Phyl­lis Ch­esler Has Some Scores To Set­tle

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By Ju­lia M. Klein Ju­lia M. Klein is the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @Ju­li­aMKlein

A PO­LIT­I­CALLY IN­COR­RECT FEM­I­NIST: CRE­AT­ING A MOVE­MENT WITH BITCHES, LU­NATICS, DYKES, PRODIGIES, WAR­RIORS, AND WON­DER WOMEN

By Phyl­lis Ch­esler

St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $27.99

Women o a cer­tain age will re­mem­ber Phyl­lis Ch­esler’s land­mark book, “Women and Mad­ness.” Her ex­am­i­na­tion of how psy­chi­a­try failed women has never been out of print, as she notes in her new mem­oir, “A Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect Fem­i­nist.”

The -year-old emerita pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and women’s stud­ies at the City Univer­sity of New York has writ­ten on an im­pres­sive range of top­ics, in­clud­ing moth­er­hood, pa­tri­archy, re­li­gious fem­i­nism and women’s re­la­tion­ships to power, money and one an­other. Her ˆ ‰ mem­oir “An Amer­i­can Bride in Kabul” won a Na­tional Jewish Book Award for its riv­et­ing ac­count of how Ch­esler’s mar­riage to an Afghan man be­came a night­mare of im­pris­on­ment and abuse.

Now, Ch­esler has fo­cused her pen­chant for air­ing hard truths at the founders of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism. The re­sult is a score-set­tling, self-con­grat­u­la­tory, idio­syn­cratic and me­an­der­ing mem­oir, al­ter­nately fas­ci­nat­ing and ir­ri­tat­ing, filled with la­cu­nae and laden with TMI.

“This mem­oir isn’t a his­tory of sec­ond­wave fem­i­nism; it’s not even a his­tory of my most im­por­tant fem­i­nist ideas and cam­paigns,” Ch­esler writes. “This is the story of how a daugh­ter of work­ing­poor im­mi­grants came into her own and helped il­lu­mi­nate the path for oth­ers.”

But if in­spi­ra­tion was the goal, “A Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect Fem­i­nist,” scat­ter­shot and an­gry, misses the mark. Far from in­cit­ing pro­gres­sive ac­tion, its tales of sis­terly be­trayal will make any­one con­tem­plat­ing a rev­o­lu­tion, fem­i­nist or oth­er­wise, flinch at the costs in­volved. Ch­esler’s acid-tinged por­traits of her fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies un­der­score the cliché that women can be their own worst en­e­mies. “At­tacks on ta­lented women would haunt our move­ment,” she writes, with­out a trace of irony.

Ch­esler may be an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor — it’s hard to know — but for those of us who’ve lived through the era, her gos­sipy tales have an un­de­ni­able ap­peal. I’m lucky enough to have in­ter­viewed many of the icons praised and skew­ered by Ch­esler, in­clud­ing Betty Friedan (“a rare har­ri­dan con­stantly rag­ing at ev­ery­one”), Kate Mil­lett (“a mad ge­nius”), Glo­ria Steinem (“a tire­less net­worker” and “so damn like­able”) and Erica Jong (“yearned for fame as if it were the Muse it­self”). This was my rev­o­lu­tion — the for­ma­tive event of my for­ma­tive years. In my ˆs, I wrote for Ms. mag­a­zine and helped Bar­bara Sea­man re­search her › bi­og­ra­phy of Jac­que­line Su­sann, “Lovely Me.”

Ch­esler calls Sea­man, who made her name with “The Doc­tors’ Case Against the Pill” ( ¡ ), “the most gen­er­ous and least en­vi­ous fem­i­nist I knew.” Not a high bar, it seems: Ch­esler says she was “stunned, blind­sided” by what she calls “in­com­pre­hen­si­bly vi­cious be­hav­ior among fem­i­nist lead­ers,” in­clud­ing bul­ly­ing and petty jeal­ousies.

Ch­esler char­ac­ter­izes Friedan, whose ¡‰ book “The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” helped launch sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism, as “can­tan­ker­ous, abu­sive, abra­sive, out­ra­geously de­mand­ing — and an outof-con­trol drunk.” She por­trays the an­tipornog­ra­phy ac­tivist An­drea Dworkin, her long­time friend, as “a de­mand­ing, dom­i­neer­ing fig­ure… who was shy and in­se­cure” and who “knew whom to bad­mouth (prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one).”

The bril­liant Mil­lett (“Sex­ual Pol­i­tics”) was in and out of men­tal hos­pi­tals, she writes, and pur­sued Ch­esler with such ag­gres­sive­ness that she “ar­rested my bi­sex­ual evo­lu­tion by a decade.” The ap­par­ently ir­re­sistible mem­oirist re­ports sim­i­lar prob­lems with the les­bian ac­tivist Jill John­ston, against whom she barred her bed­room door.

