Phyllis Chesler is a second-wave feminist icon and pioneer. Her new book, A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women, published by St. Martin’s Press, is a memoir that takes us inside the feminist movement of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and up to today. Chesler was front and center as an activist, professor, writer, and intellectual. She protested, marched, organized speakouts and helped create battered women’s shelters. Chesler’s memoir tantalizes the reader with intimate and revealing stories of prominent figures, such as Gloria Steinem, with often complicated lives. Riveting and sometimes downright salacious stories of her interactions with key individuals and groups in the movement for social change make this book hard to put down.
Chesler takes us through her childhood and teenage years in 1950’s America. She describes the “prohibitions” and “injustices” experienced by girls including sexual harassment and rape pre the #MeToo movement. She describes feminist meetings at famous coffee houses in NYC’s Greenwich Village and bohemian literary hangouts where poets, novelists, and activists gathered. Her movement through multiple and diverse circles including feminist, psychoanalytic, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and pagan provides for a whirlwind of experiences and perspectives. She recounts these experiences as a woman who has been through it all and is not ashamed to share.
Chesler’s describes her wide and deep activism, from taking on fights in support of women embroiled in custody battles with abusive ex partners to advocating for Jewish women’s religious rights as an original member of the Women of the Wall. Chesler details cases of poor women of color who killed their male rapists in self-defense. These are often unknown but essential to understanding the history of violence against women and legal precedent, including the right to use deadly force against a rapist. Chesler relates very personal experiences with gender apartheid in Afghanistan, her struggles as a single mother, personal betrayals by other feminists, and the costs of fighting for justice.
Chesler does not pull any punches in describing the good, the bad and the ugly including infighting, betrayals, mental illness, and personal politics. She describes the sexism experienced both inside and outside the movement for women’s justice. This sometimes meant enduring personal betrayals whereby close associates sacrificed feminist principles for the sake of their brand; where racial politics trumped gendered injustices. One of these betrayals which cut deep involves Chesler’s account of being raped by a United Nations undersecretary general, who was a Black man, and the subsequent responses of notable feminist friends and colleagues who felt that confronting him would make the American feminist movement look racist. The struggles of being a pioneer meant enduring disappointments when feminist colleagues didn’t treat each other well and the internalized sexism that women must intentionally resist to maintain strength. Chesler recounts a lifetime of achievements within a movement composed of real people, some of whom have been idealized by the movement.
Chesler provides touching tributes to leading feminists, many of whom were close associates and friends, including Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett, Barbara Seaman, and Rivka Haut. One rarely gets a glimpse inside the world of such powerhouses. These second-wave feminist bravely took on a myriad of human rights causes and sometimes paid a deadly price in terms of health, security and livelihood. She also describes international travels where she lectured, debated and met with formidable intellectuals, activists and artists, with all of their quirks and eccentricities. Chesler describes a very human voyage that does not always go as planned, whereby even the most resilient sometimes succumb to the whims and cruelties of life.
Chesler takes us on a journey with many unexpected turns. She reveals the dirt behind the curtain imploring us to be critical about what is presented as truth. She knows that fighting for justice requires integrity and a moral compass as she describes a “feminism without borders.” She critiques a politically correct feminism which silences criticism of indignities and injustices no matter where they exist or who is the perpetrator. She decries current day “multicultural relativists” who are resistant to calling out sexism when perpetuated by poor or people of color and herd-like thinking amongst journalists and academics.
There are many lessons to be learned from reading A Politically Incorrect Feminist as the challenges of the past are present today. Chesler implores today’s feminists to not forget the struggles and progress of her generation and those of previous generations. She reminds us that much of what is taken for granted today was not even considered fifty or sixty years ago.
Chesler has led and continues to lead an exciting life. This icon has given the reader the gift of sharing much of it with us.