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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Oct 03, 2018 by Shulamit Magnus

Written for Tikkun Magazine


REVIEW by Shulamit Magnus of:


Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder By Phyllis Chesler

St. Martin¹s Press | Hardcover | August 28, 2018 | $27.99

Phyllis Chesler is among a group of women who built and defined postwar feminism in the US, without whom, the movement would not be what it became. This book is a memoir of her life in seemingly endless activism on behalf of “the cause of women’s freedom”— as good a definition of “feminism” as any (from Chesler’s Dedication to her comrades, authors of deeds both known and “disappeared”).

Chesler, born in 1940 to immigrant, working class, Orthodox Jewish parents in Brooklyn, NY, began breaking with convention early. Having disappointed her parents’ wish for a first-born who was male, she continued to forge unconventional paths. As a young child, she preferred childhood activities associated with boys (ball games, explorations outdoors), to those stereotyped female (dish washing, house cleaning). She defied her parents’ expectations and pursued higher education, obtaining her BA at Bard and her Ph.D. in Psychology at the New School for Social Research. While still an undergraduate, Chesler married a fellow student, a Muslim from Afghanistan, and went with him to Kabul to live with his family; 20-years old, she was placed in a harem, subjected to abuse by her mother-in-law, and kept from all intellectual pursuits or physical freedom. The experience, which Chesler details in her book, An American Bride in Kabul (2013; winner of a National Jewish Book Award), solidified the feminism already brewing in her. In the diaries she was already keeping, a practice she continued throughout her life and which yields the voluminous raw material for this memoir, she used the term “patriarchy” to describe what she was experiencing. Chesler managed to escape Afghanistan and return to the US and to her formal education, having received one of an entirely different sort in Kabul—a lesson in the feminist adage not yet popularized, that “the personal is political.” As she notes of her experience:

“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.”

I shall return to that last point.

Back in academia, Chesler experienced what many extremely intelligent, ambitious, creative women did (and still do) as they sought (and seek) higher education and professional attainment: ostensibly open doors, on the one hand, and rank sexism on the other. She describes what, outrageously, remains a current experience of women in academia, as recent revelations have shown: invitations to discuss and further research work, and then being chased around rooms, groped, pressured to appease a male mentor with sex, and being punished for refusal. Although she was brilliantly successful and prolific, far more than most of her colleagues, it took decades for her to get tenure in the City of New York University system, and this, only after petition campaigns. When she made the mistake of acknowledging fatigue while pregnant (in a second marriage), a superior chided her for stepping outside gender roles to be in academia at all.

Chesler is hugely prolific—with (as of this writing) eighteen published books and innumerable articles and papers. Yet she was never purely an academic and certainly, anything but the ivory-tower kind. Chesler combined feminist activism with scholarship from the beginning and indeed, privileged the latter; becoming a living embodiment of a Talmudic dictum she could not have known then, that study is imperative insofar as it leads to action. As Chesler puts it in her Introduction to this memoir, in a very partial summary 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 [Chesler is a co-founder of NOW]; 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.”

There are many reasons that people write memoirs. It is a genre to which women, particularly Jewish women, have come relatively recently (a topic I explore in depth in my work on Pauline Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother). In Chesler’s memor, personal details definitely take a back seat to a life lived in public engagement; they are there but not probed, and some, to which I will return, are not discussed at all. What drives Chesler in this book—a detailed, driven account of the creation of second wave feminism—is not so much recording history for its own sake but the political significance of historical writing and knowledge for women. Women’s ignorance of their history has been and remains a prime tactic by which patriarchy perpetuates itself, preventing communication of gendered experience so that others can benefit from it and from strategies women develop to resist oppression. This lack of communication, of knowledge, horizontally, among women of the same generation, and vertically, to the next generation, condemns each cohort and generation of women to re-invent the wheel of feminist consciousness and stymies any possibility of effective resistance and change.

Chesler is driven by awareness of this dynamic, a condition patriarchy supports because it so effectively 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, which she details, understood very well. With this book, Chesler conveys the story of women’s rise to feminist consciousness and activism in postwar America, in order to record, but absolutely, to encourage continued activism.

“I’ve been close to most of our feminist visionaries and icons,” Chesler writes, and indeed, her memoir is a veritable catalog of all who founded and drove the movement, and of the institutions they founded, of which the following is a very partial list: Betty Friedan; Shulamith Firestone; the Boston Women’s Health Collective and its monumentally influential, Our Bodies, Ourselves; Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine; Susan Brownmiller; Andrea Dworkin; Alice Walker; Germaine Greer; Toni Morrison; Kate Milett; Ti-Grace Atkinson; Adrienne Rich; Bella Abzug.

Chesler defines the “second wave” feminism which has defined her life:

“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 most unpleasant and unwelcome revelations as she forged her feminist path, one which would become subject of another classic work, Women’s Inhumanity to Women, 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 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-- Chesler discovered that feminists could be jealous, ruthlessly competitive, hierarchical, and even sexist, discoveries that were not welcomed in many feminist circles but to which this memoir gives ample testimony. She recounts many instances of such behavior directed at her and at others; behavior she says “drove away many a good feminist. It never stopped me-- nothing ever did—but it took its toll.”

