A powerful and revealing memoir about the pioneers of modern-day feminism
Phyllis Chesler was a pioneer of Second Wave Feminism. Chesler and the women who came out swinging between 1972-1975 integrated the want ads, brought class action lawsuits on behalf of economic discrimination, opened rape crisis lines and shelters for battered women, held marches and sit-ins for abortion and equal rights, famously took over offices and buildings, and pioneered high profile Speak-outs. They began the first-ever national and international public conversations about birth control and abortion, sexual harassment, violence against women, female orgasm, and a woman’s right to kill in self-defense.
Now, Chesler has juicy stories to tell. The feminist movement has changed over the years, but Chesler knew some of its first pioneers, including Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Flo Kennedy, and Andrea Dworkin. These women were fierce forces of nature, smoldering figures of sin and soul, rock stars and action heroes in real life. Some had been viewed as whores, witches, and madwomen, but were changing the world and becoming major players in history. In A Politically Incorrect Feminist, Chesler gets chatty while introducing the reader to some of feminism's major players and world-changers.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
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Growing Up as a Girl in America
A Brooklyn Reverie
My first decade on Earth, the 1940s, was quite different from that of those who were born after 1960. We had no television, no computers, no internet, no video games. Books mattered. We always had homework to do. When it rained, we played Monopoly, checkers, or cards.
I began reading when I was about two-and-a-half years old. In the summer of my third year I attended the Peter Pan Nursery School on Ocean Parkway. When it was time for our afternoon nap, I refused to lie down. I said: "My father is paying good money for me to come here and learn. I don't want to sleep. I can sleep at home." This story became family lore.
My mother took me to the public library on McDonald Avenue; trolleys were still plying their darkened routes under the Brooklyn elevated trains. I loved the hushed nature of the book-filled rooms at the library. I wrote:
I haunt the public library. I love to read, I read all the time; the more I read, the more the world beyond my childhood beckons, twinkling. In books, anything is possible. Books save me, but they also exact their price. I jump ship, and leave my family behind when I am very young. I have since come to understand that absolutely no other family can ever become mine. A very American kind of heartbreak/success story.
Many years later, as a professor, I assigned Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez to my students. Like him, I understood that when a first-generation American takes to books and receives a formal education, she is doomed to leave her less literate, less fortunate family members behind forever.
My mother never praised me. When I received a 90 or a 95 on a test, she said: "This only proves you can do better." Perhaps she was a genius in terms of preparing a girl child for a life of intellectual achievement.
My mother preferred her sons to her daughter. Becoming the mother of sons had redeemed her, especially because her own mother produced only girls. This preference for sons was just how things were; it was nothing personal. Most girls of my generation would say something similar. Also, a daughter meant trouble — especially if you couldn't break her spirit. If she was rebellious, the rest of the family blamed her mother.
Like the queen of England, my mother kept her feelings to herself; she did not wear her emotions on her sleeve. She never hugged or kissed me — or anyone else, for that matter. Although she never shouted "Off with their heads!" she was really the Queen of Hearts: she criticized me constantly, yelled at me a lot, hit me sometimes, and always threatened to turn me over to my father for more serious discipline.
My mother had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but her parents forbade this as a frivolous and irreverent activity. She had to fight to attend college, and although she won that battle, she was forced to quit after a year to support her invalid, aging parents. "These obligations matter more than anything else," she explained without a trace of self-pity.
Oh, what a disappointment I must have been to her! I couldn't wait to leave home. Or perhaps she just transferred all her thwarted ambition to me and therefore had to disapprove of me.
In 1998, after she died, I found that she had carefully preserved clippings about each of my books. Because she chose to live frugally, she was able to leave me some money. I was surprised, grateful, and filled with respect for her.
My father was more of a bon vivant; he kissed me, hugged me, praised me, listened to me. True, he also flew into violent rages and beat me with his belt or his fists. Once he gave me a black eye and I had to lie about how I'd gotten it. My parents believed that physical punishment and harsh words were how to socialize a child.
