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An Interview With Phyllis Chesler: On Female Violence And Feminist Revenge

the cover of phyllis chessler's book

Sometimes I’ll hear people condemn feminists for openly disagreeing, but I think disagreeing is fine, if only the women of my generation understood that.”

In a culture steeped in male violence against women, whether it’s physical assault or online harassment,  the concept of violent female revenge can sound exhilarating. Given the high rates of women murdered by male partners, and the simultaneously low rates of male rapists given jail time, it’s hard to not fantasize about a vigilante giving these men their comeuppance, or at least, a female figure that invokes the same fear in cis men that women face daily.

Feminists have been grappling with the complexities of these fantasies for decades. On one hand, it’s clear that more real-world violence is not the answer to a culture already poisoned by it, regardless of justification. But also, can we at least imagine unbridled revenge?!

The existence of, and potential for radical female violence is one of the many difficult subjects psychotherapist, author, and longtime feminist Phyllis Chesler tackles in her latest book, A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women, The book itself traces Chesler’s journey from her Orthodox Jewish childhood in Brooklyn up until the present day, primarily focusing on her experiences during the heyday of the second-wave feminist movement. While it’s clear her writings come from a place of passion and respect, Chesler doesn’t shy away from giving a realistic picture of the movement’s in-fighting and the topics that caused derision between women vying for justice.

One of the most fascinating subjects in Chesler’s book is the movement’s division over the overtly violent rhetoric of Valerie Solanas, the woman who penned the infamous SCUM Manifesto and later attempted to murder Andy Warhol. In later years, a similar division would spring up surrounding the trial of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a woman plunged into sex work as a teen, who later murdered seven men. Her first victim, Richard Mallory, was a convicted rapist Wuornos claimed she murdered in self-defense. Her narrative around the other victims shifted throughout the trial, regardless, the story of a serially abused sex worker reaping revenge on a violent man both enlivened and divided the feminist community.

Given the cartoonish conflations often made between feminism and man-hating, some feminist leaders, Betty Friedan in particular, did not support the notion of aligning with either Solanas or Wuornos, particularly because neither IDed as feminist themselves. Their anger was, let’s say, bad for the brand. However, Chesler and many others, felt empathy towards both women, kept an open dialogue with Solanas and later wrote the forward to a collection of Wuornos’ letters.

In conjunction with the release of her new book, I was lucky enough to interview her about how the feminist movement has evolved, why arguing is crucial to a movement, and the allure of violent female vigilantes.

Isaac: Do you think the internet has created greater understanding between feminists with different ideologies and priorities?

Chesler: I think if feminists of my generation had understood that people with ideas are always fighting with each other, and taking ideas very seriously, it would’ve helped. If you look at military history, you’ll quickly see that in every movement there was a falling out of line. What I never liked was incivility, or never speaking to someone again because you disagree on one issue. The ideological demand for saluting to one flag fully with your whole heart is somewhat totalitarian. We’re all going to have different priorities. Intersectionality is not new. We didn’t have a word for it at that point, we just understood that everything was related and that each woman chose her priorities.

I was thinking about how people talk about intersectionality like it’s a new issue. Looking at the history of feminism, the issue of intersectionality was always there.

Totally, but Kimberle Crenshaw had to coin the phrase for it to really enter the conversation on a mainstream level. Sometimes I’ll hear people condemn feminists for openly disagreeing, but I think disagreeing is fine, if only the women of my generation understood that. Sexism is like racism and homophobia, you have to actively try to unlearn it. Even if you’re a woman, you have to unlearn your own bias against women. We didn’t want to understand the “Mean Girl” stuff when I was younger, which is why I wrote about it in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.

There were many feminists at the beginning, I was one of them, who said “we have to praise and uplift women because we’ve been kept down for so long.” But since there are so many differences between individual women, there will always be fighting. I think your generation is much more accepting of that truth. But my generation felt like our hearts would break if other women betrayed us right after we found the language for sexism.

Since there are so many differences between individual women, there will always be fighting. Click To Tweet

I was really fascinated with Betty Friedan’s desire to keep Valerie Solanas out of the movement because of her violent radical rhetoric. Would you consider Friedan’s concern an issue of respectability politics?

Betty wanted the feminist movement to stay above reproach, to have an impeccable image. Valerie was a legitimate lunatic. She was brilliant, the SCUM Manifesto is brilliant, but she was serious—she wasn’t kidding. So, Betty was horrified by it, she was afraid people would start believing the feminist movement was full of lesbians who wanted to kill men. But Valerie stirred our imagination because she was so out there, she was our outlaw. She wasn’t actually a feminist herself, she thought that NOW was a lady’s luncheon. In a sense she was right, because we weren’t breaking up buildings or rioting at NOW, but we also passed some important legislation.

I was also fascinated to read that a similar dynamic played out later with Aileen Wuornos, that feminists were divided about whether to support her trial.

