Plenty has happened, but what has changed? Dr Megan Rogers interviews an iconic feminist with a unique take, and tales of a remarkable journey that got her there.
Truth comes from the collision of different ideas. The conflict between two mutually inconsistent concepts such as the past and the present plays an essential role in showing us a different perspective. When I began reading Phyllis Chesler’s new book A Politically Incorrect Feminist, and then interviewed her, I hoped to gain some insight into why we need feminism in modern-day Australia. I wasn’t disappointed.
We live in a time obsessed with the power of now, with the belief that too much time spent in the depths of the past can cause depression and that too much focus on the future can generate anxiety. There is logic to this perspective, scientific research even, and certainly if your goal as an individual is the allusive “happiness” touted in so many blogs and shiny-covered books then maybe, and it is a maybe, this type of middle ground will keep you safe from emotional highs and lows.
But if we are constantly constrained in the now, how do we acquire the context required for truth? How do we understand political and social movements that have shaped our reality and the ways in which we can use that knowledge to improve the future? Because even if the power of now is supposed to be applied to an individual’s timeline, the natural result is that there is also less time spent reflecting on our cultural history.
A Politically Incorrect Feminist delivers history and context in spades. But it is also the best kind of tell-all story: surprisingly funny, shockingly candid and always educational, the memoir provides original insight into the second-wave feminist movement. The book also reminds us (or maybe introduces us to the idea) that we spurn the past at our peril, and that if we value our personal present over history we can become trapped in a never-ending cycle of re-creating the wheel rather than standing on the shoulders of lessons already learnt.
And stand on Chesler’s shoulders we should. Talking to the icon is like talking to a Hollywood star. She has a rock and roll presence, she has seen things in her life that most of us will never see and has dedicated her life to women’s rights in a way that most of us will never have the guts to do. Reading Chesler’s memoir in turn feels like reading a who’s who of feminism: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Vivien Gornick, Rita Mae Brown, the list goes on.
One night at a party in Cambridge poet Adrienne Rich walked up to Chesler, “You have revolutionalised mental health for women,” she said. “I have come to pay my respects.”
Chesler’s professional life began in psychology, but later she taught one of the first Women’s Studies classes in the United States and then turned it into a university major; she started early feminist salons and co-founded the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969, the National Women’s Health Network in 1974 and the International Committee for the Women of the Wall in 1989. She has been interviewed by Oprah and was recently profiled in Feminists Who Have Changed America. Chesler is currently an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at City University in New York and is the author of eighteen books, including the landmark feminist classic and New York Times bestseller Women and Madness.
Although A Politically Incorrect Feminist is not technically a history of second-wave feminism, it does in parts read as though Chesler is trying to cement in black type names, dates, locations, stories, homes, and shared experiences that would otherwise be lost. She has illuminated a path for women who would succeed her but, I asked Chesler, do you feel as though this book is also illuminating the path you have travelled yourself, and all those who shared that path with you, so as not to lose that knowledge to darkness? “Yes,” she explains, but…
“not to cement so much as to inscribe on hearts and minds all that has gone before. So much has been lost, so much revisionist feminist history has been written, so few of our earliest and most visionary feminist works have been read or taught in universities. Amazing, isn’t it? As Australian Scholar Dale Spender documented, each generation has had to reinvent the feminist wheel or worse, not knowing of the work others have done, they fail to get history’s wagon rolling again, even by another few inches. Most young feminists have learned a postmodern, postcolonial, Lacan-inspired academic ‘discourse’, which most non-academics cannot understand and which is meant to be incomprehensible.”
Chesler’s book could have gone down the academic path, could have focussed on the rigour of feminist theory rather than the relevance of its action, but thankfully the memoir details the very human side of such an important movement. For example, Chesler explains in the book, that “breathtaking moment when the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace became one that feminists collectively and emphatically exposed and condemned.”
Statements such as this make the reader stop to think about how much has or has not, indeed, changed. Chesler argues that although they “named and condemned sexual violence against women they did not abolish it”. In some ways, she believes, “things have gotten worse in terms of pornography, prostitution, trafficking, grooming gangs, the kidnapping of girls and women by fundamentalist Jihadists”. Still, “most great movements”, she explains, “that have been inspired by humanitarian ideals have not been able to abolish evils such as rape as a weapon of war, genocide, poverty, slavery, or censorship in their times. One is obliged to do the work but not to complete it in one’s lifetime.”
