demonstration with the ones who really were good at it, not me. I could break a board, but that’s about as far as I got. It boosted us. It got a lot of publicity, and we were flooded with new members that we didn’t know what to do with.
JW: What were some of the workshops? Do you remember?
RDO: Oh, yes. Every kind: about nursing mothers and pregnancy, about reproductive rights and the right to abortion, people talking about their abortions. One was on Maoism. I was very interested in it because of William Hinton’s book on the women speaking out and women becoming a part of the revolution, speaking the truth publicly or in a group.
A couple of women had studied that book and gave a workshop on that. We had one on apartheid, that was a South African immigrant woman, a white South African woman, British, not Afrikaner, on anti-apartheid and on racism, on so many things. I didn’t do a workshop because I was helping put things together. We had a committee that was doing the work.
Bread and Roses had one on women’s health, and eventually they ended up doing that wonderful book and they were specializing in that. It was a very exciting, dynamic conference. There was no factionalism, there were no men, although there were a couple of transwomen. It was that moment before there was a lot of factionalism and splitting.
JW: Before more and more people got in with their own ideas.
RDO: Also, for us, not being able to know how to process new women, to initiate them, so many people coming in. I considered myself an anarchist at the time, and let things fall as they may. I was a good organizer, writer, and speaker, but I wasn’t very good at other things. Dana and I balanced each other off, she being a lot more level-headed than I was and a lot more organizationally oriented than I was. She was putting a man on the moon at NASA, at MIT. Brilliant, amazing person.
She was very smart and organized, and the other women, it was really a good group, but we started having problems about leadership, which I think a lot of that was being raised at the time in the whole movement about leaderless-ness. I don’t think the women’s movement started it. I think it started even in the anti-war movement. Who are the leaders and the people out front? Like Tom Hayden being attacked as calling the shots on everything.
I was categorized as a leader in my group because my picture got in Time Magazine in November 1969. Diane Arbus was commissioned to take a picture of us doing Tae Kwon Do and she hunted us down. I had never heard of her at the time. She wasn’t as well known then as she was after her death. I don’t think she had published any books yet; she was selling photographs. The Sunday London Times, which was a lurid rag then, commissioned her to get a picture of us, and me in particular, doing martial arts. Then, they sold it to Time Magazine.
Arbus rushed into our studio, which we didn’t guard at the door. It was a remote place in a warehouse district in Boston, not a place you would drop into, no big signs or anything. It was behind a building and on the second floor. She did her footwork, apparently, and figured out where we were, or followed us or something, sleuthing, and we had no idea. Suddenly, there was this big silver thing in front of me, her flash, and I thought I had been shot. I had had some death threats from husbands of women who had left their husbands.
JW: Oh, it was your fault, I see.
RDO: Yes, I thought I was being assassinated. Then I thought, “Well, I can feel all my body. What was that?” We all looked at each other. We stopped and said, “What was that?” It’s a horrible picture. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but I look terrified. Honestly, I look terrified, but that’s how I see me looking. You can find it also in Diane Arbus’ book, Magazine Work. It also has posed pictures of Ti-Grace Atkinson and some other women who agreed to be photographed, apparently.
I tried to get permission to put it in my memoir, Outlaw Woman, and her estate would not give me permission to publish a picture of myself. My publisher, City Lights, was not about to publish something from a well-known person that they didn’t have permission. That was strange, but anyway, that picture got in Time, and then I started getting phone calls for interviews, for going on television, and I refused most of them.
Other friends, like Ti-Grace and Flo Kennedy said, “Do it. Do it, Roxanne. We need to get the word out.” I was torn, but anyway, in my group and pretty much our core group, we were a collective leadership group. I felt very much a part of it, but there was this sense that I had stepped out of it, and so tensions arose among several of us. It was a split. It wasn’t nasty or anything. I’d been thinking about organizing in the South anyway, because I come from rural Oklahoma, and I really wanted to maybe organize closer to the culture that I grew up with and it was harder to do there, I realized.
