I grew up in an Orthodox family in Borough Park. In those days, girls had no visible or public religious futures. Thus, although I was sometimes known as the “smartest boy“ in my Talmud Torah class, I knew that I could not have a Bat Mitzvah or ever become a rabbi or a cantor. In a sense, my first protest took place in 1946 when I refused to learn Yiddish (a decision that I of course regret) but insisted on learning Hebrew.
My second protest took place in 1948, when I joined Hashomer Ha'Tzair, a left-wing socialist Zionist Youth group. My third protest took place in 1950, when my parents brought in the rabbis to talk me out of this association. Instead, I joined Ain Harod, a Zionist group to the left of Hashomer. My fourth protest took place in 1952, the year that I was not Bat Mitzvah'ed. I ate non-kosher food for the first time – and lived.
My fifth protest took place in 1961 when I married a wealthy and westernized Muslim from Afghanistan with whom I attended college. When I arrived for what I thought would be a brief visit in Kabul, my American passport was confiscated and I was held as a captive. I tried to escape many times and finally did so. I had the marriage annulled.
I learned that no woman, no radical, and no feminist can afford to romanticize Third World countries, customs, or leaders. Perhaps my fiery feminism was forged in Kabul.
In 1967, I attended my first NOW meetings. Between 1967 and 1971, I marched, demonstrated, picketed, sat-in, organized, delivered keynote speeches, co-founded organizations, and encouraged the formation of feminist magazines and journals. Simultaneously, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I helped women get abortions and supported one of the country's first Women's Crisis Centers, which was on Dean Street, in Brooklyn.
In 1969, I was in a feminist consciousness-raising group in New York City. I was also attending the preliminary meetings that led to the formation of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP), which I co-founded in 1969 and which is still going strong. In September of 1969, I delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of AWP at the American Psychological Association (APA) Annual meeting, demanding one million dollars in reparations from the APA on behalf of women. The speech led to world headlines and also to my first book contract.
That June, I received my Ph.D, published my dissertation in Science magazine, and began teaching at a branch of CUNY, Richmond College, on Staten Island, as the only female member of the Psychology faculty.
In 1969, I also began writing what became Women and Madness. Women and Madness received a front-page New York Times Book Review and was the first feminist work to do so.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies, a psychotherapist, and an expert courtroom witness. She has lectured and organized political, legal, religious, and human rights campaigns in the United States and in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Dr. Chesler is co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969), The National Women's Health Network (1974), and is a charter member of the Women's Forum (1973-74). She is a co-founder and a Board member of the International Committee for the Jerusalem-based group, Women of the Wall (1989-present). Dr. Chesler's twelve books and thousands of articles and speeches have inspired people on many diverse issues. She is currently preparing a new edition of her classic, best-selling work, Women and Madness, and is completing a new book about the importance of independent thinking among women. She may be reached at her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Phyllis Chesler." (Viewed on December 10, 2016) <https://jwa.org/feminism/chesler-phyllis>.