In late August of this year, the iconic second wave feminist leader, scholar, psychologist and activist, Dr. Phyllis Chesler released her 17th book. A powerful, riverting and sometimes shocking memoir entitled, “A Politically Incorrect Feminist; Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriros & Wonder Women”–St. Martin’s Press.
Dr. Chesler (An American Bride in Kabul) recounts her experience as a feminist pioneer in this behind-the-scenes look at the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. “I remain forever loyal to that moment in time,” she writes, “that collective awakening that set me free from my former life as a girl.” The book documents the individuals, conversations, and groups that were crucial to the protests, sit-ins, and other events, like the founding of the National Organization for Women, the filing of class action lawsuits to counter discrimination against women in the workplace, and the legalization of abortion, that shaped the movement and, in tandem, Chesler’s own personal awakening to feminism.
The Jewish Voice caught up with Dr. Chesler between a hectic round of media appearances for her new book. She was kind enough to participate in this eye opening interview.
JV: Having been a feminist icon for over 50 years, why did you decide to write this book at this juncture in time? Did the political zeitgeist of the times in which we live inspire you to do so?
PC: A publisher approached me and said that only I could do this, that I must do it—I was seduced, flattered, charmed into taking on this task. I did not relish stepping off the front lines of journalism and scholarship but decided that this was a worthy project. That’s because so much feminist history has been revised, forgotten, “disappeared.” I wanted to re-member and include so many women from that time. I believe that I’ve done so. Also, it is important that younger feminists, both men and women, hear a radical and politically incorrect feminist voice, an abolitionist voice, a feminist who favors neither bikinis nor burqas.
I have always been a politically incorrect feminist, I have held honorable minority opinions on pornography, prostitution, custody, motherhood, surrogacy, and female and male psychology. In the 21st century, I became even more politically incorrect when I wrote about the rising tide of ethnic bigotry towards the Jewish people, the defamation of the state of Israel, the hijacking of Women’s Studies by those more obsessed by the alleged occupation of a country that does not exit (Palestine) than by the occupation of women’s bodies worldwide. I also conducted four studies about honor killing which were embraced by many tribal women of color but viewed as “Islamophobic” by Caucasian feminists who lived relatively safe lives.
JV: In your book, your speak of your Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn and the values that defined your life. Did you draw on these values of championing social justice movements in your work in the feminist movement?
PC: In Boro Park, I joined Hashomer Ha’tzair when I was eight years old. I write about this in this Memoir. I now understand that my personal and rather passionate search for freedom and responsibility, as both a child, then as a woman, ultimately also as a Jew, would not have been possible without some Jewish religious literacy. I was always more drawn to study than to ritual and that is still the case. But what a vast treasure Jewish learning is, what moral and legal gravity, what whimsy, what colorful and amazing interpretations. One can truly sharpen one’s brains and expand one’s soul in Torah study. I love secular study as well but it is different.
But I was also a rebel. The Memoir attests to that fully.
JV: As a founder of the annual Passover feminist seders in the 1970s, can you speak about how the story in the Haggadah of the bondage of Jews in Egypt and their subsequent liberation played a role in the revolutionary liberation of women from the bondage of the systemic patriarchy? Do you feel that women have achieved parity with men in modern Judaic culture?
PC: Women are “al ha derech,” we are on the road out of bondage, away from Egypt, but we are still in the midbar, the wilderness. Women are now Talmud scholars and teachers, Chazans, and rabbis—but women do not earn as much as men do in the Jewish world, nor do women rabbis have congregational positions. Psychologically, people still view God as male and wants a male representative, or intermediary.
I do think that the Passover story is meant for all people for all time. When we began the feminist Seder, it was thrilling, filled with possibility. My particular group did not evolve as much as I would have liked it to do. Eventually, I wanted us to include men as well as women, boys as well as girls, I wanted us not to keep focusing on Miriam (Moses is not included in the Haggadah), or on secular, political, feminist subjects.
Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I spoke just for myself. In any event, after about 18 years, I left the feminist Seder. In the beginning, just as at the beginning of the Second Wave of feminism, we were all in Paradise. Eventually, as the story goes, we found ourselves—at least I did—exiled from Eden and in another place. My Seder continues. I miss it—but I cannot go back. A flaming sword prevents my return….
This Seder began in Israel with a draft of a Haggadah by Naomi Nimrod and E.M. Broner. I hosted and organized our first Seder in my apartment in Manhattan and invited the women who would become core members. I think it fed a great hunger among Jewish women and continues to do so. I am glad to have been a part of this event.
JV: In your previous books such as “Islamic Gender Apartheid: Exposing a Veiled War Against Women” and “A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killing” you offer a detailed account of the daily atrocities that women are subjected to in the Islamic world. In your opinion, how do your account for the fact that your contemporaries in the second wave feminist movement have refused to speak out or take bold actions on the plight of these oppressed women?
PC: Institutionalized feminism has shifted leftward and, like Womens Studies programs, has less and less to do with women’s issues per se. Climate apocalypse, Black Lives Matter, Queer politics, transgender rights, Sharia rights, police brutality against black men, anti-racism, nuclear apocalypse, Jew-hatred and the defamation of Israel (which is not viewed as the racism that it is) —all now define what is seen as feminism.
That—and a great concern with women’s sexual rights and women’s physical appearance. Any one of these issues may be important but where is the activism to keep abortion available? Where are the rape crisis centers and the shelters for battered women? Where are self-defense courses for women? Where is the continual awareness of our early work on sexual harassment and sexual assault? Had it not been disappeared we might not have needed an #Metoo movement or we would have had a continual movement against sexual violence towards women and children.
