Was there a moment, any one event that shifted your perspective
on the way you viewed your own history?
The one thing I didn't get from the stories that was very important
was an anti-racist perspective. It was all in the context of white
struggle. My mother was part Indian, but the community I lived
in was all white. The Wobblies were largely all white so the civil
rights movement in the 1950s – from school desegregation – was
very important for me. I went my last year in high school to the
first integrated high school in Oklahoma, Central High School.
It was the same year that Little Rock High School exploded and
they had to bring troops in, so the Oklahomans decided to do it
differently and to avoid resisting desegregation, but it was still
a very volatile issue. What they mostly did was steal black athletes
from the all-black schools in the inner city. There were very few
blacks where I went and they were persecuted. I think just witnessing
and seeing whites attack blacks for no reason whatsoever – nothing
they did, nothing they said, just for existing – stuck me
with such a visceral feeling of injustice, and the way that if
you didn't join in, you're seen as a race traitor and shunned really
struck me. You have to actively be a white racist or else you were
not trustworthy, you were a "nigger-lover." That's what
I was called. I don't remember any other whites in that school
who I could sit and talk to about this. There was one – the
first Jewish person I ever met. She was the only white person there,
including all of the teachers, who wasn't racist, I mean really
out-and-out total racist. I became hyper-aware of racism, and I
could not help but challenge it every time I saw it. It was very
hard to make friends. Then I went to Oklahoma University and there
was a little larger pool of people who were anti-racist, even though
it was almost all white. There were also foreign students – many
of them Middle Eastern – so there was some color on campus.
The second thing that happened to me, aside from the anti-racist
thing – was meeting Palestinians who were studying petroleum
engineering. At the time, it had only been nine years since they
were forced out of their homes. They were in Jordanian refugee
camps and eventually received Jordanian scholarships to study engineering.
That was right during the Suez Crisis of 1957. They taught me not
only about the Middle Eastern situation, but about US imperialism
and the US role in that particular crisis.
So until then you'd been thinking mainly about national
Yes. I had no sense whatsoever of international issues until I
started meeting the foreign students. That was really important,
learning about liberation movements. They not only told me about
their cause but about politics worldwide. Especially Said Abu Lughod.
Said knew everything about the history of the world. He knew about
the African National Congress and the struggles all over Africa.
He knew about the French in Algeria and Vietnam. I knew the US
was already in Vietnam in 1957 because of him, so that was such
a gift, to learn all this when I was so young; I was only 18 years
old, and of course he understood racism. He understood the situation
of the Indians in Oklahoma. Looking around, he saw the same situation
as the Palestinians. Then to come to California. The ‘60s
were launched soon after and I was able just to dive in and learn
more and more and more, and learn how to act, not just how to think,
but to channel that into action, rather than just getting angry
and upset and challenging everyone and slamming doors. I owe learning
how to organize to the '60s. Even if I'd stayed in Oklahoma, activism
was so clandestine because it was so dangerous. I probably couldn't
have found a place.
What caused you to leave academia and pursue a life of
Well, when I came to California, I went for three years to San
Francisco State and then graduated, and then went to UC Berkeley
for a year of graduate school, and then UCLA, so my activities
up to ‘68 were within a university setting, and then I broke
off. I was at the stage of writing my dissertation, but I didn't
pick it back up until 1974, so it was six years that I took off
completely. I went back and wrote a dissertation and turned it
in, but it was linked to some organizing work I was doing on land
tenure in New Mexico so I kind of did break permanently with academia
in terms of feeling like that was my identity. When I'm introduced
as a professor, it seems odd. It's not the first thing I think
How do you see yourself?
As a militant, as a radical, as a writer ... as a teacher, but
professor – it is an official title, but it would be a little
like introducing someone as an accountant. "Here's CPA Dunbar
Ortiz." Surely accountants don't want that title to be their
identity. A lot of academics do. Of course, it's an honor. I know
people are doing it out of respect.
Was there a moment when you decided what you were trying
to pursue as an activist wasn't working with what you were pursuing
as an intellectual?