My father was up and out of the house when it was still dark, but he always came home for an early dinner. He was a seltzer man. Selling seltzer was a family business on my mother's side. He carried heavy cases of seltzer, soda, and Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup up and down endless flights of stairs so that I could one day attend college.
We never went hungry. On the contrary, we were continually overfed, but I wore hand-me-down clothing and attended a camp for underprivileged youth. I also attended a series of public schools, but it was at a time when these schools were great and anything seemed possible.
In my case, being a first-generation American in the 1940s meant that none of my maternal relatives was a middle-class professional or had access to such exalted circles. We had no lawyers, doctors, professors, or accountants in our family. No one visited museums, attended classical music concerts, or held any political or intellectual opinions.
I'm not suggesting that my older-generation relatives were stupid — that is far from true — only that they could not read English and were not formally educated. No one was cultured in either secular or religious terms. Having crossed the vast, deep sea, they washed ashore exhausted and focused all their energies on surviving. That monumental task took all they had.
In many ways I grew up in a small village in the nineteenth century. My parents were home every night. They sometimes fought fiercely with each other and with their children. They never mentioned divorce. No one we knew was divorced.
My mother, her sisters, and all their friends worked at home, doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundry, ironing, and holiday preparations; they also took children to and from doctors, dentists, lessons, and school — and still prepared three meals a day.
The only women I ever met who worked outside the home were the dental hygienist, the pediatrician's receptionist (who was also his wife), and saleswomen, in shops usually owned by their husbands. The school nurses and my public-school teachers were women, but I never thought of them as "career women."
Other than actresses, singers, and dancers, these were my only role models.
Adult social life consisted of observing Jewish holidays, attending weddings and funerals, and visiting friends and relatives. My mother rarely smiled; she sometimes did so when her friends came over for coffee and cake on a Saturday night. (They visited too seldom.) I am now far older than they were then, yet I still think of them as forever older than me. Back then, parents looked like grandparents and grandparents looked ancient. People thought they were old at forty.
Seventy-seven years later, I'm revisiting my childhood, perhaps for the last time. I have always focused on the humiliations and prohibitions, the injustices routinely visited upon a girl child. Now I'm trying to see things more evenhandedly.
My parents sacrificed themselves completely in order to give their children every necessity. We were all they had; we were everything to them. My mother always knew exactly where I was — and I always knew where she was, too, either by my side or in the next room. I felt I was always under hostile surveillance. But now, when I compare my childhood with the lives of children without parents, I'm ashamed of my ingratitude. My parents made sure I was fed, housed, clothed, medically attended to, and educated, and that my life was safe and secure.
I saw no future for myself there. My departure was inevitable, but I lost so much in my headlong flight toward freedom. As one always does.
An American Teenager
There is no way to convey what being a teenager in 1950s America was like.
I may have grown up in America, but I was veiled — physically, psychologically, sexually, politically, and intellectually. For a teenage girl in those years, living in the United States was like living in a fundamentalist country.
Women wore hats, gloves, and girdles, and they expected their daughters to one day do likewise. At night I slept on pink plastic rollers to give my hair body. Becoming proper meant embracing discomfort at an early age. I remember cinching my waist with a wide belt and wearing two crinolines beneath a gray felt skirt that featured a poodle with rhinestone eyes.
The rules in my house were strictly Old Country. I was not allowed to wear pants, shave my legs, or pierce my ears. I had early curfews. Even so, my parents always interrogated me about where I'd been and what I'd done. I was treated like a criminal. I seethed. I burned with resentment.
My parents may have prized education, even for girls, but they valued obedience and chastity even more. However, they never discussed sex with me. Human anatomy remained a complete mystery.
I was boy crazy. In school and on the block I was known as a brain but also as a tramp — simply because I'd developed breasts and was just as curious about them as the boys were. Oh, I wanted it all, just like the guys — that is, the human beings — did.