Wuornos had a worse childhood, she had one of the worst childhoods I’ve heard about. Valerie, like Wuornos later, thought feminist interests were a form of social climbing, that feminists wanted to get famous off of her. I got involved in Wuornos’ case because I wanted to expand the Battered Woman Syndrome defense to apply to sex workers. I believed that she killed the first man out of self-defense. She inspired an opera, two plays, books, a movie. I wrote an op-ed about her because while she wasn’t the first serial killer, she felt different, women tend to kill husbands or children and we don’t hear about it as often. This was about killing a series of strange men, white men, adult men, that was never heard of. I wanted to check her out, I had to move a lot of pieces to get her to call me from jail. I called her and I said “Lee I’m from a feminist government from the future and we need you” and she was on board.

Lee wanted to sell her story and make money, she was a capitalist, and I was an abolitionist. I had nothing but compassion for her. It’s interesting that women, feminists, lesbians, were thrilled by this notion of an action hero. There was this sense that she died for our sins, that we secretly wanted to reap the same violent revenge on men but never would.

Totally. I think there’s a natural fascination with the idea of female vengeance. I’m curious, with your experience writing about mental health and violence, do you have any theories on why there aren’t more female serial killers of Lee’s caliber?

When women kill in self-defense in a marriage or partnership, they go to jail. No one is visiting them, no one is marrying them like male serial killers. This is a very powerful punishment. Oftentimes women who are traumatized and abused as children who may be violent take it out on other women or children. But they’re statistically less likely to go up against men violently, and if they do it’s just one, usually a partner.

Women often turn violence against ourselves, women who have been incest victims are often angrier at the mothers who couldn’t save them than they are at the father who raped them. They feel the mother who looked the other way, because she needed the support of the father. Women are very tightly controlled, we get treated as lesser early in life, and then we become surveilled and manipulated by the sexual harassment that is completely normalized everywhere.

When women kill in self-defense in a marriage or partnership, they go to jail. No one is visiting them, no one is marrying them like male serial killers. Click To Tweet

We’re still fighting for a lot of rights that you were fighting for in the 1970s. What is one thing you’re surprised we’re still fighting for?

One is obliged to undertake the struggle, but not to complete it. You do it for your lifetime, and then the other generations come and pick it up. That is, if feminist knowledge hasn’t been systematically disappeared—which it has. Sadly, I think that our inability to stop pornography, torture pornography, has increased the normalization of it. That may make me a feminist of the unfun kind, I like fun, and I have fun. But I think not pushing for greater regulation of the content of porn was a loss and it was a very divided issue because feminists feared censorship and feared an alliance with right-wing forces that were also against pornography. But in my opinion, that was a loss on my watch. I wish we could have stopped the sex slavery of children and women featured in certain venues of porn, on our watch that traffic has proliferated and been normalized.

What is one thing you’ve seen progress the most?

I think progress has been made with LGBTQ rights. I always thought being gay was like being an artist, very bohemian. There’s a huge improvement in lesbian custody battles and gay male custody battles.

I would love to be able to say there’s been a proliferation of women’s thinking and artistry, quantum leaps. And yet it’s also been disappeared in my own life time, some of the most radical voices from the late 60s and early 1970s stopped being taught by the 1980s. When I ask younger women about Mary Wollstonecraft, Joan Stewart Mill, Matilda Gage, if you don’t start with that you’ve got nothing. There’s a couple of major historians of women’s—Mary Beard, Eleanor Flexner, when I discovered them I was so excited. We didn’t read Sojourner Truth, we read African-American men, we read maybe Virginia Woolf and George Elliott.

Not all changes are made by going on the street, that’s an important expression, it’s theater. Real change can be made that way, a lot of change is made in boring meetings and courthouses.

Looping back to the gendered culture of violence, and its effects on mental health, do you think the conversation about mental health has evolved and moved in the direction you were hoping?

We’ve moved away from institutionalizing people, but now we leaving them on the streets homeless. So, two extremes, both bad. I don’t know if my pioneering work that made a difference in the beginning is still being taught in medical school. Do battered women now understand that they’re battered? Yes. Is it understood that abuse causes PTSD symptoms? Yes. Do we have good services for rape victims and battered women? No. We pioneered the conversation about rape, there are rape kits now. The conversation about rape is more understanding and pro-woman, but rape victims are still seen as a drag. There’s this attitude of: “other people have dealt with this, why don’t you be quiet.”

We now understand a lot more about Trauma and Recovery—coincidentally the title of an excellent book I reviewed in The New York Times. The author, Judith Lewis Herman, dignified women’s mental illness by beginning the book with the combat veterans who were WWI shell shocked, and linking their manifestations of PTSD to incest and rape victims. Our work collectively began to give more dignity to women who have anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, who are self-destructive. The same destroy their own cases in court because they can’t trust themselves. Is there more sympathy and understanding? Yes. Is there enough? No. I think one important progress is there are more memoirs by young women writing about their mental health experiences and their eating disorders, which are often intimately connected to sexual abuse. There are now feminist therapists, there are lesbian feminist therapists, there are lesbian therapists of color. It’s a good thing, but it’s still not enough.