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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Jun 19, 2019 by Shulamit Magnus

Written for Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues

A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women Reviewed by Shulamit Magnus


Phyllis Chesler

A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. 304 pp. + 8 pages of plates.

Reviewed by Shulamit S. Magnus

There are figures who define the postwar US feminist movement—people, and institutions they founded, without whom the movement is inconceivable: Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, the Boston Women’s Health Collective and its monumentally influential book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Alice Walker, Germaine Greer, Toni Morrison, Kate Millett, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Adrienne Rich. Phyllis Chesler inarguably is one of these figures, and her new memoir recounts a life lived in passionate and seemingly inexhaustible commitment to “the cause of women’s freedom” (from Chesler’s Dedication to her comrades, authors of deeds both known and “disappeared”), which is as good a definition of “feminism” as any. Chesler seems to have known and interacted with everyone—and it is a long list—who had any role in the movement. And she has something to say about most as she documents feminist activism.

Chesler’s memoir treads lightly on personal details of her life; these are offered to set a framework, but nothing more. The book is not an autobiography—a probing of Self, of why and how Chesler became a feminist. Rather, it is a personal history of second-wave feminism by one of its founders and mavericks, and it is indispensable to anyone who wishes to understand the movement’s issues, ideological struggles, personalities, frustrations, triumphs and ongoing challenges.

Chesler was born in Brooklyn in 1940 to working-class, immigrant, Orthodox Jewish parents who wished their firstborn to be male. She disappointed both in sex and in gender behavior, preferring male-identified activities (ball games, outdoor explorations) to stereotypical female ones (dishwashing, housecleaning). From birth, she was a renegade to convention, the prerequisite for feminist thought and action.

She was also and has remained throughout her life (she is now 78 and still active) irrepressibly curious, passionately committed to justice for women, and driven to follow questions, ideas and conclusions wherever they lead, whether this means confronting powerful establishments—now including feminist establishments—and their wrath, or facing physical danger.

As Chesler puts it in her Introduction, in a very partial listing of her life’s activities:

I was everywhere at the same time . . . all over my feminist life: writing about patriarchy in Kabul in 1961; attending a National Organization for Women meeting in 1967; cofounding the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969; demanding a million dollars in reparations from the American Psychological Association and pioneering one of the first women’s studies courses in 1970; delivering a keynote speech at the first radical feminist conference on rape in 1971; publishing Women and Madness in 1972.

Chesler is driven by women’s collective ignorance of their history and their inability to convey the fruits of their gendered experience to one another and to succeeding generations—a condition patriarchy supports, because it perpetuates women’s oppression. This memoir is a determined antidote to that ignorance and silencing and its consequences. Consciousness, impossible without communication, is a fundamental prerequisite to organized feminism—as those behind women’s consciousness-raising (“CR”) groups in the 1960s and ‘70s understood. With this book, Chesler conveys the story of women’s rise to feminist consciousness and activism in postwar America, in order to record—it is fair to say she is obsessed with memory—and to encourage continued activism.

Defying her parents’ expectations, Chesler escaped Brooklyn and went to Bard College, and she then obtained a Ph.D. in Psychology from the New School for Social Research in 1969. While still an undergraduate, Chesler married a fellow student, a Muslim from Afghanistan, and returned with him to live with his family for over a year, an experience that spurred her already-emerging feminism through her experience of unvarnished, violent patriarchy. Chesler detailed this experience and what she took from it in her book An American Bride in Kabul (2013; winner of a National Jewish Book Award). She wrote:

My kind of feminism was forged in . . . Afghanistan. I [understood] first-hand how deep-seated the hatred of women is in many cultures. I [saw] barbarism that is indigenous, not caused by colonialism, and unlike many other intellectuals and feminists, I don’t try to romanticize or rationalize it.

Chesler began keeping diaries at an early age, a practice that continued throughout her life and is the voluminous basis for this memoir. She was already using the word “patriarchal” as a twenty-year-old, living in captivity in a harem, realizing that “the personal is political” before the popularization of that arch-feminist insight.

