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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Politically Incorrect Feminist

Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women

Phyllis Chesler

St. Martin's Press



I’ve written many books but never before have I written a book in this way. The chapters tumbled out all at once; I could barely keep up with them. Stories that belonged at the end of the book demanded my attention even as I was writing about something that took place much earlier.

This book happened just like second-wave feminism did: all at once.

The world had never seen anything like us, and we’d never seen anything like each other. We—who only yesterday had been viewed as cunts, whores, dykes, bitches, witches, and madwomen; we who had been second- and third-class citizens—had suddenly become players in history. The world would never be the same, and neither would we.

* * *

I was born on October 1, 1940, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, exactly ten months after my parents were married.

Like all firstborn Orthodox Jewish girls, I was supposed to be a boy.

In many ways I behaved like a boy. I refused to help my mother with the dishes, I played punchball and stickball and, soon enough, engaged in other kinds of games with boys. Although I was known as a brain, I was also an early-blooming outlaw. I ran away from home when I was five years old and got a job sweeping the floor in the barbershop across the street. The police found me and brought me home.

Only boys, especially boys who wrote, did things like that. They hit the road, walked across America, drank, took drugs, had sex—lots of sex—led expatriate lives, joined the Navy. Nice Jewish girls—nice American girls—were not supposed to do such things. But some of us did.

* * *

I’m a quintessential American—the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.

I’m a Jewish American, heir to a treasured tradition of learning that has survived countless massacres, exiles, and genocides.

I’m a child of the working poor, a “daughter of earth.”

America—and the moment in history at which I was born—meant that I received a first-rate education. Such luck—and hard work—may explain how I became a professor of psychology and women’s studies, the author of seventeen books, and a feminist leader.

On my father’s side, I’m a first-generation American.

I know that my father, Leon, was born in 1912 in Ukraine. He was a child survivor of World War I, the Russian Revolution, a civil war, and pogroms. He never once mentioned any of this. Nothing this important was ever openly discussed. How can I ever piece together his story?

My father named me after the mother he barely knew—my Yiddish name is Perel (Pearl)—a woman hacked to death by Cossacks in her tea shop when my father was only an infant.

My mother was the only member of her family who was born in America—her parents and sisters were born in Poland.

My grandparents never learned to speak English; my mother remained their translator and only caregiver until they died.

* * *

I wrote the first draft of this book as if it were a mural. Every day you could find me perched on my stool as I checked memory against diaries, correspondence, scrapbooks. I could spend weeks reworking a small detail in one corner of the canvas.

I was everywhere at the same time, all over my feminist life: writing about patriarchy in Kabul in 1961; attending a National Organization for Women meeting in 1967; cofounding the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969; demanding a million dollars in reparations for women from the American Psychological Association and pioneering one of the first women’s studies courses in 1970; delivering a keynote speech at the first radical feminist conference on rape in 1971; publishing Women and Madness in 1972.

We pioneers emerged between 1963 and 1973 and took ideas seriously. Some of us were geniuses. Many of us were dangerously intelligent, and most of us were radical thinkers. We did not all think alike. We were champion hairsplitters and disagreed with each other with searing passion.

In our midst was the usual assortment of scoundrels, sadists, bullies, con artists, liars, loners, and incompetents, not to mention the high-functioning psychopaths, schizophrenics, manic depressives, and suicide artists.

I loved them all.

I even began to love myself.

Without a feminist movement I would have had a career but not necessarily a calling; I still would have written my books, but they would have had much smaller audiences and far less impact.

* * *

We knew nothing—absolutely nothing—about our American and European feminist foremothers, even less about non-Western women, including feminists. In Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them (1982), the divine Australian scholar Dale Spender documented how the most remarkable feminist work had been systematically disappeared again and again.

Few of us knew that feminists before us had battled for women’s rights in the Western world in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Feminists had opposed sex slavery, wage slavery, marriage, organized religion, and the absence of women’s legal, economic, educational, and political rights. Their writings were brilliant and fiery—but unknown to each successive generation.

Each generation of feminists had to reinvent the wheel.

Within ten to fifteen years, books by the best minds of my feminist generation were out of print. Within fifteen to twenty years, university professors and their students were largely unfamiliar with most of our work. They took for granted, or regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned, the grueling lawsuits we had brought and our brave activism—if, indeed, they remembered what we had done at all.

