How a Feminist Prophet Became an Apostate—An Interview with Dr Phyllis Chesler

How a Feminist Prophet Became an Apostate—An Interview with Dr Phyllis Chesler

Louise Perry
Louise Perry
10 min read

Dr Phyllis Chesler has never been afraid to be unpopular. During 60 years as an academic, feminist campaigner, and psychotherapist, she has frequently courted controversy. Her new memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist, details her experiences as a leader of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States. Readers are introduced to a star cast that includes household names such as Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, as well as women such as Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Mary Daly, and Shulamith Firestone, women who produced influential work that is now often forgotten, or else misremembered by Third Wave feminists keen to distance themselves from their feminist foremothers. But Chesler refuses to be misremembered. She’s here to give her side of the story, and she doesn’t pull her punches.

We spoke over Skype from her home in New York. Chesler in conversation is just the same as Chesler in print: warm and razor-sharp. At the age of 78, she is both a prolific writer and an energetic campaigner. Most of her campaigning interests are concerned with feminism—she has a particular interest in motherhood (she describes herself as a “proud mother and grandmother”) and has published several books on surrogacy and child custody. She is also engaged with politics more broadly, and in recent decades has written extensively on antisemitism and Islamism. Her interests have ranged widely over the course of her career, but she has steadfastly remained a radical feminist—albeit an unorthodox one.

Born into a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1940, she was in precisely the right time and place to be at the centre of the Second Wave. She was part of a generation of women who were teenagers during the stifling 1950s and came of age during the counterculture movement. The high point of the Second Wave was a period of intense creativity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which a relatively small group of (mostly young) women developed an astounding number of new ideas. Some of these became mainstream—for instance, the existence of ‘sexual harassment’ as a distinct category of mistreatment, and the recognition that rape is often committed by intimates rather than strangers. Other radical ideas were never accepted outside of a small circle of dedicated activists, including the legal campaign against pornography made famous by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.

Chesler was immersed in this frenetic activity and has spent the decades since campaigning on a wide range of issues. Although Chesler believes she was never truly accepted in the academy, describing herself and other radicals as “howling hungrily” outside of the mainstream, she has nevertheless published 18 books, spent three decades teaching psychology at American universities, and lectured all over the world. And she has not shied away from provocative debate. In fact, she seems to have revelled in it.

Here follows a non-exhaustive list of people that Chesler has infuriated over the course of her career.

  • Anti-abortion campaigners. In the 1960s she helped women to obtain abortions as part of an ‘underground railroad’ within the United States. Chesler and other activists moved women from house to house to avoid arrest and sympathetic doctors taught feminists to perform illegal abortions themselves. This was a time when women suffered from intense stigma: “Every woman I knew had had an abortion,” writes Chesler, “it was something we didn’t discuss.”
  • The psychotherapeutic establishment. In 1970, Chesler provoked international headlines when she gave a speech at the American Psychological Association convention demanding reparations for women who had been victims of medical malpractice. She went on to write a bestselling book, Women and Madness, detailing the sexism inherent to psychiatry, particularly the abuse of female patients by clinicians. The book went on to sell more than 2.5 million copies and propelled Chesler to fame in the 1970s.
  • The Regressive Left. Since the turn of the century, Chesler has focused on the rise of antisemitism, the demonisation of Israel, and the refusal of progressives to recognise the oppression of women under Islam. Several of her books have tackled this topic head on, and Chesler has predictably been accused of Islamophobia and widely vilified, which has included enduring efforts to no-platform her in recent years.

And here’s another group she has come into conflict with: feminists. In 2002, Chesler published Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, which described the ways in which women perpetrate abuse against other women. Those feminists who clung to a naïve view of feminine virtue accused her of betraying the movement, and a few sought to block publication of the book. Chesler tells me that, when asked by another feminist if she was going to “name names” in detailing misbehaviour in the movement, she laughed and replied that she had no intention of “publishing the phone book.” This response typifies her style—funny and candid, but also rather melancholy.