I wanted to see more black women involved, and I thought I could do that better in the South than we seemed to be doing in the Northeast, and so several of us relocated to New Orleans. There, we set up another organization, Southern Female Liberation Organization. We also set up a martial arts class there and reading groups, conferences. But I missed the journal, No More Fun and Games, that Dana and I started publishing in August 1968, just a few months after we started, and we had published four issues. We had lots of demonstrations. I also missed our early days when a Playboy Club opened in Boston, and we had a demonstration against it, against exploiting sex. We always did really good leaflets. I think Dana was the best leaflet writer. We did a lot. It was really a great two years.
Then the movement started growing nationwide, worldwide. The 1968 Chicago conference that I didn’t attend was really an important one. Dana and I had attended a two-day organizing meeting where we met Sue Moniker and Kathie Sarachild, and others before we really got to know all the people in New York. Dana’s mother was Donna Allen, who was herself a great feminist, who was involved in founding Women’s Strike for Peace. She was an economist, and she was invited to the organizing meeting, but instead of going, she gave her invitation to me and Dana, and we were rather disruptive.
We also were defending Valerie Solanas, who had shot Andy Warhol, and Flo Kennedy was her lawyer. Flo got us involved in supporting Valerie, as she had been a sex worker and living on the streets. Clearly, it came to be that she was mentally ill, but we weren’t really recognizing that categorization of any woman because it was used so much to control women. There was a lot of support. Ros Baxandall did a lot of work supporting Valerie, that she be treated correctly, and she ended up being sentenced to a mental institution rather than prison, which was the best that Flo could do, but we admired her.
We said, “She didn’t have anything against Andy Warhol. She was just trying to get her play back, her play, Up Your Ass.” She only had one copy of it, and she had given it to him to produce as a film, and he hadn’t. She went to retrieve it, and she was carrying a gun because she lived on a rooftop. He wouldn’t let her in, then she struggled to get the door open, and the gun went off. We felt like it was not really attempted murder. She didn’t go there to kill him. She went to get her play back, and that went haywire.
Her SCUM Manifesto was hilarious. It is really hilarious. I think it offended a lot of women, they said that’s going too far: SCUM stood for Society for Cutting up Men. But she really nailed male toxicity, as being jealous women and thereby proving themselves through violence and war. But it was satire. It was really a pretty amazing document. It became very popular in the renewed women’s movement around 1990, and a play was produced and staged based on Up Your Ass in 1999.
They re-discovered Valerie Solanas. There’s a biography by feminist scholar Breanne Fahs now. She’s a rather tragic person, living on the streets most of her life after being released. Dana and I visited her in jail, at Rikers and then at the New York Asylum for the Criminally Insane. We realized that she really was mentally ill. She was a homeless person on the streets in Phoenix, and then she died in San Francisco in a room in a welfare hotel. I didn’t even know she was in San Francisco, where I live. Her decomposed body was found in the room in 1988.
JW: Sad case.
RDO: Very sad. Yes.
JW: I know you were still active in the 1970’s. What kind of things were you involved in?
RDO: In the ’70s, I went back to graduate school. I had taken a leave of absence from 1969 to 1974, five years. I returned to write my dissertation, wrote on a totally different subject than the one I was working on in 1968. I had gotten involved in New Mexico with the land grant issue there. Betita Martinez, one of my mentors, was involved. I did a study of the land issue, and in 1980 published the dissertation, the Roots of Resistance: History of Land Tenure in New Mexico.
I drifted away from the women’s liberation movement. I was disappointed in several things, the direction it was taking and that it wasn’t paying enough attention to ending the war and also to racism. There was sort of an allergy for many of the early leaders of the movement for acting on behalf of other causes, sacrificing themselves. Most came from more movement backgrounds, which I did not. They felt that their mothers had always been forced into being peacekeepers, of forming women’s peace organizations without interrogating their own oppression.
