by Allison Leavitt a former Network intern.
"My generation of feminists and I hit the ground running. We were part of an extraordinary moment in history. I am extremely privileged. Women tell me that my work has saved and changed their lives." As a founder of the National Women's Health Network and a ground-breaking activist on women's mental health issues, Phyllis Chesler is part of the backbone of the feminist women's health movement. Her strength and persistence have led her through an extremely adventurous and productive life as she sought to fulfill her mission to create change and challenge established beliefs concerning women's mental health.
Chesler's activist career began in a time when new women's organizations were founded daily. The feeling was that everything was "impossible and possible. We had a sense of collective destiny and invulnerability that now seems naive." Being both an intern at a psychiatric ward and a psychoanalytical institute made Chesler realize that harmful attitudes towards women were ingrained in the practice and teaching of mental health. Phyllis Chesler saw first hand the disastrous consequences for women patients, which lead her to write her now classic book, Women and Madness.
The thesis of Women and Madness is that because the mental health system is patriarchal, women are often falsely labeled as being "mad" if they do not conform to stereotypical feminine roles. Chesler traces this mistreatment, which includes physical as well as mental abuse, back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Powerfully, Chesler discusses the history of putting women in mental institutions, the widespread use of addictive sedatives to control women, and the definition of "lesbianism" as mental illness. Her book articulated the mental "illness" experiences of women and, in drawing attention to the power hierarchies in the practice of the psychiatry, began to make change.
At the end of the 1970s, once the energy and the feelings of being invisible disappeared, there were new perspectives in place. This original group of feminists dispersed, and women went on their own to try and make a difference. Phyllis Chesler has indeed made her personal mark.
Women and Madness, published in October 1972, was "embraced immediately by other feminists and women in general." It has sold over two million copies, has been cited thousands of times in academic journals and popular media, and has been translated into many European languages. "I immersed myself in the psychoanalytic literature, located biographies and autobiographies of women; devoured mythology and anthropology . . . I began analyzing the "mental illness" statistics and relevant psychological and psychiatric mental health studies. I also began interviewing the experts: women patients.
The book came from this extraordinary experience of feminism in America at that moment, my involvement in it, how it inspired me . . . Because I wrote it and got it published at that particular moment in history, it had this electrifying connection with other women. I don't think this book would have had the influence it had without a feminist political movement being in the world."
Chesler, when asked if the situation has changed since the publication of Women and Madness, stated that feminist work has "altered the theories and practices in psychology and psychiatry by about 30%-a wild guess," and that roughly 15% actually put it into practice.
The majority of education is not taught by "feminists," but instead using very traditional methods that still pathologize women. She contends that women's studies programs unfortunately have gravitated toward non-radicals and non-activists. "After nearly thirty years of struggle, most radical feminists still have no institutional power. What we know dies with us. Without institutional power, we can't pass our knowledge on to the next generations. My greatest sorrow is that I have, so far, been prevented from continuously teaching the next generations in a hands-on way; and that my work, like so much radical feminist work has, over and over again, been 'disappeared' in my own lifetime."
Chesler states that it is difficult for feminists to get jobs. She remains in the same position she had before writing Women and Madness. Institutions often make life difficult for feminists, even though "we should be constructing the curricula!"
Chesler believes "it is important to put your body where your ideas are . . . I tried to keep my body on the barricade. I kept publishing, but, like so many other feminists, I didn't leave it at that. I also left my desk to create and maintain a visible opposition, rally in solidarity, raise funds for worthy causes, sign petitions, testify in courtrooms. Like other feminists and radicals, I faced hostility, contempt, even danger in the service of my ideals. I've paid to do things that never helped my "career," only hurt it. I've done things that have netted me death threats and FBI investigations, not prizes. But, that's no surprise. Being a feminist pioneer means that one can rarely benefit personally from one's own accomplishments; with luck, sometimes other women can."
When questioned about what she considers to be her major contribution, she replied, "That's a scary question. Maybe too soon to tell. My books and articles, surely. Giving speeches that saved women's' lives or sanity, and contributed to feminist awakening, among women and men. Co-founding the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) in 1969-70, and the National Women's Health Network in the early 1970s, was also a contribution."
Phyllis Chesler is a remarkable woman whose dedication to women's rights endures because she believes in it deep within her soul. "Feminist honor-in-action inspires me . . . I'm at my best, when I can join, support, encourage, witness feminist thoughts and deeds that are courageous, radical, talented, risky, generous. No we haven't 'lost;' feminism is not 'on the run.' The party's over, the velvet gloves are off, on both sides; we're in the trenches now, fighting for the soul of the world, for its ruling consciousness. I think we're putting up a hell of a struggle. May we endure, may we live to battle another day, may we acquit ourselves with honor."