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Phyllis Chesler

b. 1940

by Tamara Cohen

Phyllis Chesler, a self-described “radical feminist” and “liberation psychologist,” is a prolific writer, seasoned activist and organizer, and committed Jew and Zionist. Also a psychotherapist and Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, Chesler is the author of twelve books, including Women and Madness (1972), Women, Money and Power (1976), About Men (1978), Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986), Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness (1994), With Child: A Diary of Motherhood (1998), Letters to a Young Feminist (2000), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), and The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (2003). She publishes in both popular and academic journals, lectures widely, and is the editor-at-large for On the Issues magazine. Lecturing widely on women’s legal rights and emotional health, Chesler also serves as an expert witness on women’s and family issues.

Born on October 1, 1940, Chesler and her two younger brothers grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Her mother, Lillian (Hammer), was a school secretary, and her father was a truck driver. She traces her activism back to her experiences as a child when, at age eight, she joined Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, a Zionist youth organization, and later En Harod, a leftist Zionist youth group advocating Arab-Jewish kibbutzim. According to Chesler, when it became clear to her that her bat mitzva would be marked by no ceremony, she broke from the formal aspects of Judaism.

Much of Chesler’s professional career has been spent at Richmond College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), where she taught psychology, sociology, anthropology and women’s studies, and is today professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies. In addition to teaching at the college, Chesler was active in the founding of the College Birth Control and Ob/Gyn Self-Help Clinic, the College Child Care Center, the Rape Counseling Project, and the Counseling for Battered Women Project. A co-founder of one of the first women’s studies programs in the country and teacher of one of the first “accredited” women’s studies classes, Chesler was instrumental in the creation of women’s studies programs throughout the CUNY system. Despite her many projects on behalf of the college and her students, Chesler received tenure at Richmond only after twenty-two years of battling for the post—a delay for which she blames the sexism and anti-activist approach of much of academe.

As a psychotherapist who completed her graduate work in psychology at the New School for Social Research, Chesler counts among her most prized accomplishments writing and “giving speeches that saved women’s lives or sanity, and contributed to feminist awakening, among women and men.” Her first book, Women and Madness, has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into six languages. It is one of the earliest works of the modern American feminist movement to address issues such as the mistreatment of women, particularly in rape and incest; female role models; and goddess-centered spirituality in the mental health services.

Since the publication of Women and Madness, Chesler has advocated for change in the treatment of women in mental health services (through the Association for Women in Psychology, which she co-founded in 1969), the National Women’s Health Network, which she co-founded in 1974, and the National Center for Protective Parents in Civil Child Sexual Abuse Cases.

Chesler has always believed that “the kind of feminist I am has everything to do with my Jewish passion for justice.” Her direct involvement with Jewish feminism began in 1973, when she and a group of Jewish feminists came together to discuss antisemitism. Already keenly aware of what was to become a disturbing element of the women’s movement, Chesler began to wear a large star around her neck to identify herself as Jewish in leftist and feminist circles. Her first visit to Israel in December 1972 began a long-standing connection with the then nascent Israeli feminist movement. Since the onset of the Second Intifada (2000), Chesler’s relationship with the feminist Left in Israel and elsewhere has grown more conflicted as some Left-identified feminists view her as downplaying Israeli responsibility for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in her attempt to highlight the dangerous rise of what she and others have called “the new antisemitism.” She, in turn, began to publicly question why many of her fellow feminists have chosen to align themselves with the Palestinian movement, despite the practice in Islamic societies of what she terms “gender apartheid.” Exposing antisemitism where she sees it and remaining steadfast in her Zionism have long been central themes in Chesler’s life. A participant in the 1975–1976 National Jewish Feminist Conference in New York City, Chesler first publicly wrote about being a radical feminist and a Zionist Jew in Lilith (winter 1976–1977). In that article she advocated the creation of “feminist sovereign space,” drawing a parallel between feminism and Zionism. After attending the 1980 UN Conference on Women in Copenhagen, Chesler wrote a second article in Lilith, this time using a pseudonym, to expose the antisemitism of the conference. Chesler then organized Feminists Against Anti-Semitism, a group that defined itself as Zionist and feminist and coordinated a panel on feminism and antisemitism for the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association conference. Deeply affected both by the events of September 11 and the Second Intifada, Chesler was moved to write The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (2003) out of her sense of alarm that the rising virulence in world-wide antisemitism and anti-Zionism has been too often uncritically adopted by intellectuals and activists on the Left. She began speaking widely on these issues and has not hesitated to identify strongly as “pro-Israel and pro-American” and to openly criticize Islamic societies for their anti-democratic and anti-feminist policies.

Chesler has been creating alternative rituals for Jewish holidays and life-cycle events since her involvement in the first feminist seder in New York City in 1975. She is active in the struggle for equal rights of access to women at the Western Wall as a founding member and director of the International Committee for the Women of the Wall. In 2002 she coedited Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, an anthology of essays written by members of this women’s prayer group.

Married and divorced twice, Chesler has one son, Ariel David Chesler. Despite a diagnosis of chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome in 1992, Chesler has not slowed down in her courageous pursuit of justice and truth and her tireless commitment to speaking out on behalf of women and Jews worldwide. In her own words, “holding one’s own against patriarchy, just holding one’s own, is not easy. Resisting it—building a resistance movement—takes all we have. And more.”

SELECTED WORKS BY PHYLLIS CHESLER

Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002); About Men (1978); Foreword to Jewish Women Speak Out, edited by Kayla Weiner and Arinna Moon; Letters to a Young Feminist (2000); Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986); The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (2003); Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness (1994); “Telling It Like It Was.” Onthe Issues (Summer 1995); With Child: A Diary of Motherhood (1998); Women and Madness (1972); Women, Money and Power (1976); Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, ed. by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut (2002).

Bibliography

Chesler, Phyllis. Interview by author, November 1996; Cole, Ellen. “A Leader of Women” [Interview of Phyllis Chesler]. In Feminist Foremothers in Women’s Studies, Psychology and Mental Health, edited by Phyllis Chesler, Esther D. Rothblum, and Ellen Cole (1995); www.phyllis-chesler.com.

Spirituality 2 - still image [media]
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Feminist seders have provided an important context for developing women’s spirituality. In 1975, a group of Israeli and American women decided to create their own Passover seder based on their experiences as Jewish women. Now an annual event held in Manhattan, it has been attended by Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Bella Abzug, Grace Paley and several other "Seder Sisters" who have played important roles in the development of Jewish feminism. Shown here are Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler and Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the Women's Seder in 1991.

Photographer: Joan Roth

How to cite this page

Cohen, Tamara. "Phyllis Chesler." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/chesler-phyllis>.

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