The Hard-Earned Lessons of a Born Maverick

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. 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. The wars over sexuality, pornography, and prostitution were especially fierce. 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. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), bristled at the growing influence of Gloria Steinem and Ms. Women who wrote books were told it was “counter-revolutionary” to publish them under their own names. Nowadays, freethinking may be one of the few bulwarks against the thought police of the left and the proto-fascist lies of the right. Are you a JAP [Jewish American Princess]? The silencers here, however, are not male leaders or rape enablers but women at the height of leadership in the feminist movement. 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. Certainly she has not abandoned feminism, despite the claims of some of her critics. It is against this current that Chesler writes in her authentic, jargon-free voice, telling it like it was, for better and worse. DECEMBER 26, 2018
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. brand of media-propelled feminism. 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. Keeping our minds open, flexible, and informed, at a time when thinking itself is under assault, is absolutely critical. Reading Chesler’s memoir brought back my own days as a feminist activist in Boston. This maverick streak has made many of her books controversial. 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. These betrayals, according to Chesler, were opportunistic moves to gain control of international feminist networks and consolidate the Ms. [… 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. ¤
Miriam Greenspan is a mental health counselor, poet, and writer on women, psychology, and politics.  Political power struggles and infighting are endemic to most progressive social movements. 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. Steinem contributed to the cover-up, promising to support Chesler in confronting her rapist and then reneging on her promise. 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. 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. And freethinkers, by definition, don’t fit into one ideological club or another. 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). 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. Her best-selling 1972 debut book, Women and Madness, was a cultural watershed exposing how male-dominated psychiatry damages women. Where did you grow up, Long Island? She was and remains a pioneer and fighter for the cause, and an eminently shrewd observer of feminism’s ups and downs. 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. 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. 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. Yes, Chesler names names and takes no prisoners. Those who would continue the struggle for social justice would do well to read this book and take its hard-earned lessons to heart. My wonderful memories of sisterly solidarity coexist with painful recollections of betrayal. 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. Chesler’s genius is her refusal to submit to tribalism. 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. 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. 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? 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. 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 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. 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. Rape survivors have all too often been silenced. These dangers are as present today as they were back then — perhaps more so. 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. 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. “Who do you think you are,” they demanded, “taking up more space than the other women on the panel? But tribalism is not just a right-wing phenomenon. 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. 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. 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. magazine. 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. 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? In this context, battles among radical, socialist, and liberal feminists were par for the course. Women running for president of the National Organization for Women needed bodyguards. “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.