The experience sealed her identity not just as a feminist but as an activist, after she managed to flee Afghanistan and return to the US and her formal education.

Chesler is an enormously prolific author, with eighteen books to her name, and some of her works are classics. Among these is her first book, Women and Madness (1972), which sold three million copies. It is a searing indictment of the pathology induced in women by patriarchy, by incest, rape and other abuse, and by women’s mistreatment at the hands of a male-dominated, often misogynistic psychological profession. Chesler demanded damages on behalf of women victimized by the profession and cofounded the Association of Women in Psychology to support women professionals in formulating feminist approaches to diagnosis and treatment—a revision of clinical psychology.

“I’ve been close to most of our feminist visionaries and icons,” Chesler writes, in a statement that defines “second wave” feminism:

First, we formed a civil rights organization for women: the National Organization for Women [NOW], which brought class-action lawsuits and demonstrated against women’s legal, reproductive, political, and economic equality. For the second time in the twentieth century, women (and some men), crusaded for women’s rights, this time by focusing on hundreds of issues, not only . . . the vote.

Then we picketed, marched, protested, sat in . . . took over offices and buildings; helped women obtain illegal abortions; joined consciousness-raising groups; learned about orgasms; condemned incest, rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence; organized speakouts, crisis hotlines, and shelters for battered women; and came out as lesbians.

Finally, we implemented feminist ideas within our professions.

These were the three mighty tributaries of . . . second wave [feminism]. I swam in all three.

Among Chesler’s revelations as she lived her life of feminist activism, one that would become the subject of another classic work, Women’s Inhumanity to Women (2002), was that women in general, and feminists in particular, could be “incomprehensibly vicious.” Rather than learning from their victimization in patriarchy and eschewing appropriation of the ideas and works of other women, denying authorship and history—tactics from which women as a class have suffered from men since the dawn of history—feminists, Chesler discovered, could be jealous, ruthlessly competitive, hierarchical and even sexist. These discoveries were not welcomed in many feminist circles. She recounts numerous instances of such behavior directed at her and at others, behavior that, she says, “drove away many a good feminist. It never stopped me—nothing ever did—but it took its toll.”

On this rather central theme in her memoir, Chesler writes:

Feminism as a philosophy or as a political movement cannot guarantee ethical behavior, nor can it save individual feminists from being undervalued, kicked to the curb, or impoverished. Feminism is a vision in whose service we enlisted. It couldn’t give most of us what we wanted: victory in our lifetime, a lifelong, loving community.

When a human being has been diminished by heartless prejudice . . . and victimized by sexual, physical, economic, and legal violence, she can become disabled, just as veterans of combat and torture victims can. Some such people are able to carry on valorously, but even so, being wounded may leads to fits of weeping, bursts of bad temper, paranoid accusations, and disappearances without notice.

Add to this mix runaway egotism, the ideological demand for uniformity, envy of those perceived to be more talented, and women’s unacknowledged sexism and inhumanity toward other women and you can begin to understand what we were all up against.

Chesler persevered despite treachery and betrayal from quarters least expected, her “greatest comfort” coming from “the work itself, and from knowing that the work touched, changed, and even saved women’s lives.”

There is an aspect of retribution- in-truth-telling that certainly comes out in this book—memoir-writer’s revenge. But when it’s all said, Chesler includes in her Acknowledgements each and every feminist with whom she has interacted—there are hundreds—including those who disagreed with her and treated her and other feminists badly, and those who come off less than flatteringly in her account (“What can I say about Gloria [Steinem]? . . . My generation of feminists needed Susan B. Anthony but we got Mary Tyler Moore”). She concludes: “I refuse to write any one of them out of feminist history.”

