Walking Into The Fire: The Politically Incorrect Phyllis Chesler

Do men and women now treat each other better than they once did? The feminist revolution peeled off the conventions that used to govern relations between the sexes. Yet man-woman relations seem never to have been in worse shape, the exaggerations from the #MeToo movement matched by the vileness of powerful men who’ve targeted vulnerable women.

A New York firefighter once told me that his training required walking into the fire, since it’s easier fought from inside. Walking into the fire is exactly what Phyllis Chesler does in her new memoir, “A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Dykes, Prodigies and Wonder Women.”

We see Chesler walking full-face into the hottest sectors of the movement she helped inaugurate. What was happening in the red-hot center? She takes us there, like a confiding friend, free of pretense or any fear that you could possibly misunderstand. Without claiming to do so, she’s put together a priceless historical record of the American feminist movement in its Second Wave.

Celebrated for her pioneering work, “Women and Madness,” she knew, and fought closely alongside, everybody: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Catherine McKinnon, Robin Morgan, Barbara Seaman, Andrea Dworkin — and that’s just for openers.

“A Politically Incorrect Feminist” reminds us why an advocacy movement for women was needed:

“[At] the psychoanalytic institute where I trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s … we were taught to view the normal female (and human) response to sexual violence, including incest, as a psychiatric illness. We were taught to blame women as seductive or sick. … Women were hysterics, malingerers, childlike, manipulative, either cold or smothering as mothers, and driven to excess by their hormones.”

Even male serial predators were blamed on “the mothers, not the fathers, for having sent them over the edge.”

Although Chesler, who is the professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies Emerita at the City University of New York, holds the unfashionable view that madness is real — not a mere social construct — she saw nonconformity misdiagnosed as mental illness and the diagnosis used to enforce her profession’s distorted view of women.

It was this coercion in medical guise that led her, in 1969, to co-found the Association for Women in Psychology. In a precedent-breaking speech at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, she detailed the ways her profession had failed to help women and “in fact further abused them. … The crowd,” she writes, “went crazy.”

No doubt her hyperbolic demand for a million dollars in reparations, “for the purpose of establishing an alternative to a psychiatric asylum,” did nothing to calm the crowd. Undaunted, Chesler went on to write “Women and Madness,” her book about systemic malpractice in her profession — and to enjoy but also suffer — the international fame it brought her.

She got thousands of letters and calls. The writers were not protesters of any kind. They were just women living the ordinary lives of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They told of vain efforts to defend their own children from sexually abusive fathers.

Letters came from wives threatened with psychiatric confinement if they tried to divorce brutal husbands or get custody of endangered children. If they attempted to flee with their children, they could wind up in prison.

Within psychiatric asylums, women were actually put to work as housemaids for their psychiatrists’ wives! To gain release, they had to mime the docile behaviors deemed “normal” in those days. Some were coerced into concubinage by malpracticing doctors who could free them at will — or subject them to electro-shock therapy or even lobotomy — also at will.

Chesler’s report is morally terrifying.

Yet the movement to liberate women had its own dark side, and Chesler does not try to hide it. In the name of solidarity and anti-elitism, feminists were pressured to publish anonymously: “I learned early on that no one — neither the misogynists nor the allegedly revolutionary feminists — wanted women to be known for accomplishing something. For different reasons, both groups wanted women — or at least women of ideas — to be obliterated.”

When feminists finally got enough power to become opinion-shapers themselves, some were quite capable of using their position to “eliminate other feminists by discrediting and shunning them and by disappearing their work in the eyes of the media, in the histories the victors wrote, and in the films they produced or for which they served as consultants.”

Vivid illustrations are provided and names are not withheld. There was also plagiarism, “justified” because creative work should belong to the movement, not to its creators. Prominent male predators were excused for opportunistic reasons. Some of her examples have reached public consciousness in recent months. One affected Chesler herself, and she tells the full story in her book.

Feminism was many things to many people. It had a spiritual dimension, in which Chesler — the child of an Orthodox Jewish home — played her own part. Movingly, she tells what it was like to be one of the “Women of the Wall,” in their campaign to allow women to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the sacred site now under the control of ultra-Orthodox exclusivists.

Showing us the darks and lights of feminism, Chesler’s is also a loving voice. She ends her story with valedictory obits, of one departed comrade-in-arms after another. There, only the good is remembered.

Perhaps one day — from some yet-to-be-discovered future standpoint — we will have enough distance to look back on the feminist movement, with all its darks and lights, and we too will remember only the good!

This review originally appeared at The Daily Caller, August 14, 2018.