My generation of white girls came into our sexuality as we danced to the music of predominantly black male groups — the Penguins' "Earth Angel," the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'." In 1956, I sang along with Elvis ("the Pelvis"), who sounded black, to "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love me Tender," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," and "Don't Be Cruel."
My parents did not understand me at all. Although I was boy crazy, I was still studying the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, writing poetry, reading Freud and Shakespeare, and delivering monologues from plays by George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder at the Henry Street Playhouse.
I discovered Birdland, the jazz club on Broadway near West Fifty-second Street. No man ever harassed me there. They were either high, already with a lady friend, engrossed in the spellbinding music, or not looking for trouble; as a result, they didn't bother underage chicks. Birdland boasted an area for teenagers where no alcohol was served.
I always had a job after school; my family needed the money. I worked from the time I was about thirteen, doing whatever paid: clerical work at my Hebrew school, receptionist/assistant for a dentist and a plumber, selling toys at Macy's. During college I waited tables as part of my financial aid package. On winter and summer breaks I worked as a waitress and as a camp counselor.
I have traumatic memories of being sexually harassed by one male employer after another when I was a teenager and when I worked as a waitress in Greenwich Village.
Imagine the effect upon me, upon all of us, when the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace became one that feminists collectively and emphatically exposed and condemned. It was a breathtaking moment — we could literally breathe for the first time since early childhood.
We also had our Harvey Weinstein moments — as well as our Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, and Tariq Ramadan moments — and we were on fire about it for the first time in our lives. We each had many sexual harassers and rapists in our lives. They were not necessarily men who were celebrities or whose names were known. However, all our analyses, published works, and lawsuits against sexual harassers and rapists never abolished the behavior that women still continue to suffer.
If one woman bears false witness, it will be over for the rest of us. When a man commits a crime, we do not usually judge all men for his crime, but when a woman commits a crime, all women are judged collectively and harshly.
I did not know who I was or who I might become; I knew only that I was not like most other girls. How I wanted to be! But that was impossible. I was too much of an outlaw, an individualist, a loner. Girls snitched and obeyed orders. Girls didn't stick together. Except for two female high school teachers, all my discussions about ideas were with men, not women.
No older woman (or man) ever told me anything about what it might take to survive on my own. No one ever — not even once — mentioned that women were oppressed or discriminated against, or that women had a history of fighting for freedom. I had no plans for my future. I knew only that I had to keep reading and leave home as soon as possible.
My parents were good nineteenth-century parents. I wanted for nothing — except affection, understanding, the most minimal kindness, and privacy. I left home because my mother was cruel and hostile toward me and my father never intervened.
My parents wanted me to go to Brooklyn College and live at home. I refused to do this. I applied to only one college because it had no required courses. In 1958, I left home to attend Bard College in Dutchess County, New York, on a full scholarship.
Steve was my official boyfriend at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. He was tall, kind, and a good kisser. His parents owned a candy store. He recently came to visit me. He said, "You know, you threw me under the bus when you left Brooklyn to go to an out-of-town college." He paused and then said, in all seriousness, "But I knew you had a destiny to follow." He is the sweetest man.
Steve reminded me that I used to literally dance down the street. He said that I was always singing. I don't remember this. He told me something I hadn't known. My father took him aside and said: "If you really care for my daughter, you will not ruin her. Will you promise me that?" Steve said he made that promise — and he kept it.
* * *
My first dormitory was a Beaux-Arts mansion, Blithewood, which had a magnificent view of the Hudson River and the most amazing Italianate gardens. It was a setting for any one of Henry James's or Edith Wharton's heroines.
In the 1940s, Bard had welcomed glittering European refugees to its faculty: Hannah Arendt's husband Heinrich Blücher, Stefan Hirsch, Justus Rosenberg, Werner Wolff and his wife Kate. Bard was known as a bohemian paradise for rich kids who vacationed in Europe. It was also known as "the little red whorehouse on the Hudson."