She is particularly upfront in speaking about the dark side of the feminist movement. This darkness is rooted, she believes, in the dysfunctional ways in which women often relate to one another. Although Chesler used to believe that “all women were kind, caring, maternal, valiant, and noble under siege, and that all men were their oppressors,” she now knows this to be false, as do all except the most starry-eyed feminists. In fact, as she tells me, “women are hugely aggressive—but mainly towards other women. Unlike men, most women have been taught to deny this in themselves and to remain unaware of their own behaviour. Usually, the aggression is ‘indirect’… It consists of spreading gossip about and then socially ostracising a target girl or woman, especially one who is perceived as ‘prettier’ or more talented or simply ‘different’.”

In Politically Incorrect Feminist, Chesler describes the communitarianism found within Second Wave feminist circles as reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: “Many feminists came to believe that feminist ideas and activism belonged to the movement, not to any individual, and especially not to the feminist who did the writing or organised the protest.” Achievements never belonged to a particular woman, but rather to “‘the people, the sisterhood, the boundary-less merging of one with all.” Anyone who defied this dictum was liable to be trashed—that is, bad-mouthed and exiled from the movement. In the 1980s, Chesler interviewed women who had been involved in the Second Wave and many of them spoke about the experience of being trashed, “and then at the end I’d say ‘and did you ever do this to another woman?’” The answer was always ‘no’: “the amnesia was total, the denial was total, because it’s not nice, it’s not ‘good girl’ behaviour.”

To a large extent, this is the sort of behaviour typically found on the Left, and Chesler is keen to stress that interpersonal aggression manifests itself in any revolutionary movement in which a “take-no-prisoners ethos” is at play. Indeed, much of the worst in-fighting was imported directly from the Left, since Chesler believes that some feminists brought with them “its tactics of intimidation and interrogation.”

The difference though is that, unlike men, women tend to take such conflict deeply personally. Chesler diverges from many other feminists in recognising that there are some average psychological differences between men and women. She now feels that her fellow Second Wave activists failed to recognise “that men and women are different in certain ways”—including their resilience in the face of conflict.

Chesler writes that most of the women involved in the Second Wave were “not psychologically prepared for such intense and overt battles, and experienced them personally, not politically—and sometimes as near-death experiences.” These were conflicts that could be “breathtakingly vicious” and eventually served to undermine the movement.

One chapter of Politically Incorrect Feminist deals with a particularly painful truth that Chesler has not previously written about: the high rates of mental illness among Second Wave feminists. Having written so critically of the tendency of doctors to pathologise female emotion, Chesler knows full well that such claims should not be thrown around lightly. When she writes of the madness of some of her fellow feminists, she knows what she’s talking about: “I don’t mean neurotic, difficult, anxious, or eccentric. I mean clinically schizophrenic or manic depressive, suicidal, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or afflicted with a personality disorder.” Her description of Kate Millett’s long-term suffering is particularly shocking. Although Chesler is not averse to acid comments (for instance, quipping that Millet “spoke with a slight British accent—just to make sure you knew that she’d been to Oxford”) she writes of the anguish these women experienced with real feeling. For all of their conflict, the bonds between second wave activists were precious: “we were all lost in a dream,” Chesler writes, but “only now, looking back, do I remember how much of the early years of second-wave feminism was painful.” This memoir serves as a useful rejoinder to any feminist tempted to idealise the past.

One shocking episode that Chesler details in her memoir highlights this with particular clarity. In 1979, Chesler was raped by her then-employer, Davidson Nicol—a senior official at the United Nations and dignitary from Sierra Leone. She tells me that this rape proved to be less traumatic than the subsequent behaviour of her fellow feminists. When Chesler disclosed what had happened to Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem—some of the most powerful women in the movement at the time—they refused to support her in confronting her attacker. Chesler writes that Morgan told her that it would “look bad for feminism” for a “white feminist to charge a black man with rape and sexual harassment,” and that Steinem backed up this decision. Even Andrea Dworkin failed to stand up for her, telling Chesler that in her opinion “accusing a black man would make feminists look like racists.” This, despite the fact that several women of colour were supportive of Chesler’s desire to confront Nicol, particularly given that he was well known to be predatory.

This was a betrayal that hurt Chesler deeply. It is also a betrayal that Steinem has repeated since, infamously supporting Bill Clinton in the face of allegations of predatory behaviour because—her critics suggest—it suited her interests to support the Democratic Party. It seems that there have always been instances of feminists putting political loyalties over personal ones, even from the earliest days of the Second Wave. This is a form of treachery that is by no means unique to the present day.

