Posted in: Feminism
Published on May 01, 2019 by Susan G. Cole
Cover Story: Woman on Trial, Phyllis Chesler Recalled in Memoir
Her newest memoir is a fascinating read, not only because it name-checks just about every famous American feminist who ever existed, but because it also gives serious credit to the behind-the-scenes dedicated activists that many have never even heard of.
The world has changed dramatically since the groundbreaking book Women and Madness hit store shelves in 1972. But the book’s author, Phyllis Chesler? Not so much. She’s still a scrappy, in-your-face political contrarian. You can tell by the title of her entertaining memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women. The book traces Chesler’s Orthodox Jewish roots in Brooklyn, New York, to her traumatic first marriage in 1961, during which she lived with her Muslim husband in Kabul, Afghanistan, and was prohibited from leaving the country, through to her impassioned activism in feminism’s second wave, and beyond.
After contracting hepatitis, Chesler did manage to leave Afghanistan and return to the United States. In 1969, she obtained her PhD in psychology from New York’s New School of Social Research. A Politically Incorrect Feminist recounts her early struggles for validation in academia. Chesler writes about the 1968 protest of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, Georgia, during which symbols of female oppression (though not bras) were burned in the infamous “freedom trash can.” The protest against the beauty pageant—dubbed a “meat market” by the protesters—was one of the first feminist protests of the modern women’s movement to garner national media attention.
Chesler taught one of the first women’s studies courses offered in North America, at the College of Staten Island in 1969. She was also involved in the early days of the National Organization of Women and witnessed many of the organization’s internal struggles, including those regarding lesbian visibility (she supported it). She also stood at the forefront of the movement to end violence against women. Over the past 50 years, Chesler, now 78, has written 18 influential books on topics ranging from women’s mental health to surrogacy and women’s right to fight abusive fathers for child custody.
Her newest memoir is a fascinating read, not only because it name-checks just about every famous American feminist who ever existed, but because it also gives serious credit to the behind-the-scenes dedicated activists that many have never even heard of. It’s also a warts-and-all assessment of her own friendships, marriages, personal development as an activist and a testament to the perils of being famous.
According to Chesler, it was inevitable that she would be labeled “politically incorrect.”
“People who think independently will always be seen as politically incorrect in one way or another," says Chesler in a phone interview from her home in Manhattan.
“I thought I was quite politically correct,” says the author in our interview. “But I represent an honourable history of second-wave feminists who, from the beginning, ran into trouble. Inside the movement, we all agreed on [what to do about] sexual assault and women battering. But I opposed pornography and prostitution before it was neutralized and called sexual trafficking.”
In the early 1980s, Chesler was an active supporter of women seeking to gain custody of their children in order to protect them from fathers who were physically or sexually abusive. Her research, involving more than 100 mothers in the United States and other countries, culminated in the 1986 book Mothers On Trial. The book was endorsed on the back cover by the most notable feminists of the time—Gloria Steinem, Ntozake Shange, Marge Piercy, Shere Hite, Andrea Dworkin and Kate Millet. Yet Dworkin recalls that at first, the topic did not captivate her sisters in the movement.
“It took feminists a while to come on board. It was considered quite retro. Feminists were fighting for the right to abortion and having children wasn’t a priority,” claims Chesler, who, despite her deep influence on the women’s movement, views herself as something of an outsider.
“Then, when I took a position on surrogacy [she wrote Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M. after a New Jersey Supreme Court ruled surrogacy contracts violated New Jersey law], I was attacked for being against adoption when I was not.”
Says Chesler, “I was seen as heartless, and against gay male couples who couldn’t have designer gene babies. But I was arguing against the commercialization of surrogacy. Surrogate mothers were poor, desperate, often found in foreign countries, sometimes in brothels.”
It was Chesler’s book Women and Madness that set her writing and lecture career in motion. Deeply researched and written with uncommon passion, the book tracked the way doctors routinely pathologized women as everything from depressed to psychotic, plying them with drugs, administering electro-shock therapies and imprisoning them in hospitals. In fact, argued Chesler, women had every right to be angry and every reason to lash out against a society that restricted their movements and their rights. Most women were not, she insisted, crazy at all.
It was a radical argument that created a groundswell of activism, some of which, says Chesler, in a rare moment of reconsideration, may have gone too far. She was not, she says, arguing that every troubled response to the world was a political response, or, that there is no such thing as mental health conditions that warrant treatment.
“I had to deal with mental liberation movement types. Understandably, their anger was so strong after being institutionalized and mistreated—they hated doctors, drugs and anything related to mental health…. But if you care about someone living or dying, or if you care about easing suffering, you should use all the resources available to you. But the ‘politically correct’ position was no drugs, no hospitals, no doctors.”
Turning to the current American feminist situation, I asked Chesler why, after 40 years of feminists talking, writing, organizing and establishing feminist shelters and rape crisis centres to fight violence against women, the #MeToo movement has taken off only recently. Feminist ideas and history, she believes, have been buried.
“This current moment did not happen sooner because there was no awareness that we had held rape speak-outs and conferences and helped pass laws. [Historian] Dale Spender [Women of Ideas and What Men have Done to Them] talked about the systematic disappearance of feminist knowledge, which I saw happening to the best minds of our generation by 1980—if not sooner.”
And yet, even as the #MeToo movement continues to grow, Chesler is not entirely impressed with the current surge in sexual harassment and sexual assault callouts.
“I first called the #MeToo movement a digitally empowered moment, so suffused with celebrity or star worship, it was as if no one else existed. When the Hollywood women came forward, it was as if our culture’s goddesses were speaking. But what about others all around the world? I don’t know what redress women have in India and Africa.”
More recently, Chesler has written about “honour killings,” a practice in which women accused of acting outside of the bounds of strict religious dictates—mostly in Muslim-dominated countries—are faced with being killed by male family members. Chesler believes that honour killings differ from Western domestic femicide because, while perpetrators of domestic murder are regarded as criminals in the West, she does not believe the same stigma applies to honour killings. While some dissident Muslim women have supported Chesler, she says that her views further cemented her politically incorrect status.
“I’ve done four studies on honour killings, and women of colour from tribal lands are using my work, and submitting affidavits asking for asylum on the grounds that women will be killed if they have to return to their homes. I think this is feminist work, but it’s seen as racist even though there are Sikhs and Hindus involved.”
My interview with Chesler took place on the same day that some of the sexual assault charges against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were dropped. A communication between Weinstein and one his accusers emerged that suggested that she had been a consensual sex partner. When I grumble that Weinstein probably believes that all his sex-in-exchange-for-career-assistance arrangements were consensual, Chesler adds that women don’t necessarily have a free choice when the playing field is not equal.
“If it’s about … money or the part in a movie—that’s a lousy bargain.”
Chesler has always been an individualist. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is disappointed with the current women’s movement, which she believes does not tolerate diversity and is bent on ideological conformity. Identity politics don’t help, from her standpoint.
“If I’m only who I sleep with,” argues Chesler, whose personal history is bisexual, “then I can’t make political alliance with someone who sleeps with someone else. I can only work with people of colour if I’m a person of colour. But like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. I learned the hard way that if people say they’re religious or anti-religious or gay or anti-gay, that doesn’t tell me how they’re going to behave.”
Chesler also believes there is a chance Donald Trump could be elected for a second term.
“I’ve learned to be very realistic,” she says. “But I’m prepared to continue battling no matter what happens.”
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