He was a descendant of Dou Rong 竇融 and father of Empress Dou 竇后, consort of Emperor Huan 漢桓帝 (r. 146-167 CE). Dou Wu had been a court gentleman (langzhong) before his daughter became empress but was then promoted to the post of commandant of cavalry (ji xiaowei 騎校尉), later he was made Commandant of the City Gates (chengmen xiaowei 城門校尉) and given the title of Marquis of Huaili 槐里侯.
In 167 he submitted a memorial to the emperor speaking if favour to the metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei 司隷校尉) Li Ying 李膺 and the Chamberlain for the Imperial Stud (taipu 太僕) Du Mi 杜密 that had been accused by the eunuch clique as traitors.
When Emperor Huan died, the young Emperor Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-189) mounted the throne. Dou Wu, as brother-in-law of the late Emperor, acted as regent for the infant emperor, together with Chen Fan 陳蕃 as Grand Mentor (taifu 太傅). He was appointed general-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) and made Marquis of Wenxi 聞喜侯. Dou Wu's staff also included Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshuling 尚書令) Yin Xun 尹勛, palace attendant (shizhong 侍中) Liu Yu 劉瑜, Commandant of garrison cavalry (tunji xiaowei 屯騎校尉) Feng Shu 馮述, Li Ying, Du Mi and Liu Meng 劉猛. The imperial decretes were pronounced by Empress Dowager Dou 竇太后, Dou Wu's daughter.
The first victims of Dou Wu's purge were Guan Ba 管霸 and Su Kang 蘇康, palace attendants-in-ordinary (zhongchangshi 中常侍). In 168 Dou Wu and Chen Fan decided to wipe away the eunuch clique. Yet the plot was reveiled, and the chief eunuchs Cao Jie 曹節 and Wang Fu 王甫 seized Emperor Ling and the Empress Dowager and forced them to issue an edict ordering the arrestation of Dou Wu.
A fierce fight broke out between the five brigades of the Northern Army (beijun 北軍) controled by Dou Wu and the metropolitan brigades controled by the eunuchs. Overwhelmed by the enemy, Dou Wu committed suicide. His head was presented on the city hall of the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), all his relatives (except the Empress Dowager) and retainers were executed, and the rest of the Dou family fled to Rinan 日南 (north of modern Vietnam).
This was the first attempt to get rid of the powerful eunuch clique that control the Later Han court. The second attempt was made by He Jin 何進 a few decades later, and the final extinction of the eunuchs could only be finished by the warlord Yuan Shao 袁紹 when the central government of the Han already disintegrated.