They resisted that role, which I didn’t understand because I knew Donna Allen and I so admired her. She was certainly not any kind of shrinking violet. I just thought war had to be a center of something that we were against. Not just the Vietnam War, but colonialist and imperialist war in general, to solve issues. But that was largely seen in the radical women’s movement, as something that women were expected to do. So, they didn’t want to do it.
I felt that was a big gap in the development of the women’s movement, not dealing with U.S. imperialism and the settler colonialism of North America, and the indigenous issues. I actually just moved on to the international. After the Wounded Knee Uprising in 1973, I got recruited because of my dissertation and it hadn’t even been published yet. But land tenure in New Mexico that Vine Deloria and other leaders of the Native American Movement saw that there was so little written on indigenous people.
In the aftermath of the American Indian Movement month long protest at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, I was asked to serve as an expert witness in some of the trials, and a larger one suing the federal government to force them to enact the 1868 treat with the Sioux that established a much larger contiguous land base that was subsequently reduced to small reservations. So, I got involved with those cases and then with the International Indian Treaty Council taking the treaty and land issue to the UN Human Rights Commission, which met in the Geneva Switzerland offices of the United Nations.
I helped to organize the first international non-governmental organization conference on Native People of the Americas that took place in 1977. This was parallel to two initiatives in the UN. One was the UN decade against apartheid and racism, that began in 1974. The decade was extended to another decade and another, culminating in the 2001 UN Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. I attended all those conferences and helped organize the NGO parallel conference.
The other was International Women’s Year, 1975. Then the UN recognized the International Women’s Decade, ’75 to ’85, extending to the Second, and Third. The founding conference that took place in Mexico City was successful. I didn’t go, but I helped support another woman to go to that, a Lakota woman I worked with. Then the next women’s decade conference was mid-decade in Copenhagen in 1980. I was involved in organizing the NGO parallel to the official two-week UN conference. I was involved with helping build the Indigenous Caucus in the UN. But since it was so parallel to the women’s conferences, I was doing that work as well.
Then I got involved in organizing the end of the decade conference, which was in Nairobi, in 1985. Then ten years later, 1995 in Beijing. The conferences were amazing experiences. From the beginning of that work in 1977, Edith Ballantyne, who was Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, based in Geneva, was a great mentor to me, and to many of us new to the UN world.
JW: What was amazing about the conferences?
RDO: There were women from all over the world. We helped start something that became so big that there is now an International Treaty on the Rights of Women, which the U.S. has not ratified, among other things the U.S. hasn’t ratified. But it’s an amazing, empowering and important protection of women around the world. Just meeting feminists from Africa, India, China and Latin America was thrilling, breaking down the provincialism of the North American women’s liberation work and ideas.
There’s a whole infrastructure on women’s rights in the United Nations now, and of course, on indigenous peoples who now have a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as several permanent committees annually.
That’s what I turned to for my women’s liberation work. I was no longer much very involved domestically in the women’s movement as it developed. I tried to keep up with it. I read Ms. Magazine. In the early women’s liberation movement, we all kind of resented Gloria Steinem because she was so beautiful, and publicized, and everything. But, although I didn’t know her personally, I came to admire her tremendously to this day, just her staying power and her integrity and generosity.
Although I have a doctorate in History, I decided in 1974 not to pursue teaching in a prestigious history department, but rather to help build Ethnic Studies and Women’s studies. I took a job in a working-class university because I’d gone to San Francisco State, another branch of the California State University system, mostly working-class students, most actually working while studying. I was hired to build the Ethnic Studies Department and later, Women’s Studies at the state university where I taught for four decades. I created curriculum for the courses I taught. It was my constant experience with mentoring young women and young people of color.
JW: What are you doing now?
RDO: Since the 1990’s, but more so since I retired in 2008, I’ve been writing. I’ve published nineteen books. But in the 1980’s I spent most of my time doing the UN work, and also in Central America doing humanitarian work, and reports on the U.S. Contra War to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, using Honduras as a staging ground. I reported as an NGO representative to the UN human rights bodies. I spent most of 8 years in the 1980s either in Central America or Geneva and New York. I was very impressed with the revolutionaries in Central America. The women were deeply involved and were militant feminists. That was a great experience.