Chesler and Steinem have since parted ideological company. Steinem became, Chesler believes, over-eager to embrace a brand of feminism that was “less about violence against women and more about racism, prison reform, climate change, foreign ‘occupations,’ and nuclear war.” In recent years, Steinem has also been a close ally of Linda Sarsour, the Women’s March leader who has been accused of acting as an apologist for Sharia law and has made statements widely interpreted as anti-Semitic.

In contrast, Chesler has been strongly critical of Islam and has written a number of books on the abuse of women in Muslim-majority countries. This is partly influenced by her own experiences, detailed in her book An American Bride in Kabul. Aged 20, Chesler married a fellow student and travelled with him back to his native country of Afghanistan. On arrival in Kabul her passport was removed and she spent five months effectively imprisoned in her husband’s family home. There she witnessed what she describes as gender apartheid: “polygamy, purdah, women in burqas who were forced to sit at the back of the bus, arranged first-cousin marriages, child brides, honor killings.” Chesler has no compunction in calling such practices “barbaric.” She almost died of dysentery before eventually being allowed to return home, pregnant and weighing only 90 pounds. She had an illegal abortion.

This is not an experience shared by Chesler’s feminist contemporaries in the United States, and this may in part be why she refuses to conform to the orthodox view of Islam on the Left. As she tells me, “What passes for feminism today, at least in the academy, is faux feminism. It is far more concerned with racism than with sexism and anyone who does not toe this line is called out as a racist. Faux feminism is far more invested in condemning America, the Enlightenment, Western Civilization, Western-only imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism; in condemning truth tellers like Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” As she sees it, feminists who refuse to stand up against the treatment of women in Muslim majority countries are simply lacking in courage: “They’re afraid they’ll be ostracised if they don’t follow the party line.”

Such fears are not without basis. It is the issue of Islam, more than any other, that has attracted controversy for Chesler in recent years. She tells me that she now needs security on campus when she lectures, and that she has been disinvited and from a number of events. Where once she was given front-page coverage in the New York Times, now she cannot get published in the Left-leaning media. Instead she writes for conservative outlets in which she can be certain that her work won’t be “rendered into some ‘politically correct’ form.” Some left-wing feminists told her that they would never read her work because of where it was published, but when she asked them to suggest an alternative platform “they could not do so.” What choice does she have?

Chesler is not optimistic. She speaks of feeling “aghast, heartbroken, outraged” at the state of contemporary feminism and the new threats facing women. She is particularly concerned about abuses within the surrogacy industry and is currently campaigning against proposed legislation that would legalise commercial surrogacy in the state of New York. We also spoke about the transgender movement, which Chesler sees as a progressive obsession which has “totally supplanted all or any remaining interest in biological women’s special woes.”

The issue of prostitution remains no less urgent than it was in the early days of the second wave, and Chesler continues to campaign for abolition.

“Decriminalising prostitution,” she tells me, “is about refusing to understand the extent to which most prostituted women are female children, and children who have been impoverished and raped in childhood and then trafficked by pimps into drug and alcohol addiction, necessary drugs to withstand the killing field that most prostitutes, both male and female, must face.”

She now recognises the naïveté of the Second Wave: “We really believed that we could accomplish a revolution in a decade, certainly within a quarter-century. We did not plan for a future in which we would have to keep on fighting … primarily as unpaid volunteers, even as we aged, became disabled or ill, became poor, became no longer ‘relevant’ … Some of us have lived long enough to see our work disappeared, forgotten, maligned.”

Chesler partly uses her memoir as an opportunity to set the record straight, which sometimes includes airing the movement’s dirty laundry. But the book also reads as an elegy for the women of the second wave, many of whom have now died, sometimes in tragic circumstances. Chesler ends with moving tributes to each of the feminists mentioned in the book. They all believed so sincerely in the righteousness of what they were fighting for, and although the activists of the Second Wave achieved remarkable things, most of their goals have not been realised. Chesler now looks back on their idealism with a note of sadness: “None of us understood that this work would occupy us for the rest of our lives and that all we would be able to claim was the struggle, not the victory.”

ActivismBooksFeminismGloria SteinemIslamrecentSecond Wave FeminismWomen

Louise Perry

Louise Perry is a freelance writer based in the UK.