Book Review

What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom

Phyllis Chesler

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
The Public Eye Magazine - Spring 2006

It’s not exactly headline news that men and women have yet to achieve equality. On average, women still earn less than men, the lion’s share of child and elder care falls on female shoulders, and men remain largely absent from the domestic tableau. Couple this with shrinking access to abortion, birth control, and sexuality education, and it is easy to dismiss 20th century feminism as a colossal failure.

Of course, such reductive reasoning misses the mark, sidestepping a slew of issues and obstacles. Nonetheless it has become increasingly trendy to blame feminism for everything from teenaged angst to romantic blunders.

Phyllis Chesler, whose groundbreaking book, Women and Madness, galvanized thousands of “Second Wave” feminists when it was released in 1972, has joined the backlash at full tilt. Her arguments run from the facile to the silly and deride feminists as craven beings whose allegiance to the left has caused them to abandon those who need liberation most. As she sees it, “the disease of politically correct passivity” has kept the women’s movement from decrying the major threat to contemporary U.S. values, Islamic fundamentalism.

Chesler, a frequent contributor to David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine and an unabashed fan of George W. Bush, sees domestic feminists as wildly anti-American. She also sees university-level women’s studies classes as purveyors of radicalism, brainwashing innocent adolescents to undervalue Judeo-Christian traditions.

Yes, rhetoric is high in Chesler’s The Death of Feminism, as are gross generalizations. “A Democrat today means that one is a liberal,” she writes. “And liberals are no longer what they once were or who they should be. Today liberals are more left than ever before. Many engage in totalitarian groupthink… One cannot be pro-choice and anti-gay marriage, nor [sic] can one oppose both rape and affirmative action. One has to sign on to the entire politically correct agenda or risk being attacked and ostracized.”

Lord knows which Democrats Chesler is referring to as most pundits have noted the Party’s rightward swing on issues including abortion, civil liberties and pre-emptive war. Similarly, it is impossible to discern which academic institutions are breeding the array of youthful revolutionaries Chesler references. (Needless to say, if the Dems and the universities were as bold as Chesler charges, we might not be in Iraq, the Patriot Act might not have won Congressional passage, and the U.S. Constitution might include an amendment giving women equal rights. But I digress.)

Chesler grounds her theories in highly selective personal observations and anecdotes. Throughout, she lambastes left-feminists for making Shar’ia Law seem like just another religious option and for failing to denounce the oppressive garments mandated by Muslim modesty. Had they done so, she suggests, feminists could have liberated these sisters; instead, they parade through European and U.S streets “veiled, like ghosts.”

A chapter entitled “My Afghan Captivity” seeks to further pull readers’ heartstrings. In it, Chesler recounts her 1961 elopement, at age 20, with her Afghani Muslim sweetheart, Ali. After getting married, the couple travel to Ali’s birthplace in Kabul; the tale of his family’s treatment of her is horrific, rife with insults, bad food, and mobility restrictions. Yet the story seems to be missing some important details. A selfdescribed Orthodox Jew, Chesler never discusses her family’s reaction to the betrothal. Were Muslims the only people to denounce this improbable match, or did her family sit Shiva, mourning her marriage as if she had died? More generally, how did the insular Borough Park, Brooklyn, community in which Chesler was reared deal with her worldly aspirations? Later, following her eventual divorce, was all forgiven?

While Chesler never mentions these topics, she does offer a veritable Megillah of horrors suffered by Muslim females. Her analysis of the ways women police one another to enforce misogynist customs is insightful, although her refusal to acknowledge that they are not the only ones to oppress their own is troubling.

And therein lies the central failing of The Death of Feminism. Chesler believes that stopping Muslim fundamentalism should be a top priority the world over. She further believes that there is a universal code of conduct that can, and should, be followed. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, she implies that outsiders can impose new social mores on Muslim countries without engendering either backlash or resentment. It is as if she envisions a Koran-reading cadre eager for consumerist bounty. What’s more, as Chesler conjures this illusion, she ignores Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, thereby demonizing Muslims and setting up a dichotomy in which some fundamentalists—notably brown-skinned Arabs and Africans in non-Western attire—are presented as more dangerous than men like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson or the Lubavitcher rebbes.

“Muslims in the West should not have the right to face-veil their girls and women; practice female genital mutilation; arrange forced marriages; or commit crimes such as polygamy, wife-beating, child abuse and shame-based honor murders,” she writes. I agree. But are Muslims here clamoring for such imperatives? Secondly, aren’t there already laws against these practices that cover everyone?

Chesler’s biases are blatant. She rails against progressives and gratuitously criticizes feminists including The Nation’s Katha Pollitt. She dismisses critics of U.S. foreign policy as cultural relativists and presents political disagreements as a breakdown in civility, as if it is the height of diplomatic discourse when Dick Cheney calls opponents of the Iraq War shameless, reprehensible cowards.

Still, the essence of the matter—something Chesler misses— is that all forms of religious fundamentalism threaten justiceloving people. Esther Kaplan, in With God on Their Side, wrote that the current war on terror can be seen as a “religious crusade by Christian fundamentalists at home and Islamic fundamentalists abroad.” While Chesler is rooting for the Christians, those who disagree with her face a thornier dilemma: how to make secular humanism a desirable alternative. In addition, she offers no guidance on how—or if—to limit cultural autonomy and promote assimilation amongst groups as diverse as the Amish, Hasidic Jews, Native Americans or socially conservative Muslim immigrants.

As recent violence in France made clear, ignoring these issues has dire consequences. Sadly, Chesler’s rant about the “Islamization of the West” does nothing to address this or to advance women’s rights. Yet she is right about one thing: Feminism is incompatible with fundamentalism. Indeed, if feminism is to survive as a political movement, it must work to vanquish this enemy both at home and abroad.


Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based teacher, writer and activist. She is coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

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