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Feminist at the gates of reason: An interview with Phyllis Chesler

By Bernard Chapin
web posted January 2, 2006

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a long time feminist who eventually had enough of the pervasive groupthink permeating her social and professional interactions. She regarded issues such as national security, anti-Semitism, and the suffering of women in the third world as being far more important than sticking to the feminist party line and staying in the good graces of her peers. Her refusal to self-censor alienated her from many a hardened activist. Dr. Chesler disseminated her views in venues where they could be appreciated which resulted in increased interaction with conservatives. One such conservative was David Horowitz who featured her work on his website, www.frongpagemag.com. What her pieces said was of little importance to feminists who would make her persona non grata for appearing on Horowitz’s site alone. The nature of today’s feminist movement is thoroughly documented in her latest book, The Death Of Feminism.

Dr. Phyllis CheslerHer curriculum vitae reflects a lifetime of accomplishments. Dr. Chesler is an Emerita Professor of psychology and women's studies, and co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology along with the National Women's Health Network, and the International Committee for Women of the Wall. Her website, www.phyllis-chesler.com, lists many of her achievements, and, publication wise, they are extensive. Her titles include works such as Women and Madness; Women, Money and Power; About Men; With Child: A Diary of Motherhood; Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody; Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M; Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness; Feminist Foremothers in Women's Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health; Letters to a Young Feminist; Woman's Inhumanity To Woman; Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site; and The New Anti-Semitism. The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It.

BC: Dr. Chesler, my compliments to you on the publication of your new book, The Death Of Feminism. Might you, just in case our readers are unaware, inform us as to what prompted its writing and why it will be of interest to conservatives.

PC: I appreciate your kind words. The failure of progressives and leftists, including feminists, to mute their hatred and scapegoating of both America and Israel, post the 2000 Intifada that Arafat launched against the Jewish state and post  9/11, compelled me to both acknowledge this failure and to try to understand it. Secular progressives have accused conservatives of being dangerously intolerant. I have found that intolerance, conformity, and totalitarian group-think are also alive and well among progressive journalists, activists, and professors--most of whom have been thoroughly Palestinianized. The courage of independent thinking is crucial, as is intellectual diversity, no matter the ideology. My previous work about anti-Semitism, (The New Anti-Semitism), brought me into the conservative world, where I have found that many conservatives do honor independent thinking and are intellectually profoundly diverse as well. This does not mean that we agree on all issues; not at all. But why should we? Of course, some conservatives are also rigid Party Line thinkers. The tendency towards intolerance and conformity exists everywhere, alas.

BC: Despite your rightward turn, am I correct in saying that you still consider yourself to be a “radical feminist?” Might I also ask whether the Christina Hoff Sommers distinction between “equity feminists” and “gender feminists” be applicable to you?

PC: I have often held an honorable minority position among feminists on issues such as pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, motherhood, and cultural relativism. I have never been a gender-neutral feminist: I do think that men and women are different and that such differences are not always best served by drafting gender neutral legislation. I believe that a feminist can also be a patriot and believe in God and in the reality of a just war. She can also be a Zionist and a capitalist. These views are not the views of the feminist professoriate. However, genuine, bona fide feminists are currently working in the Bush administration against the trafficking in women and children. I honor such work. I have not changed my mind about a woman's right to economic or reproductive freedom but I do not demonize those who may disagree with me on these and other points. I believe that western civilization is under both cultural and military siege and that we must fight to survive. We must forge alliances with each other against jihad, no matter who we may vote for and no matter what ideological flag we may happen to salute. 

BC: Your attempt, via this latest book, to forge a reconciliation between right and left over the need to defend our nation against Islamofascism is highly admirable. That being said, have you had any successes thus far in this regard? Has your bravery combating pervasive politically correct groupthink become infectious? Have you given others the courage to speak up in favor of the west?

PC: Slowly, and in small ways,  I have inspired and empowered some feminists to begin to question whether President Bush really does pose a greater threat than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda; whether Israel really can be blamed for all the world's sorrows and/or if Israel ceased to exist whether Islamic gender and religious Apartheid, tyranny, genocide, etc. would instantly vanish without a trace; whether, as feminists, we have an obligation to help forge a feminist foreign policy rather than continue to oppose our government while we are under siege. For example, when I spoke at the CUNY Graduate Center for the National Organization for Women in October of 05, many left feminists, led by Katha Pollitt of Nation magazine, tried to intimidate and humiliate both bodies for having given me the forum since, in their view, I was no longer a feminist since I had voted for Bush and had supported the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither NOW nor CUNY folded. The President of NOW-NYS, Marcia Pappas, finally wrote a very positive review of The Death Of Feminism and has taken a courageous stand on behalf of my first amendment rights. And, more important, Muslim dissidents and feminists, most recently from Iran , have been thrilled that an American feminist leader is daring to speak out on their behalf. "Finally,” one Iranian said, "a feminist leader who will not abandon us to her theory of cultural relativity." On December 14, 2005 I testified in a Senate briefing about Islamic gender Apartheid. The panel was beamed up live via satellite and transmitted to the Middle East and Central Asia and translated into Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish. Some feminists, including left-wing feminists, were excited about my doing this--even though most of the Senate offices present were from the Republican side of the aisle. The left and liberal media did not cover this excellent panel, which was coordinated by Americans for Democracy in the Middle East nor, to date, have they reviewed my book.

