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feminism books

reviewed by T. Nelson


A Politically Incorrect Feminist

by Phyllis Chesler
St Martins Press 2018, 304 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

D on't try to understand women. Women understand women and they hate each other.” That quote, from the American TV show Married With Children, pretty much sums up this book.

I have to admit I only vaguely remember Phyllis Chesler's book Women and Madness. The only other feminist book I ever read was Fanny by Erica Jong, an absolutely dreadful novel about an 18th century female who spends her days getting sexually harassed. So I wasn't sure what to expect in this memoir.*

Chesler views everything through the lens of feminist ideology. Trained as a psychiatrist, she says psychiatry was misogynist and that women were taught to view themselves as ‘somehow naturally mentally ill’ and men as naturally healthy. And she says it was mostly women who were abused by the psychiatric institutes. She writes:

Mental health professions had never helped most women and had in fact further abused them by punitively labeling them, overtranquilizing them, sexually abusing them while they were in treatment, hospitalizing them involuntarily, administering shock therapy to them, lobotomizing them, and, above all, unnecessarily describing women as too aggressive, promiscuous, depressed, ugly, old, angry, or fat or as incurable. [p.58]

These half-truths are a good example of ideological tunnel vision. Psychiatry rarely helped anyone, male or female. It was, even by the standards of its day, barbaric and unscientific. By the time Chesler's book showed up in 1972, deinstitu­tionalization had been going on for nearly twenty years. Thomas Szasz and others had already pointed out the weak theoretical basis of psychiatry. Chesler's principal contribution seems to have been to blame the patriarchy.

She describes how some of her comrades had issues with mental stability. Many were duplicitous and backstabbing, but this too was blamed on the patriarchy:

Those among us who were not clinically or theoretically educated about mental illness . . . did not recognize that certain behaviors (nonstop talking, yelling, paranoid accusations, drinking, stealing, pathological lying) might be evidence of mental illness. We all preferred to consider dysfunctional behaviors as ideological opposition. [p. 190]

For Chesler, the insanity was something to be celebrated. There's a lot of cheerleading in this book. But even Chesler couldn't stomach Valerie Solanas, whose SCUM Manifesto advocating the elimination of the male sex she calls “crazy.” [p.32]

While she extravagantly praises her fellow feminists, she also portrays them as insecure, conformist, competitive, and cliquish. They were true ideologues: they saw themselves not as people, but as warriors. They jealously resented each others' success. Despite being profoundly privileged in almost every way, they thought of themselves as oppressed. They thought they were in a noble fight for liberation.

Chesler calls herself politically incorrect because she recognizes, due to her short, unhappy marriage in Afghanistan, that Islamic societies are vastly more misogynistic than Western ones. Her fellow feminists were too tied to multiculturalism to care. When she told them she was raped by a UN official from Sierra Leone, they were so afraid of being called racists that they invented gossipy stories about her.

The successes the feminists had were due to those times when they acted like reasonable adults and made rational arguments. Their insistence on funding for women's diseases, for example, led to advances in our understanding of breast cancer and mood disorders that preferentially affect women. Their advocacy for women's shelters helped many. But their advocacy of government-mandated equal outcomes was not so benign.

Feminists believed that unequal representation among firefighters, mathematicians, and computer programmers was not due to differences in ability or interest but sexism, and therefore women had to be given special privileges, special laws, and positions of power irrespective of merit. The term for it is equity, and it's proving to be a disaster. In all but a few colleges, the meritocratic spirit is nearly gone. Faculty are no longer hired according to ability, but to fill quotas. Mandatory statements of allegiance to woke ideology weed out any independent thinkers.

As a result, universities are now horrible places to teach or do research. They will not be able to survive this, and society will not be able to survive without the universities. Chesler seems unaware of all of this, and is proud of what they accomplished.

Maybe this is the price one pays for tunnel vision: you can only see your successes, never your mistakes.

Young women should read this book to understand why there remains so much antipathy toward feminism. It has nothing to do with misogyny, privilege, fragility, or patriarchy. Mostly it was because they broke more things than they fixed. But their abrasiveness and divisiveness played a role as well.

A belief system based on a false premise is guaranteed to crumble the minute it gains power, and crumble is what feminism did. To Chesler and her sisters, the 60s were an exciting time. But her conclusion about where feminism ended up will sound familiar to skeptics:

The multicultural canon has not led to independent, tolerant, diverse, or objective ways of thinking. On the contrary; it has led to conformity and totalitarian herd thinking. [p. 283]

Even feminists are now asking where they went wrong, even if they haven't yet acknowledged their role in making it happen. They could have done a lot of good if they hadn't been so nutty.

* Upon reflection, I actually read a few others which I had erased from memory, including a novel by Sylvia Plath about a suicidal woman whose depression is cured, at least temporarily, by shock therapy. I remember thinking that some of her symptoms, especially the metaphor about the disease being a bell jar, sounded more like schizophrenia than bipolar II. Are these disorders related? Psychiatrists used to make a rigid distinction between them, but there is a lot of overlap, hence the term schizoaffective disorder. Could she have been misdiagnosed?

feb 05 2020. edited feb 06 2020