Lori Lowenthal Marcus
To paraphrase the Broadway hit Hamilton: Phyllis Chesler was not only in the room where it happened, she was often the one in the room making it happen. “it” in this case refers to second-wave feminism, and Chesler was at its epicenter. A Politically Feminist: Creating a Movement with B*tches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women (St. Martin’s Press) is the latest of her 18 books. It is a movement’s memoir as well as a personal history.
The first feminist wave, from the 19th to the early 20th century, focused on eliminating legal bars to women’s equality: the legal rights to vote, to own property, and to be admitted to the professions. Even after these victories, however, women were still not secure physically, financially, or intellectually. The balance of power in their relationships with men – in the workplace, in marriage, and in control over reproduction — was wildly unfair.
Chesler’s latest book recounts the war to change all that. It sketches the marches for equal rights, protests against objectification by men, “bra-burnings” (a misnomer), the unheard-of demand that women’s mental health be judged under a female standard, and the sometimes successful wresting of control from the “male patriarchy” over what happens with, to, and by women. Chesler was there, driving and directing many of these campaigns. She chronicles these feminist firsts with a “you are there” immediacy and searing insight into the characters on the stage. Chesler also shows us that, for this revolution as for so many others, the individual ambitions and fears of the movement’s leaders had a tremendous impact on its victories and failures. And a huge impact on Chesler herself.
As a guide to the feminist movement, Chesler was positioned perfectly: intellectually (degrees in literature, graduate work in brain science, and a doctorate in psychology), chronologically (came of age in the late 50s) and geographically (New York City, naturally, the center-of-the-universe) for that wild ride on the Second Wave of Feminism.
Chesler describes the intense bonds her sisters developed as they struggled to shear their shackles, and the creativity with which they sought to replace what they believed were oppressive patriarchal institutions with new, women-centered organizations and ideas. The women joined consciousness-raising groups, wrote women-glorifying, male damning manifestos, and created women-only parallel or even sui generis unions such as the National Organization for Women and the ground-breaking Ms. Magazine. They demanded new paradigms in psychology, and women’s studies courses in colleges, so that history, culture, and the human mind were no longer understood solely through male models. Chesler, co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, and author of the 1972 Women and Madness, herself led the charge on these issues.