I think I decided in the '60s when I left UCLA. I was deeply disappointed
because like many other students, I really thought we could have
kind of liberated zones on the university campuses like in Latin
America, which I was very familiar with, which have autonomous
universities. The police can never enter and the army can never
enter, and when that's broken, like it was in El Salvador or in
1968 in Mexico, it is just abhorrent. They have a tradition that
goes back to the Middle Ages of having autonomous universities.
I thought we could create that. I knew that to the extent that
it existed how important that was in Oklahoma, but the more the
ties to the military were exposed, the more disappointed I became.
In UCLA, where I was, there were enormous ties to the Rand Corporation
which did much of the military's research. I was in Latin American
Studies and the CIA's involvement in Chile was going on right there,
out of UCLA. There were professors who were tied to it and making
a lot of money. I just gave up. I decided I certainly couldn't
make being a professor and raising the consciousness of students
and organizing on campus my primary political work. It would be
easier to organize the revolution than to take over the university.
Tell me about the formation of Cell 16. When did that
I left UCLA via Mexico and went to Boston, intent upon organizing
a women's liberation movement, not being aware that many other
women were thinking the same thing. It was quite a treat when I
found these other women in New York and Boston and Florida – even
here in the Bay Area – who had been meeting quietly. I went
to Boston because I knew it was the center of the anti-war movement
with the Boston Draft Resistance and the Sanctuary Movement where
churches were taking in deserters, AWOLs, draft resisters, and
protecting them from being arrested, and then getting them out
to Canada. The place had such a history – from the abolitionist
movement to the early women's movement of the 19th Century. That's
why I chose Boston and that's where I began – at the Boston
Draft Resistance group teaching and organizing. Cell 16 came out
of a course I taught. Our first little group came together. We
eventually – about six months later – made up this
name, Cell 16.
How did Valerie Solanas' book The SCUM Manifesto influence
Oh, it influenced me a lot. I have a whole story of Valerie in
there. I saw her as a person who struck out in anger and it was
almost like she was a martyr in my mind at the time. What had driven
her crazy is the very proof of why women's liberation was needed.
I identified her very closely with my own mother, who went mad.
I didn't really see her, especially after I met her, as someone
who could really be reconstituted. She was already 30 years old
and, especially after taking such an action, you know, a criminal
act, could probably never be rescued, but to me she was the kind
of angry young woman that we needed to be able to bring together
and say "You're right to be so angry." Most of us get
so squashed at such a young age that we become passive and afraid.
We needed to be able to bring angry young women together from the
working class. A number of women and I formed a defense committee
for her. Have you ever read the SCUM Manifesto?
It's hilarious. It was half-ironic. She was a good writer. She
also had a play called Up Your Ass. She just had an instinctive
understanding of words as swords, you might say, and how to put
them together in parody. I used to have a literary agent who's
well known for publishing books by women. She thinks she's an important
feminist, too. She has a doctorate in women's studies and wrote
her dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. Anyway, I sent the manuscript
for Outlaw Woman to her and she said, "I can sell this, and
I can sell it for a lot and really mainstream it, but you've got
to take Valerie Solanas out of there." She was not giving
me advice based on the market, but on her own personal opinion.
She said, "This will give a bad image of feminism to young
women." And I said, "Do you want me to lie? I can't tell
my story about my own feminism if I leave Valerie Solanas out.
That would just be a complete lie." And she said, "Well,
I'm sorry but I can't ethically try to promote this because I disagree
with it so much." What kind of ethics is that – that
she would promote it if it were not true? I think that really tells
me a lot about the mainstream women's movement wanting to disassociate
itself from lower-class, edgy women. In my personal life, I wouldn't
want to have to be in charge of taking care of Valerie Solanas
or other people I've known, including some of my own relatives,
but that doesn't mean that you can't have compassion for what that
person could have been if she hadn't been shoved aside. She was
a lesbian but she became a prostitute for men and was never able
to be openly lesbian. When these things happen to people, the most
sensitive people suffer the worst. People who don't adjust well
to social engineering. These were the people that we should be
speaking to at a younger age. I look at someone like Dorothy Allison,
who was a teenager when we started rabble-rousing, and how she
testifies that it was woman's liberation that saved her life. Here's
a person that was routinely raped by her stepfather for her entire
childhood, and from the time she was about eight years old, lived
in the most horrible conditions. She was the very kind of person
who could have ended up like Valerie Solanas had women's liberation
not been there.