BC: One of the things that stood out in your text was the way you came down on post-modernism and its mendacious mantra, “there is no such thing as truth.” How is it possible that such a fallacious notion has been so widely embraced within our universities? Is not the search for the truth the very reason why colleges were created in the first place?

PC: Oh, how right you are. But these days, truth is held hostage to our notions of multi-cultural relativity. Truth does exist, not everything is relative. More: In my opinion, many western values and virtues are superior to Islamic values and virtues. The much touted "diversity" increasingly refers to a diversity of color, class, gender, and sexual preference, but not to a diversity of opinion. This would be funny if it were not tragic. The politically correct line on Western campuses has become quite narrow and intolerant and does not allow one to stray from the party line. Doing so invites slander and ostracism.

BC: I felt that your second chapter called “Women and the Crisis of Independent Thinking” was magnificent. I think you broke new ground in these pages. You have astutely observed that conformity is more prevalent within women than men, but, for those without access to your words, why is this the case?

PC: Once more, thanks for your kind words. Girls and women may be hard-wired to appease and to please; they are also further socialized to do so. Girls and women are still taught to be polite, not to disagree, to hide their own opinions--lest they hurt or offend someone who will then disconnect from them, gossip slanderously about them, get an entire group to ostracize them. Girls are not necessarily encouraged to speak their minds directly and openly, but indirectly and covertly. And, from pre-adolescence on, girls know how punitive and cruel other girls can be. Like men, women internalize sexist ideas but unlike men, are allowed and expected to compete hard against other women and to also police women into patriarchal line. I wrote about this in my tenth book Woman's Inhumanity To Woman and again in The Death Of Feminism. If democracy cannot flourish without independent thinking and whistle-blowers and if democracy cannot flourish without the participation of women--we are in trouble, both at home and abroad in Muslim countries, at least until or unless women are systematically taught how to withstand the punishment that being an independent thinker often entails. The working title of my new book was The Individualist's Dilemma--but I had also wanted to call it My Afghan Captivity And Other Tales Of Islamic Gender Apartheid because that is also what the book is about.

BC: We know that women and men have similar means on practically every measure of intelligence, but there is a uniformity among female scores not as pronounced within male scores–i.e., women are more closely bunched around the statistical mean; whereas, more men are found at the extremes. This is apparent in males being over-represented in the areas which we would label as genius and mentally retarded. I’ve often wondered if the unevenness of the respective population distributions is the basis for why men so readily accept organizational hierarchies, and are less alienated when standing out from the crowd. As a psychologist, do you think that this bunching of women around the statistical mean may exert an influence on the desire to conform?

PC: In a sense, from the psychological point of view, women are--and are expected to be--the true conservatives and to conform to and enforce the status quo--beginning with getting other women to toe the line. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Saudi women, those allowed to meet with her told her that they did not feel oppressed or discriminated against and wanted to be governed by Sharia law. Often, it is women who enforce the practice of female genital mutilation; they do so because they want their daughters and granddaughters to remain marriageable and to preserve the "honor" of their families and tradition. In general, from a psychological point of view, women everywhere often stay close together, tend the hearth, hold reality steady for their families, support religion. While many exceptions exist, most women are not comfortable "leaving home" psychologically. There is good reason for this. They are terribly punished when they do by patriarchal mores. (Unless, of course, they join all-female Total Institutions such as a convent or religious group).

BC: It seems to me that conformity has had a corrosive effect on the nation’s politics over the last few decades. More and more the state imposes itself upon our economy and confiscates an ever-increasing percentage of its citizen’s earnings. Why do you think so many women turn to the government to solve practically everything when the government, so glaringly, solves practically nothing?

PC: Women understandably turn to the state regarding issues of violence against women, including incest, rape, and domestic battering. But, you have a point. Bureaucratic statism is increasingly inefficient and costly. The politicization of social services is also inefficient and costly. In certain instances I favor state support of religious groups who provide such services more humanely. For example, I was impressed by the Christian groups that conducted humanitarian missions to the Sudan on behalf of the African victims of Arab ethnic Muslim genocide and especially on behalf of the victims of what I call "gender cleansing" in the Sudan --genitally mutilated women and girls who were repeatedly and publicly gang-raped. I would have supported some state funding for their mission of mercy abroad. I might also support state funding for religious groups who attempt to help the victims of prostitution and trafficking escape their desperate fate. However, this is still our taxpayer dollar which is far too strained as it is.

