Posted in: Feminism
Published on May 29, 2018 by Eileen F. Toplansky
A Politically Incorrect Feminist
The word memoir comes from the French memoire, meaning "memory" and it is an apt description of Phyllis Chesler's latest book titled A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women. It takes Chesler's readers into her world as she remembers, reminisces, and reflects on her myriad experiences.
As a Jewish immigrant daughter, Chesler saw firsthand the degrading conditions of women in the Muslim Middle East. As one of the leaders during the heady days of mid-20th century feminism she was enthralled by the potential for change, and finally as a scarred and experienced warrior, she recounts the stinging rebukes of people she once called close friends. It is the evolution of a person who revels in a good fight and who understands that courage can come in many different ways including calling out those she once greatly admired. It is also "dedicated to the men who helped," to the "strong and fiery women" and to those who "served the cause of women's freedom."
The granddaughter of a woman who was "hacked to death by Cossacks," Chesler's book is an intimate portrait as she describes her evolution during the 1960s and 1970s when American women learned of feminists who had battled for women's rights in the 18th and 19th century. The fight against sex slavery, wage slavery, and the absence of women's legal, economic, educational, and political rights did not begin in the mid-20th century but few knew of the early feminist battles beginning as far back as the American Revolution with Abigail Adams.
Chesler recounts those feminist icons she bonded with and calls this period "wondrous." Yet it is a distressing revelation when she acknowledges that she was "blindsided and stunned" by the "incomprehensibly vicious behavior among feminist leaders." In 1967, she and others thought women were less aggressive than men, but she had to learn the hard way that some "feminists did not treat each other with respect or compassion." In fact, women can also be sexists.
Based on her diaries, correspondences, and scrapbooks, Chesler shines a light on the strictly Old Country rules in her home which caused her to rebel and break out. Interspersed with these memories are the traumatic recollections of being sexually harassed and assaulted.
Chesler relives the frustrating and anxiety provoking memories because of "constant challenges to her right to hold a formerly male-only job – the daily doses of sexism, scorn, and hostility concerning her professional accomplishments." Yet, she had no choice but to "get used to working in a hostile environment."
It is somewhat shocking to learn that every woman that Chesler knew had had an abortion, and she, too, had two abortions – both as a result of her relationship with the same Afghan man.
Utterly straightforward, Chesler admits that she often "chose men who were incapable of making a commitment."
Falling in love with an Afghanistan Muslim, Chesler married him and was subsequently held captive for five months in 1961 in Kabul. It was here that she witnessed "gender apartheid, polygamy, women in burqas who were forced to sit in the back of the bus, arranged first cousin marriages, child brides and honor killings." This experience crystallized "how things were for women" especially non-Western, tribal women – a "contempt that few Americans are willing to comprehend."
Interspersed with her keen eye is a poignancy reflecting Chesler's loyalty to those who fought the good fight and with whom she clearly has the fondest of memories. The final chapter of her book says goodbye to "sister soldiers, brave and true, near and dear." In fact, at least 100 active pioneer feminists that Chesler knew or whose "work brightened" those exhilarating days have died. They include Dr. Ruby Rohrlich, Andrea Dworkin, Buffie Johnson, Arlene Raven, Barbara Seaman, Jill Johnston, Judy O'Neil, Rivka Haut, and Kate Millett.
As cofounder of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP), Chesler certainly challenged the status quo when she detailed the ways in which "mental health professions had psychiatrically stigmatized women, poorly serving them and totally misunderstanding them."
Chesler describes the painful life for closeted bisexual bohemians in the late 1920s and 1930s. While the word "lesbian" was never said aloud in those days, the feminist movement allowed for the expression of this kind of love – a new and daring part of the feminist movement with liberating results for many marginalized people who still did not have a voice. And Chesler writes of her "noble and steady partner of a quarter century, Susan L. Bender."
Much to her own surprise, Chesler also learned that "women could lead significant and fulfilled lives within religious communities and without paid careers; that feminism has a sacred as well as a secular voice; that not all wisdom is secular, that some people… who are fortified by religion, are able and willing to take on evil."
Spurred by intellectual honesty and abiding curiosity, Chesler wonders if women are responsible for what they do or for what they fail to do if they too are victims? Do women have agency, a moral choice, even if they are being held captive?"
Never one to back down from controversy, Phyllis Chesler is an integral and outspoken free woman. She is very disturbed by the timidity of Western feminists who are "increasingly afraid to criticize" the misogynist violence that is rampant in the Muslim world.
Chesler is quite troubled that Western feminism has morphed into "a diversionary feminism that is also far more invested in blaming the West for the world's misery than in defending Western values." In fact, the "Balkanization of identity that passes for feminism in the 21st century" saddens her.
Readers also learn that "left-wing feminists view reality through the prism of class warfare, oppose capitalism and private enterprise and believe that the ends justify the means."
After being so intimately involved in the second wave of feminism, none of which she recants, Chesler asserts that "something has gone terribly wrong among our thinking classes. The multicultural canon has not led to independent, tolerant, diverse, or objective ways of thinking. On the contrary, it has led to conformity and totalitarian herd thinking."
In contrast, Chesler recounts the 1975 conference in Brussels which opened the world's eyes to the physical abuse of women, female genital mutilation, femicide, rape, forced sterilization, outlawed abortion, the persecution of lesbians, forced motherhood, prostitution, pornography, and the double and triple oppressions of immigrant women and women of color."
Yet 43 years later, Chesler asserts that Western feminists are "afraid to criticize lest they be condemned as colonialists and racists and this fear often trumps their concern for women's human rights globally." It stands in direct contrast to the universalist feminism she helped to pioneer. Multicultural diversity is not supposed to be multicultural relativism.
In an interesting juxtaposition, Chesler paraphrases a speech that Shakespeare gives to King Henry V.
[She] that outlives this day, and comes safe home…
Then will [she] strip [her] sleeve and show [her] scars.
And say, "these wounds I had . . . "
This story shall the good [woman] teach [her children]…
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
This is a book that is sure to educate, irritate, stimulate and illuminate – which is precisely what it is supposed to do. That is why it is so worthwhile.
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