A Politically Incorrect Feminist
Phyllis Chesler helped found the women's movement – but was kicked out for applying its principles to Muslim women.
Phyllis Chesler’s captivating new memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women, is not a definitive history (it’s not meant to be) but is, rather, an utterly indispensable personal account of her experiences as part of a circle of “pioneers” of the modern women’s movement – some of them “dangerously intelligent,” most of them “radical thinkers,” all of them “champion hairsplitters” who “disagreed with each other with searing passion.” Among the members of this group, as she freely acknowledges, were “scoundrels, sadists, bullies, con artists, liars, loners, and incompetents, not to mention the high-functioning psychopaths, schizophrenics, manic depressives, and suicide artists.” Writes Chesler: “I loved them all.”
From first to last, Chesler has been a New York girl – born in Brooklyn, now (78 years later) resident on the Upper East Side. “Like all firstborn Orthodox Jewish girls,” she dryly informs us, “I was supposed to be a boy.” Chesler bemoans the limited professional options available to American women in the 1950s, and is frank about the frequent instances of sexual abuse and romantic betrayal she experienced in her youth, during which she was, in turn, a secretary, a student at Bard (where the only “gentleman” among the professors was Ralph Ellison), a “copy boy” at the New York Post, a waitress at that uptown diner later made famous by Seinfeld, a welfare investigator, a scientific researcher, and, ultimately, a budding psychologist, writer, and activist.
Then she found feminism. It answered a deep need. At first she bought the party line that “women were more compassionate and less aggressive than men”; eventually she came to recognize otherwise and ceased romanticizing the sisterhood. (See her 2002 book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.) “Women did not always treat each other kindly,” she now writes. “Only now, half a century later, do I understand that women in groups tend to demand uniformity, conformity, shoulder-to-shoulder nonhierarchical sisterhood – one in which no one is more rewarded than anyone else.”
Another difference between her and other leading feminists of her generation is that at a very early age she married a Muslim fellow student who swept her off her feet, flew her to Afghanistan, and held her captive there for several months (an experience recounted in her harrowing 2013 memoir An American Bride in Kabul). So unlike some feminists, she’s known all her adult life what a truly brutal patriarchy looks like – and has always been aware that America, whatever its faults, is “an exceptional country.”
Yet another difference: she was never a Marxist. Some of her feminist comrades “believed that a central committee should assess all written work about the movement and that this work should never be signed.” When she landed a big book contract, they ganged up on her and explained that if she didn’t publish the book anonymously it “would mean that I was a counterrevolutionary egotist and not serious about sacrificing myself for the revolution.” She wasn’t buying it. These women’s mentality, she writes, “allowed me to see the extent to which the Chinese Cultural Revolution had infiltrated feminist America.”
In the eyes of some of her consoeurs, then, Chesler wasn’t an ideal feminist. Yet no one could doubt her dedication. She joined consciousness-raising groups. She forged friendships with everybody who was anybody – Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Bella Abzug, Erica Jong, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, Susan Sontag, Robin Morgan, and dozens more. Cofounding the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969, she challenged the psychological establishment’s misunderstanding and mistreatment of female patients. Her investigations into this subject led to a massive bestseller, Women and Madness (1972).
She also helped pioneer Women’s Studies. “This,” she points out, “was long before Women’s Studies morphed into Gender Studies, which in turn morphed into LGBTQI studies and became a postcolonial and postmodern enterprise.” Chesler didn’t want Women’s Studies to be the ideological ghetto it has become; instead, she envisioned a serious scholarly program that would be integrated into existing academic departments. In addition, at a time when “most women knew almost nothing about their bodies” and when their legitimate medical complaints were often dismissed by male doctors as the result of “nerves,” she cofounded the National Women’s Health Network. Want more? She was at the meeting at which the idea for Ms. magazine was hatched. She even had a jailhouse tête-à-tête with Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer of Monster fame, who asked Chesler to help write her autobiography.
Chesler offers up plenty of juicy gossip about the sisterhood. Steinem had stage fright and kept asking Chesler “to help her learn how to express anger.” Friedan, “cantankerous, abusive, abrasive,” and “an out-of-control drunk,” resented Steinem’s fame, considered her “a lightweight people-pleaser” and “copycat,” and even accused her “of being a CIA agent.” Friedan didn’t get along with Abzug, either, because, as Chesler amusingly puts it, they were both “hot Jewish tamale[s].” Millett came on to Chesler, “telling me she was in love with me,” and wouldn’t take no for an answer, barraging her with flowers and phone messages. Chesler met Sontag when the latter was already a literary intellectual superstar, but Chesler found her “naive.” The journalist Jill Johnston, “a lesbian Pied Piper” whom “Dykes followed…everywhere,” asked Chesler: “Don’t you think the Jews are taking over our movement?….There are so many loud and pushy Jewish feminists in New York.”
In this book, Chesler admits something she’s never admitted before, barely even to herself: namely, “the extent to which so many of the most charismatic and original of feminist thinkers were mentally ill.” She also tells an agonizing story about how some of the very women who stridently instructed the world that “sisterhood is powerful” utterly failed to stand up for Chesler, their bosom buddy, when she was raped by a man who, for reasons that were entirely reprehensible, they preferred not to call out.
But what really turned most of Chesler’s longtime cronies against her was her post-9⁄11 criticism of the systematic Islamic subordination of women, as exemplified by polygamy, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and the hijab, niqab, and burka – topics on which Chesler has become a world-class expert. In the view of today’s feminist establishment, she learned, denouncing the “brown man” for what he does to the “brown woman” simply isn’t done: it’s racism, pure and simple. This disgraceful and pusillanimous attitude, needless to say, reflects the ultimate failure of a movement that, as Chesler herself laments, has been poisoned by multiculturalism and mired in “conformity and totalitarian herd thinking.”
Once, many years ago, Chesler debated Margaret Mead, who opposed the feminist movement and who actually “insisted that women deserve to be raped” because rapes never occur unless the victims “have violated a taboo.” On this and other points, Mead and Chesler disagreed ardently. Onstage at the debate, however, Mead was impressed by her opponent: “You, young woman, are obviously brilliant,” said the famed anthropologist, who would end up becoming a friend (and something of a mother figure) to Chesler. “But how many more are there like you in that movement of yours?”
Alas, not many. Chesler wouldn’t say it, but I will: one thing that sets her apart from her fellow second-generation feminist pioneers, to whom (despite their latter-day differences) she pays affectionate tribute in this volume, is that she’s always been a lot smarter than most of them. She’s also been a hell of a lot more honest – about, among other things, the flaws and foibles of women and of the movement she helped found. What’s more, she’s never been a man-hater or an enemy of religion. And (no small matter) she has a selfless heart.
Finally, as she’s proved in spades in recent years, she’s braver than any of them ever was, braver, perhaps, than all of them put together – willing to peel off from the pack and go it alone, in sickness and in health, fueled by sheer dogged rock-solid principle, when she discovered that her sisters, for all their talk of storming the patriarchy, didn’t dare join her in taking on that most patriarchal of all institutions, Islam, in defense of vulnerable women far less privileged than themselves.