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The Hard-Earned Lessons of a Born Maverick
Miriam Greenspan writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books
In A Politically Incorrect Feminist, Phyllis Chesler vividly recounts the glory days of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, of which she was a prominent leader. Her memoir captures the movement’s visionary vitality, creativity, and “massive euphoria,” the zeitgeist of an era characterized by new words (sexual harassment, empowerment), new institutions (women’s centers, rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters), new laws (legalized abortion), and a vibrant feminist counterculture. Chesler nostalgically honors the indefatigable feminist activists, thinkers, and leaders she knew and worked with, including Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Barbara Seaman, Gloria Steinem, and numerous others she names in her acknowledgments. “We were soldiers brave and true,” she writes; “we were friends, near and dear.”
At the same time, she painstakingly documents the movement’s dark underbelly: the tyrannies of political correctness, the backstabbing power struggles, the internalized sexism and “horizontal hostility” of feminists who, failing to take down patriarchy, often took each other down instead. Women who wrote books were told it was “counter-revolutionary” to publish them under their own names. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), bristled at the growing influence of Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine. Women running for president of the National Organization for Women needed bodyguards. According to Chesler, radical feminists were “eating their leaders, destroying their own best”; this, she claims, “was ultimately the psychological reason our mass radical movement ground to a halt.”
Chesler knows whereof she speaks. She was and remains a pioneer and fighter for the cause, and an eminently shrewd observer of feminism’s ups and downs. Her best-selling 1972 debut book, Women and Madness, was a cultural watershed exposing how male-dominated psychiatry damages women. As author, professor, psychotherapist, scholar, public speaker, expert witness, and social activist, Chesler gave a voice to the vulnerable, including psychiatric patients, mothers deprived of child custody, and abused and prostituted women. She co-founded the Association for Women in Psychology and the National Women’s Health Network, taught one of the first Women’s Studies courses, keynoted the first Radical Feminist Speak-Out on Rape, served as consultant to the UN, and much more. She has authored 18 books, all of them eye-openers.
The biggest bombshell in a book replete with many is Chesler’s account of being raped in 1980 by her boss, a prominent UN official, and subsequently silenced by two iconic feminist leaders, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem. Morgan, says Chesler, insisted that confronting her rapist “would make the American feminist movement look racist” because he was a black man from Sierra Leone. Morgan instead made common cause with the attacker, elbowing Chesler out of the book that would emerge from the UN women’s conference in Oslo that Chesler herself had organized. Steinem contributed to the cover-up, promising to support Chesler in confronting her rapist and then reneging on her promise. These betrayals, according to Chesler, were opportunistic moves to gain control of international feminist networks and consolidate the Ms. brand of media-propelled feminism.
Yes, Chesler names names and takes no prisoners. Those who prefer not to air dirty tribal laundry in public may be inclined to decry her account or claim that there are larger issues that take precedence over one woman’s rape. Rape survivors have all too often been silenced. The silencers here, however, are not male leaders or rape enablers but women at the height of leadership in the feminist movement.
Reading Chesler’s memoir brought back my own days as a feminist activist in Boston. My wonderful memories of sisterly solidarity coexist with painful recollections of betrayal. I remember being raked over the coals by the staff of a radical feminist psychology program for speaking for 10 minutes (three over the designated seven) on a panel called What is Feminist Therapy? “Who do you think you are,” they demanded, “taking up more space than the other women on the panel? Are you a JAP [Jewish American Princess]? Where did you grow up, Long Island? What is your class background?”
My sisters backed off when they found out that I was born in a refugee camp after the Holocaust, that I grew up in the South Bronx, and that my father made hats for a living. But the combination of aggressive, McCarthy-style intimidation and frank antisemitism — ferreting out my class and ethnic background in an attempt to discredit my feminist credentials — alerted me, early on, to the dangers of hyper-zealous political correctness and groupthink. These dangers are as present today as they were back then — perhaps more so.
