Hadassah Elevates a 'Radical Feminist'
by E. J. Kessler
The first scholar named as research associate by Hadassah's new International Research Institute on Women, Phyllis Chesler, is a self-described "radical feminist" whose most famous book argues that women are driven crazy by the roles assigned to them in patriarchy and that psychiatry tries to crush female independence.
A professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York, Ms. Chesler is at the forefront of advocacy for rape victims, battered women and mothers' custody rights. She has long been active in Jewish feminist circles, such as the International Committee for Women of the Wall and the group that gathers yearly for the feminist seder immortalized in E. M. Broner's "The Telling." However, the Brooklyn psychologist and activist is best known for "Women and Madness" (Harcourt, Brace) a 1972 book, reprinted many times, that proposes a "radical liberation theology" to free women from the shackles imposed by "feminine psychology" and the Western world.
The Institute, which will be housed at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is Hadassah's latest push to be the address in the Jewish world for feminist concerns. Drawing attention to it is an announcement, timed to coincide with the Haddash's national convention in Chicago this week, that Barbara Streisand will be the honorary chairwoman of the board of directors. This is the first role in organized Jewish life for Ms. Streisand, who was slated to headline a memorial concert for Yitzhak Rabin but bowed out after pressure from the Orthodox, who object to women's public singing. "Streisand's participation in the Institute is a clear indication of its magnitude, as she lends her time and energy only to those projects which can make a real impact on people's lives," said Hadassah's national president, Marlene Post, in a statement.
Ms. Streisand, in a statement, called the Institute "one of the most exciting projects I have heard about in a long time" and "the first institute in the world that focuses the spotlight" on Jewish women. "As a Jewish woman, I have always been bothered by negative stereotypes about us," she said. "In my films, I have always tried to show Jewish women in a positive light."
Hadassah's feminist forays, however, including its promotion of the "Contract With Women of the USA" that came out of the United Nations' Beijing women's conference, have drawn fire from critics in the conservative women's movement. The critics claim that the Beijing principles cause the organization to support initiatives and figures that are out of step with the group's mainstream membership and its Zionist heritage.
According to the director of the Institute, Shulamith Reinharz, Ms. Chesler was chosen as someone "whose work deserves major recognition" for being "on the cutting edge…and willing to take the creative risks to advance knowledge." A second associate, photographer Joan Roth, has also been named.
Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin calls Ms. Chesler "an 'ovular' figure" in feminism. "her book 'Women and Madness' contributed something seismic to the general public's understanding of the double standard in mental health and extrapolating from that, double standards generally," she said.
Ms. Chesler's project as a research associate will be to write a book of essays about feminist contributions to Judaism. She told the Forward that the book would focus on the "extraordinary flowering of Jewish feminist genius," represented by the work of authors Ilana Pardes, Aviva Zornberg, Aviva Cantor and Judith Antonelli, among others – work that she believes "hasn't been properly witnessed in the non-Jewish academic and media world" and in the Jewish world itself. "Between the continuing anti-Semitism and the Jewish anti-feminism or misogyny, we have extraordinary works that are not being lost, but are not being put to proper use in the world," she said.
For Ms. Chesler, who grew up in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn's Borough Park, such work is the antidote to a Judaism that has always disenfranchised women, denying them learning and spiritual leadership "for 2000 years." She is looking forward to the Hadassah-Brandeis appointment. "I never had the [professional] opportunity of being all in one place – my Jewish self, my feminist self," said that psychologist, who has written nine books, among them, "Women, Money and Power" (Morrow), "About Men" (Simon & Schuster), "Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M" (Times Books) and "Patriarchy: notes of an Expert Witness" (Common Courage).
"What I wrote about in 'Women and Madness' on family violence applies to Jewish and Israeli families," she noted, ticking off incest, wife-battering, child abuse, sex role stereotyping and the glorification of marriage over all other women's roles as common pathologies.
Violence is present in the very idea of families, according to the psychologist. "Rape existed long before modern industrial capitalism, yet it seems an appropriate metaphor for that behavior (or social system) in which one man's pleasure or profit occurs only when someone else directly experiences physical pain or psychological humiliation," she writes in "Women and Madness." "I believe that the biological fact and significance of heterosexual rape and pregnancy were primary factors in the formatting of the patriarchal family. Also a primary factor was the man's need for proof of his genetic immortality; this need was so great that men felt entitled to colonize a woman's bod in order to ensure that her children were created by his sperm."
" 'Women and Madness' was not just a critique of psychiatry," she added of the book that is about to come out in a 25th-anniversary edition. "I was trying as a liberation psychologist to show how a colonized group that happens to be female 'leaves Egypt,' metaphorically speaking. Looking back, I've always been inspired by a liberation theology that has a strongly Jewish cast."
Ms. Chesler, who counts the struggles against anti-Semitism among feminists and on the left as one of her causes, complains that psychiatry is still a forum for a particular form of Jewish self-hatred. "Jewish women have been hated by their sons who become psychiatrists," she said. "The amount of mother-hatred and mother-blaming is off the wall."
She declines to pin the blame for the depredations of patriarchy on any systemic cause; sexists get away with their crimes, she relates, because of the same apathy that allowed Germany to get away with the Holocaust. "What causes men to be the oppressors? No one stops them," she mused. "The good people don't stop the bad people. That's how they do it."
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