Dohrn, Bernardine Rae

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DOHRN, Bernardine Rae

(b. 12 January 1942 in Chicago, Illinois), prominent civil rights and anti–Vietnam War activist who went in the 1960s from serving as a national leader for Students for a Democratic Society to becoming the best-known member of the radical, violent Weather Underground.

The daughter of lower-middle-class Jewish parents, Dohrn grew up with one sister in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her father worked as an appliance-store credit manager, her mother as a secretary.

After graduating from Whitefish Bay High School in 1959, Dohrn entered Miami University of Ohio but left two years later because of rheumatic fever. Upon recovery Dohrn transferred to the University of Chicago, from which she received a B.A. in 1963. She subsequently spent a few months working in a Chicago ghetto for the Illinois Department of Public Aid and attempted to unionize her fellow caseworkers. Graduate work in history followed, as did advocacy for welfare families as a volunteer with the Welfare Rights Organization. Dohrn earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1964, but disillusionment with academia led her to explore a legal career.

While at the University of Chicago Law School, Dohrn in 1965 joined Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize rent strikes against slumlords and to promote the integration of Chicago's suburbs. At the end of summer in 1966 she joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as an organizer in its community assistance program, Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). After receiving her law degree in 1967, Dohrn moved to New York City to work with the National Lawyer's Guild where, as national student director, she assisted the students involved in the 1968 Columbia University revolt. Dohrn also helped stage Draft Week, one of the first big antiwar demonstrations.

In the late 1960s Dohrn began to develop an awareness of women's issues. Angered when a group of women making a presentation at a 1967 SDS meeting were hooted down by men, she joined with fourteen other women to form a consciousness-raising group that met weekly to discuss their lives. In the next year Dohrn united with Naomi Jaffe to pen "You Got the Look" for the 18 March 1968 New Left Notes, in which they analyzed the impact of mass culture on women's lives and the view of women as sexual objects. But the SDS believed that women's struggles were secondary to the fight against capitalism and imperialism, and Dohrn did not disagree with the New Left on this issue, as many other radical women did.

After Dohrn returned to Chicago in 1968, the SDS elected her national interorganizational secretary, one of the group's top three coequal offices. Standing five feet, five inches, with straight shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes in a round face, the charismatic and self-assured Dohrn quickly became noted for her ability to command attention. With ten other SDS members, she authored a New Left Notes statement entitled "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows" (18 June 1969), which called for a white fighting force to support the black liberation movement. At a national SDS meeting a few days later, Dohrn asked if it was still possible to work with people who did not advocate violence. Supported by most of the delegates, she read an order expelling conservative members from the organization. The survivors became the group Weatherman (the name was later changed to the nonsexist Weather Underground).

Committing itself to armed revolution, Weatherman planned the "Days of Rage," an 8–11 October 1969 protest to coincide with the "Chicago Seven" trial. Days of Rage was expected to feature 25,000 radicals battling with Chicago police. When only a few protestors showed up, Dohrn rallied the Women's Militia to proceed with their plan to attack a draft board. About seventy women listened to Dohrn declare, "A few buckshot wounds, a few pellets, mean we're doing the right thing here," adding that their fear "has to be put up against the hunger, fear, death, and suffering of black, brown, and yellow people all over the world." Dohrn and the others then charged toward the draft board, ran into a police blockade, and were attacked and arrested. She later said of the Chicago violence, "We were determined to carry out an action that would reveal how passionately we felt."

Sparked by rage at the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by Chicago police and by frustration at failing to draw large numbers to Chicago, Dohrn proposed at a December 1969 war council that Weatherman go underground and engage in armed struggle, including bombing government buildings, to liberate whites from capitalism. At this meeting Dohrn also made her notorious speech extolling the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family in Los Angeles. "Manson killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim's stomach! Parents are now gonna tell their kids to stay away from home vacation—they're afraid they'll get offed in their sleep." In later years an embarrassed Dohrn would disavow the remark.

Weatherman's romanticization of violence ended in March 1970, when three of its members blew themselves up with bombs intended for Fort Dix servicemen. Suspecting that she would be arrested at her next court appearance for her association with the dead revolutionaries, Dohrn went into hiding. On 17 March 1970 the first federal indictments for the Days of Rage were released, and Dohrn was among those charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot. Following more indictments, the FBI placed Dohrn on its Most Wanted List. While on the run Dohrn lived in New York City, married fellow Weather leader Bill Ayers, and bore two sons and adopted another. She helped author 1974's Prairie Fire, a summary of Weather history and its plans for the future, then left Weather in 1977 and surfaced in 1980. For her crimes Dohrn received three years' probation and a $1,500 fine. By 2000 she had become a noted advocate for children's rights and a professor of law at Northwestern University.

By deciding that traditional political protest had done little to end the civil rights problems of American society and by advocating guerrilla combat as the solution, the articulate Dohrn became the best-known leader of the most radical of all white-dominated protest groups. Her career reflected the hope of the mid-1960s and the disillusionment of the latter part of the decade.

There is no biography of Dohrn, but she is covered in Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (1970); Ron Chepesiuk, Sixties Radicals, Then and Now: Candid Conversations with Those Who Shaped the Era (1995); Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of theWeather Underground (1997); and Bob Feldman, "Being Left: Years After the 1968 Columbia Revolt; Bob Feldman Interviews Bernardine Dohrn," Zmag (May 1998).

Caryn E. Neumann