Woman's Inhumanity to Woman by Phyllis Chesler
Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman
by Phyllis Chesler
Thunder’s Mouth Press. 551 pp. $22.95
In 1970 Phyllis Chesler strode onto the feminist stage with a speech to the American Psychological Association demanding that the profession pay a million dollars in reparations for all the poorly “adjusted” women whom its members had tranquilized, seduced, hospitalized, raped, electro-shocked, and lobotomized. The money was never forthcoming, but Chesler’s stunt was the launch of a brilliant career. Her best-selling Women and Madness followed two years later, succeeded over the decades by eight more books on the plight of women under the “patriarchy.” Though her fame eventually waned, Chesler’s radicalism did not. As she recently wrote, “It may be 1998, but in my view we are still living in the 1950’s.”
Could it be, then, that Woman’s Inhumanity To Woman, Chester’s latest book, represents a conversion, a parting of ways between our era’s most influential social movement and one of its minor stars? Feminists generally have depicted women as empathetic and caring creatures, victims of male aggression and dominance. Chesler appears to want to overturn at least part of this orthodoxy. As she relentlessly argues, women give as good as they get, especially toward each other.
Chesler begins with a run-through of the scientific and historical evidence on female violence. Among primates, evolutionary psychologists have found, females often bid for “alpha” status by trying to sabotage the reproductive cycles of their sisters. Mother lemurs and chimps have been known to kill and even cannibalize their competitors’ babies.
As for the human side of things, the gentler sex is not always so gentle. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian mothers-in-law frequently beat their son’s wives, whom they treat more like slaves than like daughters. Genital mutilation in Africa, honor killings in Islamic countries, burnings over dowry disputes in India—all take place against women with the enthusiastic support of other women. In the Western world, Southern white women humiliated and beat their female slaves, while gangs of young women in today’s Mexico and Los Angeles visit mayhem on each other, often in arguments over men.
More commonly, Chesler relates, females battle each other by resorting to what social scientists call “indirect aggression”—gossip, manipulation, backstabbing—methods at which they can be very skilled indeed. Chesler gives as a prime example the remark of Mary McCarthy upon encountering Susan Sontag in the early 1960’s. “Oh,” she said, looking the younger writer up and down. “You’re the imitation me.” Researchers in a number of countries have found that such nastiness starts early. Schoolgirls use their considerable social skills to jockey for status within a clique and, when slighted, keep their resentments boiling far longer than do boys.
Some of this behavior, Chesler believes, can be explained by psychoanalytical theory. She speculates that women’s penchant for indirect aggression results from the frustrated romance of the mother-daughter bond. Longing for intimacy, girls may be enraged to find that their mothers reserve most of their affection for their husbands. To this Chesler adds a portrait of the “Demetrian” mother—named for the goddess Demeter, who kept her grown daughter Persephone in tow six months a year—who feels betrayed when her child shows signs of independence.
This is not to suggest, Chesler hastens to add, that women alone are to blame for women’s inhumanity. Another culprit (needless to say) is the “patriarchy,” especially in today’s male-dominated workplace. She cites a study showing that female economists were more likely than their male counterparts to reject the proposals of women for National Science Foundation funding—a result, Chesler asserts, of women having to compete among themselves for a few token positions. Nor are things any better in office settings, where women obey the dictates of various dysfunctional “gender standards.” Thus, some female managers pretend to be caring mother figures in order to suppress dissent and demands for money, while others act, as one of Chesler’s subjects put it, like “male-impersonators.”
The book is also replete with examples of how Chesler herself has endured life in an estrogen-pumped war zone. Her own breathtakingly malicious mother “demanded, ordered, accused, threatened, punished, screamed. Slapped. Pulled hair.” Chesler mère bristled at hugging or kissing her daughter, criticized her relentlessly, and greeted her publications with remarks like, “What? Another book against the men?” Chesler also chronicles the envy her success has provoked in other women, some of whom tried to become her “intellectual daughters.” These women, we learn, stalked Chesler, left her murderous phone messages, plagiarized her work, and even told lies about her to her friends and colleagues.
Looking back, Chesler remembers the early days of the feminist movement with fondness. She and her fellow radicals were “smoldering figures of sin and soul . . . giants on the earth.” But she now believes they were denying the realities of female psychology. She questions feminist demonizing of the poet Ted Hughes, showing instead his wife Sylvia Plath’s penchant for paranoid rages, and tells tales about the rigged elections, whispering campaigns, and other internal cruelties of groups like NOW.
The problem, Chesler writes, was that feminists of her generation saw themselves as “the equivalent of a family or a religious order” and worshipped each leader “as if she were the Good Fairy Godmother.” Now this “lapsed Utopian,” as she calls herself, has been humbled. Feminists, she concludes, are “no worse—but no better—than any other group of human beings, male or female.”
As such statements suggest, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman has its lucid moments. Chesler is frequently an eloquent writer. She is especially interesting on family dynamics, and her notion of the “Demetrian” mother—who hasn’t known one?—deserves to go on a list of familiar sociological types. Though many of her supposed insights would have seemed tritely obvious to our corseted grandmothers, it is useful, in our own ideologically fogged times, to be reminded that women, like other fallen creatures, suffer from envy, ambition, pride, and resentment, and that they substitute cunning for force in their efforts to fashion the world to their liking.
Still, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman is so beset by intellectual hysteria, and so crammed with personal grievances, that most readers will find it more interesting as the unwitting biography of a flamboyantly self-obsessed late 20th-century feminist than as a serious analysis of female nature. Chesler leaves us with a weird phantasmagoria of girls behaving badly, a litany of the worst examples of feminine nastiness from literature, psychology, opera, myth, and (supposedly) ordinary experience.
Many of her anecdotes—and there are scores of them, from clients, friends, and acquaintances, or friends of friends and acquaintances—have a gaspy, “can you believe she did that?” quality. There is the blind mother who met her adult daughter in a restaurant and reached into her blouse to see if she was wearing a bra, the mother who did not call her daughter for three months after the death of the younger woman’s twelve-year-old child, the woman who lives three blocks away from her wheelchair-bound sister but never visits her.
As for Chesler’s account of her own experiences, it is suspiciously self-serving. One minute she laments the effect of her mother’s exceedingly difficult personality on her own development, the next she announces, “Truly I am the daughter of male experts, I am not my mother’s daughter.” (If one thing emerges clearly from the book, it is that Chesler is her mother’s daughter.) As she tells it, it has been her misfortune since childhood to be surrounded by viciously jealous, endlessly spiteful, grasping females who sought to do her harm.
Surely it is no accident that Chesler leaves out of her account the most memorable story from one of her earlier books—about a party in the mid-70’s at which she herself slugged in the face a woman who had angered her. The exploit was liberating, she reported then, but recounting it here would point too obviously to the fact that Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, like that punch decades ago, is Chesler’s payback to foes real and imagined.
Although Chesler continues to believe that feminism saved her soul, one cannot help wondering whether the movement was not especially damaging to a young woman prone to theatrics, vengeance, and egotism. All revolutionary movements attract big personalities who use ideological battles as a stage for their petty resentments. But feminism, which tried to erase the boundaries between the personal and the political, has been an especially fertile ground for such self-dramatization.
“Only recently,” Chesler writes, “have I been able to acknowledge that my own bold ideas and my passionate, direct style are probably very threatening to other women.” She knows whereof she speaks when she says that women also aspire to be the biggest lemur in the jungle. She latched on to a movement that gave that ambition a voice without teaching her to modulate it.