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Review: ‘A Politically Incorrect Feminist’ by Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler
Contributed/Joan Roth

I suppose when you have earned your stripes in the trenches of left-wing politics, you are entitled to reveal all.

At age 78, Dr Phyllis Chesler, feminist activist and scholar, does exactly that.

A rebel since birth, this intrepid academic refuses to succumb to the straightjacket of political correctness regardless of how painful the consequences. She is therefore eminently qualified to publish a memoir extolling the virtues and vices of a movement in which she played a pivotal role.

An extensively published author, Chesler’s A Politically Incorrect Feminist is another feather in her arsenal of feminist scholarship. It chronicles the highs and lows of second wave feminism and her place in it, restoring a significant slice of feminist history to its rightful place in the annals of world history: “By now, at least one hundred active pioneer feminists I knew or with whom I worked or whose work brightened my days have died — and with them, an entire universe is gone.”

It is this universe that Chesler inhabited for decades and now preserves with her vast historical memory and incisive wit. More importantly, she restores history to a current generation of feminists, who instead of building on what has gone before, tend to reinvent the wheel: “May this memoir stand against the rank and swelling tide of revisionist feminist history” – a revisionism, in my view, that is frighteningly evident within the anti-intellectual #MeToo Movement that tends to negate decades of feminist victories.

A “tell-all” about key players in the women’s movement, A Politically Incorrect Feminist is as important as it is salaciously risqué. Despite the gravity of their works, the sisters were deeply flawed individuals. Rivalries, jealousies, and self-destruction, so typical of left-wing political movements, are in full display in this semi-autobiography. “Individual petty jealousies and leaderless group bullying were frightening and ugly,” Chesler writes. Intelligent, promiscuous, and often screwed up, the sisters, in brief, were as normal and abnormal as the rest of us. Sadly, many had tragic endings, clamouring for recognition that eluded them until they died.

The magnanimous Chesler restores prominence to some of these disillusioned souls, considered “warriors” and “soldiers”, with love and empathy. But Chesler also inserts herself as a key player in this melee of madness, flawed, but ultimately true to a revolutionary movement that shaped her as much as she shaped it.

Sketching her life as a rebellious Jewish girl, fleeing the strictures of a conservative upbringing, her penchant for books, knowledge, and learning set her apart from many of her peers but also kept her on the straight and narrow. But straight and narrow she was not. Deviating often from the straightjacket of political correctness, Chesler incurred the wrath of her sisters for taking positions that they rejected.

Shaped by the tumultous 1960s, her intellectual quest and negative experiences within academia led her to studying psychology and, briefly, science. Along the way, she had many sexual liaisons with men and partnerships with women, many unfulfilling. Her first love affair was with a man from Afghanistan whom she married and followed to his home in Kabul. Six months later, she fled him and his family home back to the USA.

As searing as that experience was, Chesler continued to pursue happiness rather incautiously. She married again, had a child — and, after her divorce, recklessly went from one liaison to the next with men and women alike while insisting she was as straight as an arrow. But all these experiences inspired her to delve deeper into the pitfalls of marriage, partnerships, and child custody, leading to even more insightful activism and publications.

As much an insider as she was an outsider, her book pays tribute to her peers — some rivals and some forgotten —  who contributed substantially to the struggles advancing women. Yet she never flinches from exposing leading feminists, warts and all, thereby demystifying revered pioneers who were some of the first to pen the oppressions that “had no name.” Their books became part and parcel of feminist theory and university programs across the globe. We taught their works; we worshipped them. So Chesler’s blow-by-blow account of how “the sisters” mounted campaigns around abortion, sexual harassment, rape, pornography, women’s mental health, and women’s rights — sustained by vigorous activism and lawsuits leading to policy reform in many instances – is as exhilarating as it is destabilizing. It was this activism that resulted in tomes of feminist writings and scholarship, central today to women’s studies programmes around the world.

Chesler’s own writings were ground-breaking. One such, Women and Madness, sold over 2 million copies and rocked the foundations of psychiatric care for women in particular, raising the spectre of the flimsy boundaries between doctor and patient. Ostracised by many of her peers for breaking the mould of feminist writings, Chesler nevertheless became the spokeswoman globally for serious psychological issues, such as postpartum depression, eating disorders, antidepressants, and sexuality. Revised and updated since first publication in 1972, the book shows that Chesler is faithful first of all to her discipline rather than to ideology, unperturbed that many of her feminist peers felt that she had crossed the line between loyalty to the movement and disciplinary rigour. Her book nevertheless empowered feminists to grapple with an area of study that was largely taboo.

Despite achieving much, the dark underbelly of the movement regrettably also destroyed some of the gains made by the constant backbiting, bitching, claims of plagiarism, and need for recognition. While all of this madness was integrally interwoven into the momentous struggles that changed the course of history, it did leave some scars: “‘Mean girls’ envied and destroyed excellence and talent; in short, they ate their most gifted leaders. Feminists who had left the LEFT brought with them its tactics of intimidation and interrogation.” She adds: “Many radical lesbians were lesbian supremacists who demanded primacy in terms of victimhood. Some also outed other women in cruel and public ways.”

Names like Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Dale Spender, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, Erica Jong, and Gloria Steinem, amongst many others, are just a few of the familiar figures as she recounts not only their spectacular achievements but also their frailties, foibles, and idiosyncracies as they traversed the vicissitudes of remaining single, married, lesbian, remaining childless, or having children. Fully aware of the lack of homogeneity among women, Chesler often reminded her sisters of the issues faced by women in war-torn and developing countries. Her dramatic cross-cultural marriage opened her eyes to hideous oppressive cultural and religious norms of which western feminists were often oblivious. Engagement with women’s groups outside the country released her from the narrow confines of western feminism, enriching her scholarship enormously.

Despite the differences, Chesler remains loyal to a legacy that wasn’t always loyal to her legacy. That is why she feels compelled to tell “her side of the story” in some poignant chapters recounting her fraught relationships with Ms magazine icon Gloria Steinem and feminist Robin Morgan, who were reluctant to support her in her allegations of rape against a UN official. Thus, A Political Incorrect Feminist is as much a record of second wave feminism as it is about settling scores with some of the sisters, latecomers to feminism, who opportunistically built their personas around the works of others without giving them credit. (Yet Chesler gives them the recognition they craved with citations in their honour towards the end of her book.)

Ultimately, the feminist struggle was greater than the foibles of the very individuals who shaped it. A glimpse of the individuals behind their texts not only honours those forgotten heroes, but also inscribes them into the annals of feminist scholarship as an invaluable resource to academia.

Lest feminism become another casualty of left-wing politics gone off the rails, Chesler comes in as Wonder Woman and saves it, for the next generation and the next, and the next.

Rhoda Kadalie is an academic, former South African Human Rights Commissioner, and columnist.

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