Although she may not see gender equality in her lifetime, Chesler has been an unapologetic and ardent activist. In her memoir she explains that the “price she has paid is all that she has.” When asked how she would describe this price, and about whether she feels as though she has sacrificed her personal happiness for the greater good, Chesler is characteristically clear, “My personal happiness, my joy, resides in my work. The price one pays is being attacked for one’s ideas, having one’s ideas misrepresented, having one’s ideas and activism ‘disappeared,’ losing friends and allies as one rises and becomes more of a public figure, working for below-poverty wages, if even that. As a writer and activist, being demonised for one’s views. In a way, one can measure one’s influence by the power of the resistance to it.”
Indeed the attacks came and still come hard and fast. Chesler has been called a variety of names in her career such as “Islamophobic” and has been accused of having dementia. Although other feminists such as Germaine Greer respond to these kinds of attacks with anger and defensiveness, Chesler is almost jovial. “To the best of my knowledge,” she laughs, “I have never seen an accusation of dementia but I have been accused of man-hating. But your list is far too short! Most independent thinkers, truth tellers, dissidents and feminists are called more than that: strident, man-hating, hysterical, vengeful, traitors, politically incorrect. I have been called all of these names plus ‘Islamophobic’ because I write about violence against women, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim at the hands of their families and culture. Grassroots, tribal, feminist activists of colour praise and use my research on honour killing and honour-based violence – and that is all the confirmation I need.”
Why does she feel so motivated to comment on a culture other than her own? At age 19 Chesler married a man who she met at university, a man who forced her to spend five months as a prisoner in an Afghan harem.
This is why Chesler’s ability to maintain perspective is one of the most endearing and refreshing aspects of her personality. This type of good humour is reflected best in the ways her memoir balances shocking truths with a sense of ecstatic joy. Certainly the most evocative example is when Chesler describes a meeting at which one woman left to go to the bathroom but left the door ajar as she peed because she did not want to miss any of the conversation. When I ask her about this candid description Chesler again laughs her world-weary but generous laugh, “That was me! And thank you, yes that’s how it was.”
Although, Chesler’s true power (and the impact of her books) comes from the way she balances this sense of humour with often unspoken topics. Many young women enjoy her work that concentrates on the sexism of women against women, and the impact of this on feminism.
Chesler believes this subject is still very important and relevant and one that women, especially feminists have been reluctant to acknowledge. “I wrote a chapter about this subject in Letters to a Young Feminist,” she explains (which is being reissued this year, along with Women and Madness and With Child: A Diary of Motherhood). In fact Chesler has written an entire book on the subject, “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.”
Another topic not often welcome in discussions about feminism Chesler broaches is the way in which, in many parts of the world, feminism has been engulfed by a kind of humanism, a fight for equality for all. Chesler argues that rather than a positive change, trying to be everything to everyone dilutes the impact of women’s rights campaigns.
“The cause of women has been disappeared in many ways,” she explains. “Women’s Studies became Gender Studies, which then morphed into LGBTQI Studies. These other populations are rightfully clamouring for justice and understanding but if you are focused on raising half the human race to higher ground, then any diversification of this cause makes it harder to accomplish anything.”
In fact, Chesler argues, there needs to be a simplification of feminism’s definition and goals. “We are so often blinded by what should be and fail to see what is merely possible.” So what merely possible things should we be focussing on as a society? “Idealism and ideologies can and have been dangerous,” she answers. “The idea that we can perfect humanity, perfect society, can turn us ruthless, and megalomaniacal, pretenders to God-like powers that we do not possess. Slow but deep change, evolution, seems safer than endless bloody revolution.”
It is this idea of evolution that I am left with after finishing A Politically Incorrect Feminist: the ways in which we have evolved and have not. Strewn across my desk as I write this article are newspapers littered with accounts of rape, domestic violence and, most tragically, murder.
Sadly we know that these are just the ones that are known of and then reported on. Reading Chesler’s memoir makes me reflect on these accounts and the liberties I enjoy today thanks to second-wave feminism: I can vote, study at university, work in (theoretically) any profession I choose. My daughter’s will experience similar opportunities. Yet, colliding with these freedoms are my experiences of violence from a young age until now, a woman almost 40, experiences that are too raw, personal and shocking to share with strangers in an article.
It is within these contrasting realities that I find the truth, the reason, for me, that we need feminism in our country: what women can do has changed, but what is done to us has not.
Phyllis Chesler’s new book A Politically Incorrect Feminist is on sale now and can be purchased here.
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