Phyllis Chesler is a gutsy woman. I have known her a very long time, since we both worked for a magazine for teenagers called Ingenue way back when baby boomers were teenagers. I always say Ingenue taught me my first lesson in publishing. Never name a magazine something its readers can’t pronounce.
Phyllis was a very young freelance writer at the time, and I was a very young editor. But what I didn’t know then and just found out from reading Phyllis’s interesting new book, The Death of Feminism, was that she had already had some amazing experiences in her life that have influenced her thinking ever since.
In the summer of 1961 she married her college sweetheart. She was a nice Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn. He was a nice Muslim boy from Afghanistan who had been away from home for 14 years, attending private schools in Europe and America. She says she didn’t want to get married but he looked like Omar Sharif. Remember Omar Sharif? And so they married and she went home with him to his upper-class family in Kabul.
Afghanistan then was more modern than it would become years later under Taliban rule, and American women in the 1960’s were far less assertive than American women have become today. But even then, the rigidly constrained and isolated life women forced to live in Muslim Afghanistan shocked and frightened Phyllis.
She writes, “The Afghanistan I knew was a prison, a police state, a feudal monarchy, a theocracy, rank with fear and paranoia… [It] was a bastion of illiteracy, poverty, preventable and treatable diseases; yet that was not the worst of it [for women]…. The overwhelming domestic and psychological misery was worse and it consisted of arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies, the chadari, domestic slavery, and, of course, purdah.”
After about a year, sick with hepatitis, Phyllis managed to escape and return to America and to college. She divorced her husband and by the mid-Sixties had become a leading feminist writer and thinker. A professor of psychology and women’s studies, one of her books, Women and Madness became a worldwide bestseller.
But in the last few years, Phyllis, though she says she is still a feminist, has broken with many of her former friends and has become one of their most outspoken critics. She believes that many feminists, especially those who run women’s-studies departments as well as those who are part of peace and environmental organizations, have become far-left-wing extremists bonded more by an anti-Western, anti-Semitic point of view than by their support of women.
She chides them for, in their zeal for multiculturalism, ignoring the sad plight of many Muslim women. On this subject, Phyllis’s position, partly from her early experience, is very clear. She and another feminist co-author Donna Hughes (who has appeared on this site) wrote in a 2004 Washington Post op-ed: “Islamic fundamentalism threatens women all over the world. Wherever they have gained power, Islamists have denied women their essential humanity and dignity.”
But many feminists, she notes, are more critical of Israel and America than they are of reactionary Islamic regimes. Phyllis argues, “On the subject of terrorism, many feminists have been missing in action. Or they view America as the greatest terrorist power on earth.”
In her book, Phyllis describes many horrifying cases of “Islamic gender apartheid,” especially against Muslim women living in the West. She mixes this with constant rapid-fire condemnation of her former ’sisters.’ For example, she writes, “I have not found one American feminist rant against the French over their sordid oil-for-food deal in Iraq … Nor did I hear one feminist rail against jihad that the non-assimilated Muslim immigrants in France have declared against France’s highly assimilated Jews…. Nor did I hear one feminist complain bitterly about the French having sent a military jet to transport the dying Arafat the terrorist to the best hospital in Paris. And even when Arafat’s financial greed could not be denied, I did not hear a single feminist condemn Arafat or his high-spending wife for stealing billions of dollars meant to feed the starving Palestinian people….”
Needless to say, Phyllis is fiercely pro-Israel, and wears a large Star of David when she speaks before feminist groups. She has begun to study the Talmud. She is outspokenly pro-American. And a year ago she did the unthinkable: She voted for George Bush.
But, hey, as I said, she’s a gutsy woman–and who else could have positive blurbs on the back of a book jacket from such an eclectic group as Kate Millet, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Pipes, and David Frum.
Except for complaining about the fact her books no longer get reviewed by the New York Times, she seems happy to be speaking out. “I believe you should stand up for the truth,” she told me. “But,” she said, referring to her former gal pals, “Can you believe, if you stand up for America, you get booed down? Really, they ought to be ashamed!”
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.