Phyllis Chesler helped found the women’s movement – but was kicked out for applying its principles to Muslim women.
October 17, 2018 by Bruce Bawer
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.” …
My theory is that a lot of 1969-era feminist rage was private family-based resentment and sibling rivalry turned outward against society as a whole. It’s a pretty sensible ethnic tradition: rather than go public with your family grudges, you make the overall culture feel guilty for somehow causing your anger.
If, say, Donna Zuckerberg, Classics Ph.D., is being driven nuts by her brother Mark’s obsession with Augustus Caesar, well, don’t drag family business into it, explain that the real problem is Roissy and Roosh V.
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. …
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 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.”
That’s probably not all that unusual among intellectual pioneers (e.g., Goedel), but it’s a problem for a movement about Feelings (as Rousseau’s mental health problems were with his pioneering the post-Enlightenment).
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 …