But I was exhausted after that. The travel in the 1980’s, plus teaching, I came down with pneumonia in 1989. I was really sick, hospitalized. My doctor said, “If you want to live, you’ve got to stop doing this.” I still went to Geneva for meetings for 20 more years, but very selectively, and didn’t take on a lot. I started writing. I wrote three works of memoir, and I did a master’s in Creative Writing to get out of the academic language and write literary work.
I wrote these three literary memoirs, that were published in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The second one, Outlaw Woman, A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, covered my coming of age as an activist and then the Women’s Liberation Movement. I was still teaching full time.
Just when I retired, I was asked to write a book by an editor at Beacon Press in Boston, that became An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2014. It was part of a series the Beacon editor had created on revisioning United States history. It was sort of a take-off on Howard Zinn’s popular A People’s History of the United States, which was initially published by Beacon. My book became a best seller, a surprise to me. Up to 2020 and the pandemic lockdown, I was constantly on the road, invited to speak.
I published two more books and co-authored another since, but those books didn’t get nearly the attention. I wrote a small book on the Second Amendment and gun violence in 2018, not a scholarly book, but more for the general public.
I wrote from March 2020 to December 2020. The book was published in 2021, Not A Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion. It’s a big, fat book. It was really amazing to write because I couldn’t go to libraries and do research. I had already done a lot of research, but needed to do more. I had no idea how much documentation is on the Internet now. Archives. It’s just remarkable. So that kept me very busy eight hours a day, five days a week. I was so disciplined.
JW: Looking at your evolution, what would you say the women’s movement meant to you, in your life?
RDO: It’s so woven into my life that it’s really hard to separate it out from all of those influences at the time, working with the African National Congress in exile, and London the summer of ’67, which had a huge impact on me; being involved in the Native American movement, Chicano Movement. I felt like I had a solid standing because of women’s liberation helping start it, but also just having that confidence that I think we were able to generate among ourselves to greater or lesser degrees.
But for those of us who were organizing women’s liberation early on, if we didn’t burn out and go away, it has sustained us in whatever we do. I think most have stayed activists in one way or another. I had decided to be a lifelong radical, probably somewhat before women’s liberation, having to do with apartheid, racism, Latin America, and U.S. imperialism. I went in with that.
Many of the women in the early radical women’s liberation movement had come from a very different place, which I learned a lot from. But it hadn’t been my experience because I was in California, but the Southern Civil Rights movement, that they had gone down to Mississippi Summer and been in dangerous situations, and there was some trauma involved in the experience. I think that was their platform and my platform was a little bit different than that, but there was some friction in that, a guilt, do we really have this right to talk about ourselves? Because they had supported the fight against obvious, horrible Jim Crow, and took risks.
There was some guilt those white women from the Movement expressed that I couldn’t quite understand because I hadn’t experienced that, but it informed me in important ways. That was very important to me and my choice to teach at a state college with mostly working-class, working students instead of pursuing a position in history in a major university. That also had to do with wanting to be able to be an activist and not primarily tied to university duties and overseeing doctoral work.
It’s much easier in a state university or junior college. You’re not in this terrible academic competition, which at least at that time, you really weren’t supposed to bring politics into it. Developing ethnic studies and women’s studies was a political action. I was able to combine that. I could not have even thought of doing that without that sense of empowerment I got from the women’s liberation movement.
JW: Any final thoughts you would like to add?
RDO: I’m really glad you’re doing this. Veteran Feminists is archiving these. I watched some of the videos, and they’re just wonderful. We can be proud, but there’s lots more to do in the world. We know that women are still carrying the water and the wood in most places and really suffering. Now we have this attack on women’s choice and freedom and we have to bring out our old militancy if we’re going to reverse that.