And so there I was, a wild child out of Borough Park, finally away from my mother's critical eye for the first time in my life. I had no idea how vulnerable and naive I was. I was flying solo with no instructor or even a manual.
On our first winter break I wore beatnik black and waited tables at the Rienzi coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. I shared a rental apartment on Prince Street, in what is now SoHo. I wrote poetry at cafes and imagined I was living as an expatriate in Paris, which I was, at least in my head.
By the time my second semester at Bard rolled around, I'd met the man who would become my first husband. We met in the college coffee shop. He was from Afghanistan. I thought he was terribly sophisticated.
I found him so interesting that I brought him home for Shabbos. He had attended elite private schools in America for more than a decade. I wanted to impress my parents with how many interesting people I was meeting — people who were finding me interesting, too.
The visit was a complete disaster. We left early and drove back to Bard. This fiasco drove me right into his arms. Had my family accepted him as my friend, the entire episode might have passed. Instead, sotto voce, they hissed: "He's not Jewish. He's not even white!" And he said, "I had no idea your family was so provincial, such peasants." His statement was quite ironic given who his family was.
Two and a half years later I was on my way to Kabul to meet his (far more provincial) relatives.
My Awful, Pretty Bad, Prefeminist 1960s What do people think about the 1960s?
Some think of the Fab Four (the Beatles), Janis Joplin, free love, Woodstock, and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Others think about the American civil rights and antiwar movements; the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama; the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; the student sit-ins, protests, marches, and riots; the rise of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and Students for a Democratic Society.
I think about all this — I lived it all — but first I think about Kabul, where I was held captive for five months in 1961. "Only five months," you might say, but each day felt like a month. I felt as if I'd been held hostage for ten years and felt deceived by the man I'd married.
When we landed in Kabul, an airport official smoothly removed my American passport, which I would never see again. Suddenly I was the citizen of no country and the property of a large, wealthy, polygamous — news to me — Afghan family.
I witnessed a pre-Taliban level of 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. Forever after I understood that Western foreign powers did not cause such indigenous and barbaric customs. Few American feminists of my generation ever grasped this.
I also experienced some good old-fashioned Islamic religious apartheid. My Afghan mother-in-law, with whom I had to live, tried hard to convert me to Islam, and my sophisticated, Westernized husband did nothing to stop her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Politically Incorrect Feminist"
Copyright © 2018 Phyllis Chesler.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Growing Up as a Girl in America,
2 Am I Dreaming or Am I Awake? Feminist Paradise Rising,
3 Raising My Consciousness and Pioneering Women's Studies,
4 This First-Generation American Keynotes a Historic Speak-Out on Rape and Joins a Class-Action Lawsuit,
5 A Psychiatrist Sues Me for $10 Million, I Publish Women and Madness, and I Flee the Country,
6 Fame Hits Hard, Thousands of Letters Arrive, and I Marry Again,
7 Feminism Becomes International,
8 Feminists and the Weather Underground and Lesbian Land on the West Coast,
9 The Pornography Wars Commence, and I Host the First Feminist Passover Seder in America,
10 Do Women of Color Have the Right to Kill White Male Rapists in Self-Defense? Do Lesbians Have the Right to Custody of Their Children?,
11 Our Sorely Afflicted Feminist Geniuses,
12 Rape at the UN and an Unexpected Betrayal by the Inveterate Scene-Stealer,
13 Whistleblowing and the Inevitable Blowback,
14 Mothers on Trial and on the Run,
15 I Travel the Wide World, Pray at the Western Wall, and Come to the Aid of Lesbian-Feminists Under Siege in Mississippi,
16 The End of an Era and Saying Goodbye to Sister Soldiers, Brave and True, Near and Dear,
Also by Phyllis Chesler,
More Praise for A Politically Incorrect Feminist,
About the Author,