PhD (Psychology), New School for Social Research, (1969)
MA (Psychology), New School for Social Research, (1967)
BA (Comparative Literature and Language), Bard College, (1963)
College of Staten Island, The City University of New York, (1969-1998)
Private Practice (Psychotherapy and Forensic Psychology), (1970-1991)
Career Focus: Feminism; women and madness; motherhood; anti-semitism.
Reflecting on her relationship to feminism, Dr. Phyllis Chesler remarks that she was "certainly always a rebel." Indeed, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family she "rebelled by becoming a member of Hashomer Hayzer, which was viewed as a communist, Godless, Zionist organization from hell." While she notes that she experienced difficulty when she was not bat mitzvah'd, at that time she was not able to understand this incident through a feminist lens. It was not until several years later that as a young woman she learned the importance of feminism when she "fled Western civilization and married a man from Afghanistan." She noted that what she "thought was going to be a great adventure...turned out to be captivity."
Returning from Afghanistan, Chesler became immersed in student civil rights organizations, with whom she tried to discuss her experiences abroad. She recalls that these student groups did not quite "get it yet about women." Towards the end of 1966, she was working in a brain research lab and left the lab "possessed" and "driven" in her white lab coat in search of a meeting of the National Organization of Women. It was that night that she made a speech about revolution and became a card-carrying feminist.
While heavily involved in the women's movement, Chesler was working towards completing her PhD in physiological psychology with an internship at both a hospital and a psychoanalytic institute. As she describes it, her dissertation was on "observational learning in mother cats and their kittens." Yet feminist activism was slowly beginning to seep into the conservative discipline of Psychology. Chesler commented on one aspect of this growing feminist incursion - consciousness-raising groups. She described them as providing "the relief, the blinding, sweet relief of confirmation that one's self is not crazy, or ugly, or wrong, or irrational or overreacting." Discovering the political and structural origins and the commonality of problems women experienced proved to be immensely therapeutic. In fact, much of what Chesler has learned may be traced to the power of collective actions and "what collective consciousness raising [can] accomplish for the soul, [and] for the mind."
In June of 1969, after completing her PhD, Chesler was among the founding members of the Association for Women in Psychology. She and her colleagues attended the American Psychology Association's (APA) annual meeting in 1970 and made a controversial demand at the Town Hall meeting: they asked for one million dollars in reparations for the damage psychology had perpetrated on women. The demand certainly drew attention, much of it negative. Yet despite the enormity of the request, Chesler was dead serious and stated that if she did not receive the reparations to build "battered women's shelters and alternatives to asylums", she would not return to the APA - and she never has. Other feminist members carried on the work of the Association for Women in Psychology and subsequently contributed to the formation of Division 35, now the Society for the Psychology of Women, of the APA.
The importance of feminism was cemented for Chesler through the sexism she experienced within the academy. She was the first woman hired on to an all-male psychology department and recalls being assigned by the department to shop for the secretaries' Christmas presents; an assignment she politely refused. She also recalls that she declined funding to conduct fieldwork in Africa because of sexual advances by the man in charge of the fund. To combat the conservative and oppressive atmosphere that she encountered in academia, Chesler was involved in a large scale lawsuit against the City University of New York. Initially consisting of a class action suit representing a group of women who demanded pay equity, Chesler's claim was made independent and argued on the grounds that her highly public feminist identity had resulted in professional discrimination. Seventeen years later, Chesler won the suit. During this time, she married her second husband and gave birth to a feminist son.
In the 1980's Chesler helped develop one of the first Women's Studies programs in the United States. Though this was a great achievement, she urged that feminist thought be integrated into all programs in all divisions. She believed that otherwise, "they are going to ghettoize us and marginalize us and then underfund us and then we will just be talking to ourselves, which is what happened."
Reflecting upon Psychology, she believes that the discipline should become less politicized and more contextualized. Referring, for example, to discourses on the Middle East, she believes that the politicization is totalitarian and needs to weigh and balance historical context. In commenting on anti-Semitism, she describes the resistance among feminist women and feminist psychologists to understanding the racism experienced by Jewish women. Reconnecting her early experience of not being bat mitzvah'd, Chesler notes "my passion for justice has everything to do with my being a Jew."
Chesler's now-classic book, Women and Madness, examines the treatment of women by psychiatry and psychology and has been translated into several languages and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. However, the book she is most proud of is Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, which she conceptualizes as a continuation of Women and Madness. This book debunks female superiority and demonstrates that "we are as close to the apes as to the angels, just like men!" To date she has published 13 titles that have explored such issues as feminism, anti-Semitism, psychology, motherhood, child custody/access, and masculinity.
The accomplishments of Phyllis Chesler are as numerous as they are diverse. An Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York, her expertise and professionalism as an author, psychotherapist and an expert courtroom witness are internationally known. She has demonstrated a commitment to social justice through lecturing and political organizing around the world. When offering advice for young feminists she reminds us that change is slow and that each generation needs to reinvent their wheel in the pursuit of equity. Despite the demands of being a single mother, she notes that she did not separate her personal and professional lives but through perseverance has pursued all of her goals.
by Jenna MacKay (2010)
To cite this article, see Credits
Chesler, P. (2006). The death of feminism: What's next in the struggle for women's freedom. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chesler, P. (2003). The new anti-semitism: The current crisis and what we must do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Chesler, P. (2001). Woman's inhumanity to woman. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books.
Chesler, P. (1998). With child: A diary of motherhood. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows (originally published, 1979)
Chesler, P. (1994). Patriarchy: Notes of an expert witness. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
Chesler, P. (1988). The sacred bond: The legacy of Baby M. New York: Times Books.
Chesler, P. (1985). Mothers on trial: The battle for children and custody. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Chesler, P. (1978). About men. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Chesler, P. (1976). Women, money, and power. New York: William Morrow and Company.
Chesler, P. (1972). Women and madness. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.
Cole, E. (1996). Phyllis Chesler: A leader of women [Interview of Phyllis Chesler]. In P. Chesler, E. D. Rothblum, & E. Cole (Eds.), Feminist foremothers in women's studies, psychology and mental health. Binghamton, NY: The Haworh Press.
Interview conducted on September 6, 2006 by Leeat Granek in New York City, New York. U.S.A.