JV: In your book, you write about a strong undercurrent of endemic anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment amongst leading feminists of the second wave movement. In a movement that was driven by the energy and talents of many Jewish women, do you think that their quest to achieve a universal politically correct posture prevented them from decrying the egregious scourge of anti-Semitism or do you think the second wave movement was hijacked by those who wished to promulgate their own agendas?
PC: I do not write about this in this book. I DO write about it in The New Anti-Semitism and in Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews, 2003-2015. In short, feminism followed the Party Line of the social sciences and humanities, the United Nations, and international human rights organization. They were not independent thinkers, their thinking did not continue to evolve, all, all, fell prey to the forces of postmodernism, post colonialism, and to an obsession with the Israel/Palestine issue as if nothing else in the world mattered but what far less than 1% of the world’s population were doing and thinking. That’s Jews. A drop in the demographic ocean and the obsession with us, on the part of Jews as well as Muslims and Western “progressives” is beyond pathological.
JV: Amongst the panoply of issues that you dedicated yourself to such as women’s health, economic discrimination, domestic violence, establishing rape hotlines and self-defense, birth control, abortion, lesbian rights, child custody rights, class warfare, legal recourse for achieving equal rights in the academic and professional world, among others, what would you say was the most fulfilling and do you feel that despite your efforts women’s lives are still in jeopardy?
PC: Women’s lives world-wide are endangered as never before. Think of the rise of the Khomeini, the Taliban, the Janjaweed, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. and before them, the paramilitary vigilante Jihadists in North Africa. Girls and women are being honor killed for refusing to veil or refusing to marry their first cousins. They are being shot in the head, disfigured by acid, for trying to leave a violent husband or for wanting an education.
Women are relatively safer and more empowered in North America. European political leaders are increasingly women—but civilian women are endangered by immigrants who view women as “fresh kill,” “exposed meat,” especially if they are naked-faced infidels.
Women everywhere, including in factories, offices, human rights organizations, the UN, agricultural fields, religious organizations, and in Hollywood, are daily at risk of being sexually harassed and assaulted. We have only heard about high profile celebrity men. I wonder when and if we will start hearing about foremen in factories, etc.
My focus on motherhood was never taken up as a major feminist issue nor was my/our minority position on surrogacy, prostitution, or pornography.
JV: To say that your book was incredibly candid, totally forthright and chock full of never before told details of your own relationships as well as the idiosyncratic behavior of your colleagues both in a positive and negative sense is an understatement. In what areas do you feel that certain feminists represented a hindrance to the success of the second wave movement and in what areas do you feel that they fostered success?
PC: Like men, women also internalize sexist values. In addition, women are allowed to compete against women, not so much against men although that is surely changing. And guess what? Women are as close to the apes as to the angels. Thus, “mean girl” behavior was pandemic among well-meaning feminists. Women were interrogated, Chinese Communist style, and then bullied and shunned, ostracized for many reasons. Any feminist who published, was more eloquent, had a better analysis or a different analysis was seen as the enemy, as the “man.”
Our ignorance about how previous revolutionary struggles were conducted, how ideologically vicious they were, how many fights took place, hurt us. We took our differences very personally. The failure to acknowledge women’s sexism and cruelty is what set our movement back psychologically. So did the myth that women are superior to men—even as feminists argued that women and men are the same and therefore are entitled to equal treatment.
I was so politically incorrect that I suggested that men and women are different in certain ways—and are still entitled to equal opportunity.
JV: You speak glowingly of some of your colleagues in your book and express great admiration and respect for their work. Can you tell us of the importance in your personal and professional of your female friends and allies and how they helped shape you as a leader, a writer and activist? And how did you influence others?
PC: No woman can survive without having intimate female friends. Two opposite things can be true at once: women can betray each other AND women can depend upon each other. There were so many forgotten heroes who put their shoulder to the wheel of activism, civil rights/class action lawsuits; who founded shelters for battered women, who volunteered for duty and were selfless, dedicated. There were also fiery women, geniuses, champion hair-splitters who wrote absolutely brilliant books. And, there were women who entered previously all-male positions and transformed the professions with feminist ideas.
JV: When you challenged the “group think” of women in the movement, according to your book, you were silenced and shunned. Why do you think your detractors were afraid of what you had to say and why do you think they behaved in such a manner? Can it be attributed to jealousy?
PC: This did not happen. I now, in articles, challenge such “group think.” I was only silenced and shunned when I tried (but failed) to blow the whistle on my rapist at the UN and on the coverup of my rape by a feminist friend and ally—and by those who covered for HER. In addition, as ever, a defamed Israel and Jew-hatred played a role in this UN drama. I would quote directly from chapters 12 and 13 on this.
No, jealousy was not necessarily the motive. It was, rather, a desire for feminist global territory, the expansion of Ms Magazine’s role internationally, and the way in which iconic feminists covered for the sexual assaults of men who were “progressive” on certain women’s issues.
JV: If you could turn the clock back what would you have done differently in the movement in terms of the causes that you fought so hard for? Would it have been possible to establish more unity among liked minded “sisters’? What is your perspective on the future of the feminist movement?
PC: I regret nothing. I might have trusted other feminists a bit less, not expected so very much of other feminists, in short, I wish I had been more realistic, more practical. One cannot establish unity in a revolutionary movement filled with people who have very different needs, views, capacities. Were all Zionists united? Were all communist united? Were all nationalists ever united?
By: Fern Sidman
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