Women and Badness


“A recent WBAI program that was one hour devoted to hating me—it’s very sad—called me the Christopher Hitchens of the feminist movement, and I said yay! I said yes!” Talking with the Voice in her Upper East Side apartment, Phyllis Chesler emits a hoot. Like Hitchens, who morphed from a Nation columnist into an Iraq hawk, Chesler arouses the vitriol reserved for traitors. A founding mother of second-wave feminism, she now contributes to the right-wing Web magazine FrontPage, gets glowing notices in the National Review, and, perhaps most unforgivably, voted for Bush in 2004. Her new book, The Death of Feminism, assails American feminists as “cowardly herd animals” who are ignoring the epidemic oppression of Muslim women. Chesler, a professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at CUNY, points her finger in particular at “the one-sided feminist academy.”

For Chesler, raising hackles is nothing new. She has, of course, long made trouble for what used to be known as “the patriarchy.” As a young professor at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, she helped to spearhead a class action suit (ultimately successful) that charged the university with discrimination against women. But she hasn’t limited her confrontations to ideological enemies; some feminists chafed when, in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2003), she challenged the feel-good myths of sisterhood. Along with this contrarian streak, what most complicates Chesler’s political allegiances is her pro-Israel stance. Raised Orthodox in Borough Park and currently a “multi-denominational” observant Jew, she’s a lifelong Zionist. She dates her break with the left to the Palestinian Intifada of 2000, and her 2003 polemic The New Anti-Semitism made the rift clear.

Still, she insists, “I’m not recanting any feminism.” Rather, she argues that
mainstream American feminists, especially those with faculty positions, have subordinated feminism’s ideals to political correctness. “You have feminist awareness of the plight of women under Islam, but then you have a feminist multiculturalism which says, Oh, we can’t judge. We’re sinners, we’re racists, we’re colonialists; who are we to say? I’m saying, Wait—as feminists, we have the right to say.”

Firsthand experience led to Chesler’s diagnosis of the sickness plaguing Islamic societies. In 1961, just married to a Western-educated Afghan, Chesler spent several months in Kabul, an odyssey she revisits in The Death of Feminism. In his native country, her college sweetheart metamorphosed, she recalls, into an abusive husband. She also describes her hatred of wearing a veil and the cruelty she witnessed between wives of the same man. Liberals today, Chesler believes, are loath to acknowledge the perniciousness of Islamic culture—unless they can blame it on U.S. policies. Obsessed with the sins of Bush, America, and Israel, she says, they refuse to engage in dialogue with people who dissent from any items on their political checklist. Nowhere are these tendencies more pronounced, in Chesler’s opinion, than on university campuses.

Although we’re more used to hearing it from dead white male loyalists than from pioneers of women’s studies, much of Chesler’s academy bashing is familiar. Muddleheaded cultural relativism has replaced a sense of right and wrong; catering to students raised on MTV has led to entertainment in lieu of education. But then, some of her other complaints are unlikely to be shared by canon nostalgists. Zeroing in on women’s studies departments, she laments that this originally politicized field has lost its activist orientation. “You’ll have dissertations that now deconstruct the veil, or deconstruct polygamy, as if the drama is all on the page,” she says. “They’re not jumping out of airplanes to rescue women.” A large chunk of her new book catalogs the crimes routinely committed against Muslim women: female genital mutilation, violent abuse of daughters and wives, “honor killings” as punishment for sins such as wearing eyeliner or getting raped.

While her book’s title elegizes feminism, its first chapter begins, “Is feminism really dead? Well, yes and no.” Such juxtapositions are characteristic: Chesler goes for sensational gestures, but in serious discussion her tone is unexpectedly reasonable, nothing like the sneering of Christopher Hitchens. In person, she speaks and listens thoughtfully. In her writing, she is given to caveats like “I may be overstating this, but . . . ”

Still, the measured argumentation indeed strays into overstating and antagonizing; she is fond, for instance, of the adjective Stalinist . Reviews of her recent work often note that although she raises important questions, her style will turn off those she wants to persuade. Whether due to her provocations or to the closed-mindedness she decries—or an unfortunate synergy—feminists don’t seem to be listening. Ros Baxandall, a professor at SUNY–Old Westbury who is mentioned in Chesler’s book, responded to my request for an interview with a warning. “Beware,” she wrote in an e-mail, “Phyllis loves being attacked . . . She [is] a professional victim.” Baxandall could not read Chesler’s book, she told me; she had given it away.

Conversations with other feminist professors bore out, for better or worse, some of Chesler’s characterizations. Patricia Clough, director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at CUNY, asked rhetorically, “On what grounds do we know what is wrong?” She declined to call female genital mutilation wrong. When asked about the war in Iraq, however, she was willing to unequivocally declare it wrong.

Women’s studies professors with Muslim and Middle Eastern backgrounds tend to challenge the obsession with “brown women” as victims. “There’s a lot of injustice all over the world,” Harvard scholar Leila Ahmed told me. “This sounds awfully like battles we had in the 1970s, when white feminists thought we had to save black women.” Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor at Columbia, has analyzed the cultural significance of the veil, disputing that it has to mean a lack of agency.

That women are some of the most adamant supporters of these customs—genital mutilation and honor killings as well as the veil—certainly complicates matters. But Chesler believes that feminists are universalists and therefore interventionists; at the least, women should be free from systematic violence and compulsory veiling. Her ambitions are grand, if murky in the particulars. She hopes to enlist “feminists who are far more skilled than I in crafting foreign policy initiatives. I would like
feminist intellectuals to be thinking as if we could control the world.”