Political power struggles and infighting are endemic to most progressive social movements. The New Left, originally a broad umbrella for social activists in the student, antiwar, and civil rights movements, joined by newly awakened feminists, black power advocates, old-fashioned socialists and anarchists, nascent environmentalists, and Yippie-style cultural warriors, gradually fragmented into increasingly hostile ideological camps dominated by rigid identity politics and PC conformity. In this context, battles among radical, socialist, and liberal feminists were par for the course. The wars over sexuality, pornography, and prostitution were especially fierce. Some of this was principled discussion, but at their worst our fights were not so much attempts to find the truth as to get everyone to think the same way.
When followers give up their capacity to think for themselves, a herd mentality can become a threat, not just to social justice movements but to democracy itself. Unthinking tribalism has become a defining feature of our era, fueled from the top by Trump, with his demagogic appeals to racist, misogynist, and xenophobic currents in the populace. But tribalism is not just a right-wing phenomenon. It is present also in the left-wing PC police who inhibit and silence dissent on campuses and make it difficult to have a rational discussion about hot-button issues such as racism, transgender identity, violence against women in Islamic countries, the politics of Israel/Palestine, and so on, without being shouted down, shunned, and even subjected to death threats.
In the culture of balkanized fundamentalisms in which we currently live, Chesler’s critique of the feminist movement she helped build is both brave and painfully relevant. Internecine squabbles within the Democratic Party and among progressive camps are undermining the unity necessary to forge a mass movement for social, economic, racial, and gender justice to stem the rising tide of proto-fascism in the United States. The refusal to critique one’s own “side” is ultimately self-defeating because, without understanding our own propensity for darkness, we are destined to lose our way.
It is against this current that Chesler writes in her authentic, jargon-free voice, telling it like it was, for better and worse. She is a born maverick whose mind seems to be preternaturally oriented to uncovering and contemplating the dark recesses of the human psyche and the body politic. Her experience of captivity as a young bride in Afghanistan became the seedbed for her understanding of the global plight of women as one of violently enforced subjugation. In a presentation at the 1970 meeting of the American Psychological Association, Chesler threw away her research paper and instead demanded one million dollars in “reparations” to female patients for the harm inflicted by male psychiatrists.
This maverick streak has made many of her books controversial. The New Anti-Semitism (2003), Chesler’s analysis of how Western intellectuals, academics, and progressives demonize Israel, has rendered her terminally politically incorrect, as has her extensive research on Islamic misogyny, a topic she explores in The Death of Feminism (2005). She accuses the woman’s movement of devolving into a relativistic “multiculturalism” that has turned its back on the universal, global oppression of women, maintaining a concerted silence regarding the plight of women in the Islamic world. Chesler has zero tolerance for feminists who label any critique of Islamic purdah and “honor” killing as racist Western “cultural domination.”
One would be hard-pressed to pigeonhole Chesler into a political “camp.” Is she left-wing or right-wing? Certainly she has not abandoned feminism, despite the claims of some of her critics. I may not agree with all of Chesler’s political views, but I know this: she’s as passionate a freethinking feminist as she ever was. And freethinkers, by definition, don’t fit into one ideological club or another.
Nowadays, freethinking may be one of the few bulwarks against the thought police of the left and the proto-fascist lies of the right. Keeping our minds open, flexible, and informed, at a time when thinking itself is under assault, is absolutely critical. In the words of Rebecca Solnit:
Some of us are purely tribal — our loyalty is to our family, posse, gang, political party, identity group, no matter what. [… For] others among us […] our primary loyalty is to values and truth, and we will repudiate or tell harsh truths about even people we love if they violate those values.
Chesler’s genius is her refusal to submit to tribalism. In recounting harsh truths about feminist leaders, whom she takes to task for promulgating herd thinking or abandoning their values for the sake of political expediency, she shows how even the most progressive social justice movements can sometimes betray their own best ideals. Her memoir is a cautionary tale for today’s social activists, who tend to be largely ignorant of the disappeared history of the woman’s movement and are thus repeating some of its mistakes. Those who would continue the struggle for social justice would do well to read this book and take its hard-earned lessons to heart.