About this dynamic, which members of other oppressed groups, not least, Jews, have also discovered to their dismay, 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.” As Chesler makes clear, activism and solidarity were also affected by individuals with mental illness, sometimes, severe.

Despite treachery and betrayal from quarters least expected, Chesler persevered, 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-- score-keeping-- that certainly comes out in this book—the memoir-writer’s privilege of revenge. But it would be a severe distortion to reduce this book to the caricature of tale-bearing, as one review has already done (talk of score-keeping and revenge). When all is said, Chesler includes in her Acknowledgements each and every feminist with whom she interacted—there are hundreds-- including those who disagreed with and treated her and others 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”). But, true to her overriding purpose in this memoir, she concludes: “I refuse to write any one of them out of feminist history.”

Many of Chesler’s works are classics which have defined fields and spurred profound change. Among these is her first book (with 3 million copies sold), Women and Madness (1972)-- a searing indictment of pathology induced in women by patriarchy, by incest and rape and other abuse, and by women’s mistreatment at the hands of a male-dominated, often-misogynistic psychological profession. Chesler drew dramatic attention (it was covered in the New York Times), to this pathology in the profession by demanding damages for women, and co-founded the Association of Women in Psychology to support women professionals in formulating feminist approaches to diagnosis and treatment—a revision of clinical psychology.

Chesler’s relentless inquisitiveness-allied-to activism led repeatedly to pioneering actions, and books. In her memoir, Chesler writes of her pathbreaking work on surrogacy and her fervent opposition to it (subject of her 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.

Chesler pioneered in advocacy of women, particularly lesbian mothers, in contested custody cases (subject of her book, Mothers on Trial). She pioneered in work on behalf of self-defense by women, including sex-workers, against rapists and other abusers which, as she notes in this memoir, were cases “about gender, class, and race,” since those vulnerable to surrogacy, in sex-work, and by definition, by poverty and skin color, were and of course, still are, disadvantaged in the legal system. Any advance in American law or court practices in any of these areas owes greatly to Chesler’s efforts in and out of court.

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 this 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), that she edited with her beloved friend and Judaica study partner (hevruta), Rivka Haut. Chesler writes of helping to found the first feminist Passover seder (from which she was eventually driven out by rivalries, of which she writes a scathing account), but she does not treat her religious odyssey from pantheist feminist to actively engaged Jew, or her transition from straight to lesbian.

Nor does Chesler dwell in this memoir on her efforts to counter contemporary Jew-hatred, in particular, that expressed in anti-Zionism, or anti-Israel-ism (subject of her 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. As she makes clear in other contexts, she is utterly unapologetic about her positions, ruing only what she sees as ideological blindness to fact and to recurring patterns of victimization, selective evidence, double-standards, implacable bias, and irrational hate evidenced in attitudes to Israel; and her own ostracism from discourse and collaboration with a host of other feminists, associated with positions on the left, who now shun her. And, she believes, pursue other forms of punishment.

No less controversial than Chesler’s Israel advocacy is her denunciation of misogyny and violence against women in Islamic contexts, including in established and refugee Muslim communities in western countries now: the practices of so-called “honor” killings, which are nothing more than culturally justified murder of women who do not accept patriarchal conventions; female genital mutilation; lack of legal abortion; “gender apartheid”; and the burqa, which Chesler elsewhere terms a “sensory deprivation isolation chamber,” and a “movable prison,” with negative and mental health consequences for women. Chesler has no similar objection to Islamic head-covering (the hijab; perhaps because married Orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair), and dismisses any claim that her critiques of these practices derives from or feeds “Islamophobia”-- a phenomenon she tends to dismiss altogether, though not in this book, which devotes relatively little space to her critique of dominant trends in present-day feminism.

Toward the end of her memoir, Chesler does touch on a comprehensive critique she makes fully elsewhere (The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom), of feminists who, in her opinion, excuse Islamic misogyny from fear of being tarred as colonialists and racists, thereby allowing multi-cultural relativism to become a cover for oppression of women. Chesler is a staunch and unapologetic, feminist universalist: some values are fundamental, for everyone, everywhere. The full humanity and freedom of women is one of these. No cultural, religious, or political context that limits this humanity and freedom, to her, has any validity or merits any justification. That is not a dominant position in contemporary feminism, much to her regret. One of the founders of women’s studies in the academy, Chesler rues the overtaking of women’s studies by gender studies, as if concerted attention to the specificity of women’s experience was too much for the academy long to bear.

In sadness, she 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 [my emphasis: one might be forgiven for wondering at this last phrase, since surely Chesler 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 her memoir, 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 on the political right.

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 has been a renegade to convention from birth, the pre-requisite for feminist thought and action. She has remained (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.

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, eschewing controversy if this means violating her convictions, 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 a remarkable warrior for women.

This review was written for Tikkun by:

Shulamit S. Magnus

Professor Emerita
Jewish Studies and History
Oberlin College

Winner, National Jewish Book Award

Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother

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