Ch­esler does her own cred­i­bil­ity no fa­vors by lam­bast­ing an un­named friend who de­clined to re­view her ¡ book “Women, Money and Power” for The New York Times be­cause of their con­nec­tion. Such eth­i­cal fas­tid­i­ous­ness, Ch­esler in­sists, rarely im­peded lit­er­ary men. “Ah, friends,” she sighs.

But the most em­bit­ter­ing in­ci­dent she re­counts was her col­leagues’ re­ac­tions to a rape and cam­paign of sex­ual ha­rass­ment she says was di­rected against her by a U.N. un­der­sec­re­tary gen­eral from Sierra Leone, David­son Ni­col. Ni­col,

Ch­esler isn’t en­tirely sure which story she wants to tell —hers or the move­ment’s.

who died in , was a mar­ried diplo­mat and physi­cian who had hired her to or­ga­nize an in­ter­na­tional fem­i­nist con­fer­ence un­der United Na­tions aus­pices in Oslo, Nor­way.

Just past mid­night on Christ­mas, in  , Ch­esler writes, an ine­bri­ated Ni­col came to her New York apart­ment, “de­clared his love” and, “de­spite my most fe­ro­cious e€orts,” raped her, with her babysit­ter and in­fant son a room away. She says he mo­lested the babysit­ter as well. And when Ch­esler sub­se­quently re­fused to be­come his lover, he cre­ated a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment in New York and Oslo.

With the back­ing of African fem­i­nists, she says, Ch­esler planned on con­fronting Ni­col, but Robin Mor­gan (ed­i­tor of the ‰ an­thol­ogy “Sis­ter­hood Is Pow­er­ful”) talked her out of it. Worse, Mor­gan “spent more and more time with my rapist.” Usurp­ing Ch­esler’s role, Mor­gan edited and wrote a fore­word to the Oslo con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings and later tapped some of its par­tic­i­pants for her ‘ an­thol­ogy, “Sis­ter­hood Is Global.” At home, Ch­esler says, her old friends at Ms. froze her out.

The fail­ure of her fel­low fem­i­nists to sup­port her was more trau­matic than the rape it­self, Ch­esler writes. At Ch­esler’s urg­ing, Glo­ria Steinem hosted a fem­i­nist tri­bunal to re­solve the clash, but Ch­esler says that lit­tle ac­tion re­sulted. Steinem and Mor­gan sac­ri­ficed her, she charges, “to de­fend their brand of fem­i­nism and their con­trol of in­ter­na­tional fem­i­nist net­works.”

One prob­lem with “A Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect Fem­i­nist” is that Ch­esler isn’t en­tirely sure which story she wants to tell — her own or the move­ment’s, which in­ter­sect but are not quite the same.

In the first chap­ter, she de­scribes a fam­ily we would call dys­func­tional: a cold and crit­i­cal mother, a fa­ther who “flew into vi­o­lent rages and beat me with a belt or a fist.” Ch­esler grew up “an out­law, an in­di­vid­u­al­ist, a loner.” Over the years, she en­dured “rou­tine, nor­mal­ized sex­ual ha­rass­ment and mar­i­tal rape, and sub­se­quently rape by a se­ries of boyfriends who could not make com­mit­ments, lied to me about be­ing un­mar­ried, were overly pos­ses­sive, or were sadis­tic women haters.”

Though her dis­as­trous first mar­riage was foun­da­tional to her fem­i­nist out­look, Ch­esler skips quickly through it be­cause she wrote about it in “An Amer­i­can Bride in Kabul.” She de­scribes her sec­ond hus­band as an Is­raeli “pretty boy” who was in­com­pe­tent at earn­ing a liv­ing and dis­in­clined to shoul­der his share of child care. Af­ter she com­plained to his mother, “[h]is rage and vow of vengeance took my breath away.” Once they di­vorced, he es­sen­tially aban­doned their son, caus­ing “tor­ment” and “in­con­ve­nience.”

The book’s most frus­trat­ing omis­sion in­volves Ch­esler’s trans­for­ma­tion from a com­mit­ted (if prone-to-poor-choices) het­ero­sex­ual to a woman with same-sex pro­cliv­i­ties. We learn vir­tu­ally noth­ing about ei­ther her chang­ing pref­er­ences or her fe­male part­ners, apart from their re­luc­tance to co-par­ent with her. “Un­til my mid- ‰s, I lived with men,” she writes. “Then… I con­sciously chose to live only with women. Per­haps, one day, I will write about sex­u­al­ity and iden­tity, eros and moth­er­hood. This is not such a book.” Per­haps it should have been.

JOAN L. ROTH

TRAIL­BLAZER: Ch­esler’s land­mark 1972 book ‘Women and Mad­ness’ has never been out of print.

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