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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Oct 31, 2018 by Paula Boddington

Published by Medium

A Politically Incorrect Feminist by Phyllis Chesler: A Review

‘It’s impossible to convey how excited I was — how excited we all were. While at work at the Brain Research Labs, I somehow heard about a women’s meeting. I rushed out, still wearing my white lab coat. I was on the streets searching for “the women”, as if a group of aliens had suddenly landed on Earth.’

This was in America in the late 1960s. Phyllis Chesler describes the origins of her intense involvement with the second wave feminist movement, work which ‘would come to occupy the rest of our lives’. She continues, ‘all we would be able to claim was the struggle, not the victory’. The book’s title hints much about that sparkling, strenuous, and sometimes sorrowful struggle and the ‘few, we happy few, we band of [sisters]’. Chesler was ‘politically incorrect’ in the eyes of some other feminists, but it’s this political incorrectness that has kept her true to the cause of a feminism based on universal values.

This book is not only of historical and biographical interest; it has significance wider than its direct subject. It’s a jewellery box of things to ponder as we consider the parlous state of contemporary public discussion, the polarised and vindictive nature of many debates. I daresay that many will eye this book for the sometimes staggering tales that Chesler has to tell about what went on among the troops of the second wave feminist movement. Some of these tales are, indeed, truly gobsmacking. But these are ‘heroic historical figures’ bound by ties of real affection. ‘What defines them is the work they did, not their fearful, mortal failings.’

Phyllis Chesler has played an active part in this movement for decades as an academic psychologist, a practising psychotherapist, writer and activist. This includes involvement in the founding of many women’s groups, in causes particular to Jewish women, involvement in some landmark legal cases, and in pioneering the subject of women’s studies (which she tells us, has morphed from what she envisaged). Her work has encompassed unpopular topics — after writing her book About Men she was told she was ‘no longer a feminist’.

Her first major work Women and Madness, published in 1972, sold 3.5 million copies and ‘changed lives’. Others before her had challenged the psychiatric profession. Chesler now demonstrated the profound bias against women within psychiatry. ‘Have you ever tested a woman for mental health and declared her mentally healthy?’ The answer was likely to be ‘no’. Standards of behaviour were set to a male norm. Normal human responses to trauma were pathologized.

It’s the consequences of this work on mental health that I found particularly salutary. Chesler shows an ability to understand nuance that many today seem to have abandoned. She found mental illness to be over-diagnosed, but nonetheless real. And theory has to be applied to practice; reality is generally extremely complex. Her painful accounts of dealing with women suffering from real afflictions, and her recognition of how ideas can become oversimplified, bear testimony to this. Many today would do well to remember such humbling complexity.

Another lesson for today is to retain connections across disagreements. There were spectacular fallouts, painful betrayals, and Chesler even describes some fist fights. But many friendships endured and Chesler writes movingly and with affection about many of these.

Phyllis Chesler once debated the anthropologist Margaret Mead whose task in the debate was to oppose feminism. Mead considered that rape never happens unless a woman has violated a taboo. It’s hard to imagine a greater conflict. Chesler had done much to uncover the dark secret of ‘therapeutic rape’ where psychiatrists and psychotherapists engage sexually with patients; this book contains an account of Chesler’s own rape and consequent betrayal. Yet despite this, Mead and Chesler became ‘friendly colleagues’. Charmingly, when Chesler was heavily pregnant, Mead visited her and was ‘blunt, forceful, and unbelievably kind’. Chesler adds, ‘We may not have agreed about rape, but how blessed I was that such a visible grandmother of our American tribe arrived in person to initiate me into the rites of motherhood’. Yet today how many are shunned for less.

Motherhood as a topic was not top of the list of priorities of many feminists at the time, perhaps understandable when women were yearning to break free from the heavy social expectations of the day. But Chesler saw its importance. For classes in the 1980s on the ethical issues of surrogacy, my students and I read Chesler’s Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M, about the heart-wrenching case of Mary Beth Whitehead. We all puzzled and pondered about one thing, Chesler’s notion that motherhood is a ‘sacred bond’. But today, this demonstrates to me the richness of Chesler’s thought. Although rooted in scientific method and the careful analysis of evidence, her work benefits from having not merely a psychological dimension, but also a spiritual dimension.

This depth of understanding helps to inform how Chesler treats two key questions — the question of the feminist ‘sisterhood’, and the question of history and the intergenerational transmission of ideas. She brings psychological insight into her accounts of the love affairs, the fallings out, and the betrayals, that she catalogues. The yearning for the bonds of sisterhood came at least partly from expecting the feminist movement to do something a political movement could never do, make up for the woundings that many had experienced. But ‘such a sisterhood did not normally exist; it had to be created day by day.’

