A review of Phyllis Chesler's new book, A Politically Incorrect Feminist
Monday, September 10, 2018
A Politically Incorrect Feminist
No political/social movement can be launched nor hurled forward by the faint-of-hearts. The second wave feminism required no less gumption and fierceness than the first wave. The first-wave feminism—that of the suffragists who won for women the rights to vote and own property—surged with the second wave, which started in the 1960’s and gained momentum in the 1970’s. It sought to broaden women’s rights to equality in family, sexuality and employment and sounded the battle cry for fights in areas unique to women such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, marital rape, paid maternity leave, sexual harassment, affordable child care, and changes in divorce and custody laws.
Paradoxically, civil rights, students’ rights and labor unions often failed to include women within their leadership ranks, nor did they give credence to women’s issues in either their ideologies or policies until feminists fought them internally to be heard and included.
While in this excellent book Phyllis Chesler claims to not have written the history of second wave feminism, she nevertheless does so through her own eyes and personal experiences that were deeply intertwined with the fabric of the movement. She recounts her involvement with almost every aspect of this gut-wrenching years-long struggle, and most importantly, offers an intimate introduction of the many players—their strengths and weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and yes, madness. The battles that raged on the road to women’s liberation were not only against the male hierarchy and dominance of political and social views that held women as childish, given to hormonal fluctuations, and incapable of thinking straight, but also internally. The fire in the belly that fueled feminists’ fervor and made them effective in ultimately achieving many of the movement’s goals burned also in the intensity of their diverse worldviews that often targeted other women. Backstabbing, public shaming, envy and demands for conformity crippled many talented women leaders. Many fell by the wayside, slunk away to lick the wounds inflicted not by their powerful male opponents and their centuries-old beliefs, but rather by their colleagues and fellow Amazonians—often close friends—right inside the movement and in the many organizations that sprouted within it.
Luckily, Phyllis Chesler is one who remained standing through it all, albeit not unscathed. Her personal achievements as a psychologist who confronted the entire industry and forced it to change its perceptions and treatment of women patients is documented not only in this book, but in the astounding success of her ground-breaking book, Women and Madness (a book that was followed by over a dozen other best-sellers, each stepping into arenas no one had ever dared enter before.) Time and again, Chesler paid a personal price when she became the target of envy by those who did not wish to see stars rising within the feminist movement, by those who held the paradoxical idea that for true equality women should not publish over their own bylines (an unimagined demand to be made from male writers,) or by early Lesbians who discredited heterosexual women who chose to marry and become mothers as Chesler did. The reasons for rancor could be many—or any—as Chesler analyzed in her book Women’s Inhumanity to Women, and as I experienced years later in a mini version when I traveled for three weeks with a group of fifty women to the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing: Environmentalists against those who brought plastic forks; blue-collar working women against executives; Lesbians against heterosexuals; non-Jews against Jews; women of color against Caucasians; West Coast women against “Yankees”; health-conscious against coffee-drinkers….
Yes, reading the book reveals that indeed, the movement was created by “bitches, lunatics, prodigies and warriors,” as the subtitle describes. Yet, overall, they were Wonder Women, because they lurched our society forward into the changes of the late 20th century and early 21st century—and to what we are now experiencing as the “third-wave feminism.”
I was younger, yet growing up across the ocean I was unaware of any of these developments when I cultivated my own brand of feminist ideas—and was labeled by some friends “a castrating female.” Later, in New York, when I was drawn into a vicious custody battle, the judge listened to the argument that I should not be allowed to raise my two baby daughters because I had attended a conscious-raising seminar, and as my former marriage counselor—a renowned psychologist—testified against me because I was “a feminist.” At the same time, the judge refused to put into evidence my lawyer’s presentation of the father’s passport proving that he traveled two to three weeks each month. Reading Phyllis Chesler’s book I recalled how, a new immigrant to the USA, I had sought out someone who could explain this. I checked with the local university, where I was studying for my masters’ degree, but in those days of pre- “Women Studies,” which Professor Chesler helped introduce, I couldn’t even articulate what kind of an expert I was looking for. Phyllis Chesler, a psychotherapist and a warrior, and the author of Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody, would have been perfect.
The reluctance of women to acknowledge greatness and give credit to feminists who have paved the way for us continues. Several years ago I proposed to the Women National Book Association to honor Phyllis Chesler, a prolific author of eighteen books that changed the landscape of our society and helped shape for the better the lives of millions of women, to receive the Association’s yearly award. Her candidacy was rejected because she was “too controversial.” Controversial because, as she describes in A Politically Incorrect Feminist she demands that American feminists take a stand against the subjugation and brutality that is the lot of hundreds of million women in Muslim countries. Controversial because her unique research of “honor killing” in Western countries of daughters of Muslim families that shame their families by assimilating into Western culture or dare refuse arranged marriages is perceived as politically incorrect against Islam.
Yes, “the personal is political,” and this book that charts the bravery and valor of so many amazing women has inspired me anew to fight for women’s rights and dignity both at home and abroad.