BC: Do you think that most women are naturally pre-disposed to being on the left? That there are so few female libertarians is a source of great disappointment to rational men everywhere, but is it unlikely that this will ever change? One commentator stated that she thought:

[W]omen are natural socialists. We want everyone to share and everyone to get along. We are nurturers, and we expect the "haves" to take care of the "have-nots," the strong to take care of the weak, and the brave to protect the others (hence, the "death grip"). We want everyone to like us and we want everyone to like each other.

Does this explain why it is so difficult to convince people that a need exists for limitations on government’s role in our daily affairs?

PC: Who is this commentator? Introduce me to her at once. [Allison Brown, “Female Libertarians,” lewrockwell.com-10/25/03] The description is, to some extent, still accurate. I write about this in both The Death Of Feminism and in Woman's Inhumanity To Woman. However, women do not necessarily "nurture" other women; wealthy women do not necessarily share their wealth with impoverished women, or treat their female domestic servants kindly, etc. Women are not peaceful towards each other--but wish to appear peaceful. It is the "feminine" thing to do. Thus, to the extent to which traditional concepts of femininity and womanliness are being challenged and rejected by women, I expect to see more "male" like behavior, including libertarian thinking.

BC: Your story of Afghan captivity was impossible to put down. Without giving the plot away, may I say that you made the luckiest of escapes. Even with the large amount of information we have available regarding that nation your account remains illuminating. I guess what I’d like to know is how you became a radical feminist after your return from the east in 1961. In view of the tremendous hell you went through, it seems to me that your stance on the United States should not have been counter-cultural. After experiencing dhimmitude first hand, would not conservatism have been a more likely reaction?

PC: What a good question! Upon my return to America , I did join the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and I did become a leader in the nascent feminist movement. However, I also completed my PhD in psychology and began teaching at a branch of the City University of New York. At that time, the only conservatives I met were those who strongly opposed the entrance of women into the academic world and who scorned any and all feminist interpretations of reality. Thus, I did not encounter libertarian conservatives on the subject of gender equality or on other issues of social injustice. But, equally true, the politically correct Left was rising in the world just then and I was carried along on its considerably mighty currents. However, due to my Afghan captivity, I never romanticized Third World countries and understood that many barbaric Muslim customs were not due to European imperialism or colonialism, or to American foreign policy. Of course, there was much to criticize about American and Western misogyny and I proceeded to do so--but I was always clear that, from a feminist point of view,  America was still head and shoulders above most Third World countries in terms of freedom, individual rights, human rights, and women's rights. Not perfect--just further along the road.

BC: Lastly, and regrettably, I must ask a rather adversarial question. I simply cannot understand your respect for Andrea Dworkin whose death offers up final and irrefutable proof that fat is not a feminist issue but a cardiovascular one. Such a psychological projectionist is rarely encountered nowadays outside of a textbook. Her statement: "Hatred of women is a source of sexual pleasure for men in its own right" is absurd, but clearly it would be correct if she altered the sentence to read, “My hatred of men is a source of sexual pleasure for me.” In your book, I laughed aloud when I came across this sentence in reference to her: “Dworkin once compared the Jewish God to a Nazi without mercy.” It is unfortunate that she’ll never have an opportunity to discuss this matter with Him as I’m certain she now resides in a place far away from Jehovah’s kingdom. I have no doubt that if a man displayed the same pernicious contempt for women that Dworkin did for men they would be investigated by the Department of Justice and sent to Marion for several decades. In light of all this, I must now ask, what can you possibly find redeeming about this individual? Obviously, it cannot be a result of her professional output.

PC: I did not agree with many of Dworkin's points or with her interpersonal style. But, since I knew her well, you must trust me when I tell you that she may have disliked women far more than she disliked men and that she was, in many ways, male-identified. Although often tempted, I generally try not to psychiatrically diagnose works of thought or their creators. However, Dworkin's understanding that pornography and prostitution were harmful to women was visionary and brilliant and daring. She was very badly treated for her views on this subject. I deeply disagreed with her views of men, sex, religion, and Israel  and on her decisions about whom to trust and work with and in what way. I broke with her several times over such issues and, regrettably, had not seen her in the years before her recent death. I happen to admire her fiction and her essays about The Writing Life. But Sir, surely you jest about men being committed to Marion for decades for pernicious misogyny? We might have to cage all the men in the Islamic world (and a mere handful here as well for decades if we judged them on their misogyny). 

I have enjoyed this dialogue enormously. Thank you for it.

BC: And thank you very much for your time, Dr. Chesler.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com. This interview originally appeared on IntellectualConservative.com.

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