And if Chesler gives us some painful observations of individuals and groups, she is also generous with her praise, including recognising those many, unknown to history and to the media, who worked tirelessly and at great personal cost to help women in difficult and dangerous circumstances. And although I did find myself wincing at one or two points, I asked myself, ‘Am I expecting Phyllis to be “nice” because she’s a woman?’ Heaven forbid. You don’t get to take on the psychiatric establishment by virtue of ‘niceness’. In this delicate age of hurt feelings, of guilt by association, of character assassination as a way of winning arguments, we need to be toughened up, to be able to take a dose of reality and see the world and its people in the bright light of day.

These women were flawed heroes. But is there any other type? Such infighting is not peculiar to women, despite what some of those who now pour scorn upon anyone remotely feminist might try to say. Chesler’s work has given us some valuable insights into the particular ways in which women’s psychology might work against them; battles tend to be experienced personally. She has examined female conflict in more detail in her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.This might be seen by some as a kick in the teeth to women but it is, in fact, the reverse: a helpful if painful guide on how to acknowledge and address problems. Shulie Firestone even said years later, ‘Phyllis, if only you had written Woman’s Inhumanity to Womanyears earlier. It might have saved our movement.’ Trashing other people marred second wave feminism. ‘The FBI could have saved tax payers’ money by leaving us alone’. A warning to those multitudes who engage in such behaviour today.

Chesler also notes, with a steely realism, how so many of the prominent figures of second wave feminism themselves suffered from serious mental illnesses: Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, and Shulamith Firestone as well as many others. But so, too, do large numbers of men of genius and achievement. Some will doubtless pounce on this material and use it as proof of the craziness of feminist thought. When people grapple with difficult and important issues lots of different ideas are thrown up into the air all at once. Some of these ideas will crash to the ground, some will fly up into the stratosphere, some will self-implode, some will remain in the air, some will multiply. This is how it works, this is how humans think and learn, this is how we are creative. We should celebrate this. It is the unleashing of debate that is of value.

Which brings me back to history, to the intergenerational transmission of ideas, a topic Chesler discusses both in looking back and in looking forward. One startling fact is how those involved at the beginning of second wave feminism knew nothing of their intellectual foremothers, those who had argued similar things before. The work of women is lost over and over again. The same is happening now. Those who now casually decry ‘feminism’ as if it is a monolithic block could do well to pause and consider. The restrictions on women’s lives in the 1950s and 1960s which led to the movement seem to be largely forgotten. Ironically, we can forget them in large measure because of so many of the aims of second wave feminism have been met. Likewise, the great varieties of thought within second wave feminism seem to be frequently overlooked. This book shows us, in colourful snippets, some of the things that sparked the second wave feminist movement. There are comedic miniatures, such as the time Phyllis Chesler’s mother first meets Andrea Dworkin — a treat, especially for those who likewise had mothers who wished we dressed in a more ‘lady-like’ manner. But many other more serious issues are mentioned too. It would be best not to forget.

And what of feminism now? Chesler warns with insight about the dangers of a feminism driven by the demands of media; she is quite reasonably perplexed how a movement that protested the objectification of women’s bodies could end up creating pussy hats and using the hijab as a symbol of liberation. She recognises too how important it is that those who can do so, assist others to achieve. Each generation must do its own work. But as this book makes clear, it would greatly help if they did this in recognition of the people and the ideas that preceded them.

The final chapter contains personal sketches of some of the memorable feminists who have passed away; the last of these is Kate Millett who died only last year. Touchingly, this section is written in the second person, as if a poignant personal letter to a dear departed friend. Perhaps my favourite part of the book comes right at the very end: I have never seen such a long acknowledgements section. I counted over 250 names. Gratitude and recognition are important.

Phyllis Chesler is a towering giant of second wave feminism, who for half a century or so has remained in the battlefield. Critically, she has stuck firm to a universalist vision: ‘we favoured multicultural diversity; we were not multicultural relativists’. This is her third book in a year: the two previous books were Islamic Gender Apartheid: Exposing a Veiled War Against Women, and A Family Conspiracy: Honour Killing. Both require the ability to examine a darkness that most of us would rather not know about, a quality that Chesler brings to so much of her work. And to their eternal shame, most contemporary feminists will not touch these topics with a ten-foot pole.

Bravo, Dr Phyllis.

Paula Boddington is a philosopher and a Senior Research Fellow at Cardiff University. Her most recent book is Towards a Code of Ethics For Artificial Intelligence(2017). She first came across Phyllis Chesler’s work when teaching Feminist Theory in the Philosophy Department at Bristol University in the 1980s.

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