What about the feminist journal No More Fun and Games?
Did that come as soon as Cell 16 formed?
Yes. It was just amazing to me. We met for about three weeks and
in that time decided to publish a journal. Within five weeks of
our first meeting we put out a 90-page journal. We didn't name
it that until the next issue.
At the time, you were confronted by a lot of groups on
the left, including SDS (Students for a Democratic Society),
about their concern that you were fracturing the movement. How
did you respond to that?
That was their view. It was the whole movement, not just SDS,
but the civil rights organizations felt it was too important that
we end the war and end racism and establish a socialist society.
They felt the oppression of American women was nothing compared
to the Vietnamese people's suffering and the oppression of those
fighting in liberation struggles, and of course African Americans
living in ghettos and the suffering of Latinos and Native Americans.
As women, we're always feeling guilty anyway for our social lives
and are always told not to complain about our problems and to be
strong and sacrifice and everything. These were very powerful attacks
that I think were not very helpful. It kind of drew some of us
into much more extreme positions than we would have taken and many
women began taking stands against the left in general. Young women
came in only to see this hostility toward them, mainly from the
left. I think it distorted our movement in a way that the left
hasn't completely taken responsibility for. Instead, people like
Todd Gitlin write that the beautiful movement that existed in the
'60s was ruined by us. They accused blacks of the same thing when
they split off into black nationalist movements in the same way
women had split the beautiful unity that these white boys had built
up. We countered, those of us who remained leftists, that yes,
of course we have to build into our women's liberation movement
the absolute necessity of ending imperialism and racism and maintaining
solidarity with other liberation struggles, but women have to become
full actors and developers of strategy and we needed to be free
from having this foot on our neck, and our souls and bodies being
crushed, if we were to be in this for the long term. This isn't
about just ending the war in Vietnam or winning a liberation movement
somewhere. This was going to take a long, long time. By then I
had lost any hope in the working class in the United States being
able to come together as a working class. I felt that that movement
had been kind of crushed and gutted and that there was such a powerful
mechanism in place to control the 13 percent who were in unions
that we had to go for the workers who were not organized in unions.
These were mostly women, blacks and Latinos in service work who
the unions were not particularly interested in organizing. I don't
think it's ever been resolved. I think women's issues are still
segregated and ghettoized and that if women aren't there to bring
them up, men don't. They're not brought up. We have to be constantly
vigilant. Internationally, the women's movement has grown and become
terribly, terribly important all around the world.
The attacks still go on, not only against the women's
movement, but against any splinter or identity politics. Do you
think that there's any time at which the criticism is valid?
I think on the whole that what the so-called identity politics
and the women's movement did was absolutely essential for the movement
in the United States and that was internationalize it. All of these
are cross-boundary issues, too. It dragged the civil rights movement
out of Democratic Party reform mechanism to identifying with the
fight against apartheid. In particular, that was very important
in the '70s and '80s. It brought the Latino movement into opposing
what happened in Chile or supporting the Cuban Revolution or, later
on, Chiapas. I think the identity movements have been essential
for an imperialist country – not just a nation of immigrants – but
an imperialist country where the less we can identify with the
state and the patriotic gore that surrounds the United States,
the better, the more progressive. I think that so-called identity
politics gives people a grounding with not just being existential
individuals roaming around without an identity. I can do that – almost
any intellectual can – but for masses of people, that's not
very realistic to ask them not to have some kind of grounding,
and I would prefer Mexican Americans identify with Mexico rather
than the US government, or that African Americans identify with
Africa and the struggles there, how can they bring to our future
society in this country an internationalism and a true solidarity
with other people.
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