Phyllis Chesler is a very Jewish Jew (full disclosure: I have known and worked with her for decades on Jewish women’s right to full religious expression at the Western Wall [the Kotel]). This central fact in her life gets relatively little attention in her memoir. She touches on her deep involvement in women’s struggle for a recognized place in Jewish sacred space, the subject of a book, Women of the Wall (2003), which she edited with her beloved friend and Judaica study partner Rivka Haut. Chesler writes of helping to found the first feminist Passover seder (from which she was eventually driven out by rivalries, as she scathingly relates), but she does not probe her religious odyssey from pantheist feminist to actively engaged Jew, or her transition from straight to lesbian.

Chesler writes of her pathbreaking work on surrogacy and her fervent opposition to it (the subject of her 1988 book Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M), against much criticism from other feminists. Her critique of the practice has become indispensable to any discussion of it. Another pathbreaking effort is Chesler’s advocacy of women, particularly lesbian mothers, in contested custody cases (the subject of her 1986 book Mothers on Trial), and her work on behalf of women’s legal actions against rapists and other abusers, which, as she notes in this memoir, were cases “about gender, class, and race.” Any advance in law or court practices in any of these areas owes greatly to Chesler’s efforts in and out of court.

Chesler does not dwell in her memoir on her efforts to counter contemporary Jew-hatred, in particular that expressed in anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism (the subject of her 2003 book The New Antisemitism, and of innumerable articles and posts on her website: https://phyllis-chesler.com/). In this area, too, she has run up against opposing currents among feminists and those on the left in general.

She touches on her denunciation of misogyny and violence against women in Islamic contexts, very much including established and refugee Muslim communities in western countries: so-called “honor” killings, female genital mutilation, lack of access to legal abortion, “gender apartheid” and the burqa, which Chesler elsewhere terms a “sensory deprivation isolation chamber,” and a “movable prison,” with negative mental health consequences for women. Chesler has no similar objection to Islamic head-covering (the hijab), and she dismisses any claim that her critique of these practices derives from or feeds “Islamophobia” (a phenomenon she tends to dismiss altogether, though not in this book).

Toward the end of her memoir, Chesler touches on the thoroughgoing critique she has made elsewhere (The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom, 2005) of feminists who, in her opinion, excuse Islamic misogyny for fear of being tarred as colonialists and racists, and thereby allow multicultural relativism to become a cover for women’s oppression. She, on the other hand, is a feminist universalist: Some values are fundamental for everyone, everywhere. The full humanity and freedom of women is one of these.

In sadness, Chesler writes toward the end of her memoir:

Western feminism has lost some of its power. It’s now a diversionary feminism that is far more invested in blaming the West for the world’s misery than in defending Western values [one might be forgiven for wondering at this last phrase, since Chesler surely believes that patriarchal suppression of women has been a Western value—a notion, however, which she seems to deny in the rest of this sentence], which has inspired countless liberation movements, including our own feminist revolution.

The Balkanization of identity that passes for feminism in the twenty-first century saddens me. Such Balkanization makes it almost impossible to unite in coalition to fight for issues that may not personally affect all the protestors.

. . .

I did not foresee the extent to which feminists who, philosophically, are universalists, would paradoxically become isolationists. Such timidity (presumably in the service of opposing racism) is perhaps the greatest failing of the feminist establishment.

Concluding, Chesler writes:

I recant none of the visionary ideals of second wave feminism. Rather, as a feminist—not an antifeminist [as some critics have charged], I feel obliged to say that something has gone terribly wrong among our thinking classes. The multi-cultural 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.

Opposition to which, along with fervent defense of Israel, has led to Chesler’s classification and, from some, ostracism, as being on the political right.

Given her determined, open critiques of women, including feminists, and of course of patriarchy in all its manifestations, one can readily see why Chesler chose the title she did for this memoir. “Political correctness,” towing any ideological line, is not in Chesler’s DNA.

This engrossing book, captivatingly written, feels larger than life, an accurate reflection of its author. It is indispensable to understanding feminism and offers insight into a remarkable warrior for women.

Shulamit S. Magnus is Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She specializes in social and cultural change in Jewish modernity and in the history of Jewish women. She is author of several works on the memoirs of Pauline Wengeroff and the recipient of a National Jewish Book Award.

smagnus@oberlin.edu


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