A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women

Politically Incorrect Feminist Book Cover Imageby Phyllis Chesler
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Paperback, 320 pages

Reviewed by Nancy Fitzgerald-Bellovary

I am an avid reader and consider myself to be a feminist, but my knowledge of second wave feminism is quite limited. Consequently, when offered the chance to review Phyllis Chesler’s new book, A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women, I looked forward to learning more about this important movement through the words of one of the women who was integrally involved.

Chesler begins the book by recounting her early formation as a captive bride in Kabul, moves through her formal education, and then settles in to describe her involvement in the feminist movement as both an author and a vocal presence for the cause.

Chesler intertwines her personal story with stories of her encounters with famous, and some infamous, people and events integrally embedded in the feminist movement. Second wave feminism and Chesler’s life seem to move along a similar trajectory, so the reader is treated to stories of both major historic events in the fight for women’s rights and Chesler’s personal reactions to them.

The book moves from event to event, but goes back and forth in time within the discussion of each event. This can be disorienting for someone like me, a person not familiar with historical second wave feminism or the people involved. The sheer number of names Chesler mentions at times feels overwhelming. I often found myself confused as I tried to remember each individual’s role in the movement.

However, reading the first few chapters left me wishing I had been part of the early second wave feminist cultural phenomenon. Chesler’s stories give a clear impression of the excitement and energy surrounding the efforts to define reality and create sweeping changes. The quote that, to me, was the most indicative of the power of the movement was on page 52, where she notes how participants in consciousness-raising groups were so invigorated by the discussions and discoveries taking place that they hardly wanted “to shut the door while they went to the bathroom so they could [still] hear the conversation.”

I particularly appreciated Chesler’s ability to recount ”insider” stories of so many public events. It was quite an awakening for me to realize how much was accomplished during this time. In particular, learning about the worldwide ramifications of the establishment of the National Women’s Health Network opened my eyes to the ways women’s health had been overlooked for so long. Reading Chesler’s stories gave me an essential appreciation for the rich legacy of accomplishment left by the women of her generation.

Chesler’s first book, Women and Madness, published in 1972, is still regarded as a landmark work in the field of women’s psychology. The popularity of this book (her first of nineteen published so far) made her a well known and much sought after public speaker for feminist and academic conferences and events.

In A Politically Incorrect Feminist, Chesler painfully recalls the lack of support she received from feminist colleagues after being raped while attending one such conference. I felt her pain and sorrow in this recounting and was reminded how even women working for the feminist cause can still be insensitive to the suffering of one of our own.

It is to be noted that Chesler’s descriptions of the times, relationships, and personalities of second wave feminism are not all positive. She not only loved but fought with many of her friends, and the recollections shared in this book left me with the impression that she believes her own actions and ideas are always on target and the people who disagree with her are always misguided. Chesler appears to have never been hesitant to speak in defense of herself and her beliefs, and this carries over into the book. I grew tired of reading how “right” she thinks she always is.

I was pleased to see that Chesler extended her discussion into the feminist work being done today. However, even after learning about her early history, I was disappointed to read her criticism of the Women’s March and some of her comments about Muslim women and their choices to wear religious clothing. In general, I found myself wishing Chesler could allow herself more tolerance for diversity in the beliefs sincerely held by other women.

For me, the most interesting chapter in A Politically Incorrect Feminist was the final one, in which Chesler memorialized all the women of the feminist movement who have died. Reading about their accomplishments and struggles gives the reader a good, holistic sense of these important women’s lives and their accomplishments.

Perhaps for those like me, largely unfamiliar with second wave feminism, it might be helpful to read the last chapter first, and then pick up the narrative at the beginning of the book. Or better yet, save this book until you have read some more basic and foundational historical and philosophical information on the movement as a whole.

For those already grounded in the work and history of second wave feminism, A Politically Incorrect Feminist most certainly provides an opportunity to sharpen one’s understanding of the internal machinations and personalities involved in this pivotal time.

 

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