Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Jihad & Terrorism
Published on Sep 26, 2003 by Molly Mokros
Phyllis Chesler the Radical
Before we even make it up the stairs of her New York brownstone for a light lunch, Phyllis Chesler wants to know if there has been a revolution. It's obviously a rhetorical question, and she's on to how women's reproductive rights are under siege and how even today (after all the work we've done) most choices afforded to women are still savage ones. Like many an unapologetic radical feminist, Chesler does indeed have fire on the tip of her tongue. But make no mistake--this woman is not all talk.
Chesler, an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies, has rallied for human rights across the globe, including in campaigns in the Middle and Far East. Her resume, in its abbreviated form, is 15 pages long—an amalgam of accomplishment in the arena where women's and human's rights coincide, both in and out of academia. She's racked up countless honors and plum guest lecturer appointments and her latest and twelfth book The New Anti-Semitism. The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2003) makes its debut in September 2003.
Chesler, it seems, simply cannot help herself. Hers is a wondrous compulsion to make right what she considers wrong. Driven to produce, provoke and achieve, Chesler prefaces several of her books with statements such as " I had no choice but to write this book," and "I don't want to write this book; I have to write this book." This last one comes at the beginning of her tenth book, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books 2002)—a project that took her 20 years to complete.
The question, then, naturally arises: Is Chesler a reluctant warrior in the battles she so often champions? Not quite. In Woman's Inhumanity to Woman her argument pierces the myths of unassailable solidarity among feminists, a charge even the fiercest and most intrepid of feminist intellectuals would not make lightly. "Sisterhood doesn't exist," says Chesler when asked why she wrote Woman's Inhumanity to Woman –an ambitious survey in psychology, anthropology, evolutionary theory, mythology, and literature and, among other things, personal narrative. "It remains a longing for paradise, an ideal." This is a provocative and perhaps seemingly divisive statement coming from someone who has on her wall a black and white photo of herself with a laughing Gloria Steinam taken at her book party for Women and Madness at Chesler's groundbreaking debut in 1973.
Chesler's grand tour of the "shadow side of female-female relationships" in Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, and the outing of previously hush-hush misogynistic views held by leaders of the women's movement, inspired bitter criticism from some of her closest colleagues. "I was not breaking bread with these women," says Chesler. Hostility towards Woman's Inhumanity to Woman was not tempered even by the polite tolerance oftentimes extended from one colleague to another in the name of progress.
And what of progress regarding feminism itself? "It was so easy then, " says Chesler as she points towards more candid photos taken of her and her comrades in the 1970s. "There were so many of us…there was so much going on." Indeed, the romantic version of the photos shows women with their arms around each other, women in leisurely poses with smiles on their faces, and women engaged in what is presumably sisterly and sophisticated conversation—all in all, it is a picture of women who were shaking up the world, knew it, and were thoroughly enjoying themselves as they did so. "But, being a feminist today is hard," says Chesler. "F is a really bad word."
According to Chesler, one of the lingering difficulties facing the feminist movement today is the very issue that she dropped the ax on in Woman's Inhumanity to Woman. As an active member of the movement since its beginning, Chesler witnessed feminists failing to acknowledge the injury that women were doing to women. Conformity kept their lips sealed. "One's exclusion feels akin to eviction from Eden," wrote Chesler, referring to the fear of what would happen to a woman if she strayed too far from the generally accepted politics of the movement of the day.
In Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Chesler's was a take-no-prisoners approach towards sexist attitudes that some feminists hold. "I'm an abolitionist. It's a killing field. Get rid of the thing itself," she says. Still, the book was not meant to be an act of rebellion for the sake of rebellion, nor was it meant to cast a pessimistic shadow over feminist progress. "Yes," says Chesler getting back to her earlier rhetorical question. "A revolution has occurred." And the revolution, she adds, is not over--it is evolving. Feminism has progressed to the point where women can now look internally at their own problems.
A year after its publication, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman has fared well, ultimately winning what is a blue ribbon prize in Chesler's circles—that is, it is a work that promises to join Women and Madness in becoming an indispensable part of the feminist canon. In the meantime, Chesler unflinchingly continues her march into uncharted territory. In her latest book, The New Anti-Semitism, much as she does in Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Chesler lashes out against those who she says should know better. She argues that intellectuals, visionaries, the politically astute, and feminists alike have cloaked anti-Semitic views in political correctness. "Some feminists are deeply invested in Jew-hatred," she says. "It's become fashionable."
Despite the sometimes-seething tone of the book, Chesler remains hopeful. Her optimism begins with a word she uses a lot throughout lunch—accountability. It is fitting, then, that above Chesler's dining table is a quote by Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing." Chesler has taken the liberty of adding the prefix (wo) to men—proof enough that a good woman's work is never done.
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