In our own lifetimes we became our suffragist grandmothers and shared their dusty, forgotten fate.

But I remember us as we were, and how we will always be: politically and sexually daring, vivid, vivacious, incredibly vibrant.

Some feminists whose ideas inspired me the most may be unknown to you; this is precisely Dale Spender’s point.

I hope that what I’ve written here will draw you closer to their work, that you’ll seek it out and come to know it.

I’ve been close to most of our feminist visionaries and icons. What I’ve written may make you laugh, but it may also shock you. Our feminist pioneers were only mortal; they were as flawed as anyone else—save in their work, which was both extraordinary and overinflated.

* * *

First, we formed a civil rights organization for women: the National Organization for Women, which brought class-action lawsuits and demonstrated against women’s legal, reproductive, political, and economic inequality. For the second time in the twentieth century, women (and some men) crusaded for women’s rights, this time by focusing on hundreds of issues, not only one issue, the vote.

Then we picketed, marched, protested, sat in, and famously took over offices and buildings; helped women obtain illegal abortions; joined consciousness-raising groups; learned about orgasms; condemned incest, rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence; organized speak-outs, crisis hotlines, and shelters for battered women; and came out as lesbians.

Finally, we implemented feminist ideas within our professions and so began a process of transformation that continues to this day.

These were the three mighty tributaries of the second wave. I swam in all three.

Soon, large numbers of women began to integrate previously all-male bastions of power. We became artists, astronauts, business executives, CEOs, clergy, college presidents, composers, construction workers, electricians, firefighters, journalists, judges, lawyers, midlevel managers, physicians, pilots, police officers, politicians, professors, scientists, small-business owners, and soldiers.

* * *

Radical feminist ideas and activism were a bit like LSD. So many women became high at the same time that suddenly the world became psychedelically clear, and all the Lost Girls found ourselves and each other.

This was the first time in my life that I experienced female solidarity based on ideas—and it was wondrous.

And yet.

I had such an idealized view of feminism and feminists that when I began to encounter incomprehensibly vicious behavior among feminist leaders, I was stunned, blindsided.

I had expected so much of other feminists, far too much—perhaps we all did—that when we failed to meet our own high standards, many of us felt betrayed.

And then, when we were really betrayed—slandered, shunned by everyone we knew, our ideas stolen, our authorship denied, our history revised—we had no name for what was happening.

Eventually, we called some of this “trashing,” and it drove away many a good feminist. It never stopped me—nothing ever did—but it took its toll.

This means that my greatest comfort and strength came from doing the work itself—and from knowing that the work touched, changed, and even saved women’s lives.

* * *

This memoir isn’t a history of second-wave feminism; it’s not even a history of my most important feminist ideas and campaigns. This is the story of how a daughter of working-poor immigrants came into her own and helped illuminate the path for others. Here I relate some memories from the war zone, stories that are important to me and that might be of interest to you.

This book isn’t about the generations of feminists who succeeded us. Their stories belong to them.

* * *

Although I’ve been blessed in every way, my life has also been hard. Fighting for freedom—and for the right to be heard—is essential to me, but the price I’ve paid is all that I have. Isn’t this always the case?

I was utterly naive and ill-prepared for the life I was destined to lead. Angels must have watched over me; I can offer no better explanation for why I survived and flourished.

For more than a half century I’ve been a soldier at war. I carry scars; all warriors do. Most of us were felled, daily, both by our opponents and friendly fire.

Despite everything, despite anything, I wouldn’t have missed this revolution, not for love or money. I remain forever loyal to that moment in time, that collective awakening that set me free from my former life as a girl. Allow me to paraphrase the most memorable speech Shakespeare gave King Henry V:

[She] that outlives this day, and comes safe home…,

Then will [she] strip [her] sleeve and show [her] scars.

And say “These wounds I had.…

This story shall the good [woman] teach [her children]

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of [sisters];

For [she] to-day that sheds [her] blood with me

Shall be my [sister]; be [she] ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle [her] condition:

And [gentlewomen everywhere] now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their [humanity] cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us.…

Copyright © 2018 by Phyllis Chesler