Women and Madness, 1972
Women, Money, and Power, 1976 (with Emily Jane Goodman)
About Men, 1978
With Child: A Diary of Motherhood, 1979 (autobiography)
Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody, 1986
Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M, 1988
Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, 1994
Letters to a Young Feminist, 1997
Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, 2001
Feminist Foremothers in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health, 1995 (with Esther D. Rothblum and Ellen Cole)
Phyllis Chesler, a powerful voice in the feminist movement since the second wave of feminism of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, is an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at City University of New York’s College of Staten Island. She is a founder of the National Women’s Health Network and a groundbreaking activist on women’s mental health issues. The daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Chesler was the first one in her family to attend college. Her mother, Lillian, who had been the first in her family to go to high school, was a traditional housewife who took Phyllis to ballet, drama, piano, Hebrew, and painting lessons. Her relationship with her father, Leon Chesler, a Polish Jewish immigrant who drove a truck, was warmly intimate.
Her girlhood in the 1950’s was typical of the era; there was no sex education, and no adult relative ever discussed normal bodily changes. Like most other girls of her generation, she wore girdles and crinolines and endured early curfews and no dates. What saved Chesler and offered a certain amount of freedom was books. She haunted the public library, and the more she read, the more eager she was for the world beyond her childhood reality. She earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and language at Bard College in 1963 and a doctorate in psychology at the New School for Social Research in 1969.
Following her formal education, Chesler continued her research and clinical work at many facilities, including New York Medical Hospital, New School for Social Research, Yeshiva University, and Metropolitan Hospital. Much of this experience led to her influential book Women and Madness, whose thesis is that because the mental health system is patriarchal, women are often falsely labeled “mad” if they do not conform to stereotypical feminine roles. Published in 1972, the book sold more than two million copies, was reissued twice, has been cited in thousands of journals, and has been translated into many European languages. It was published when new women’s organizations were founded daily and women were beginning to feel a sense of collective destiny. At the end of the seventies, the founding group of feminists dispersed, and many of them changed focus. Chesler, however, continued to pursue her feminist advocacy.
Chesler believes “it is important to put your body where your ideas are . . . . I tried to put my body on the barricade.” It is difficult to draw a line between Chesler’s private life and her activism. She chose to have a baby at age thirty-seven with certain assets: her husband, Israeli Nachmy Bronstein, who was determined to share the responsibility of childrearing equally; a career to provide for the family; and a supportive network of friends. She expected motherhood to be respected but was dismayed when she realized women with children are more often punished and trivialized. In With Child, a biographical account of her pregnancy up to her son’s first birthday, Chesler tells of the ironies of motherhood, the lessons her baby taught her, feelings of profound love coupled with resentment, and her need to retain some part of herself privately. The book, acclaimed by feminists, has helped thousands of women understand their own conflicts regarding childbearing.
Drawing on data collected during twenty years of research, Chesler released another bombshell with the publication of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, based on the idea that other women may be a girl’s worst enemies. This book documents her intellectual journey from a belief in the solidarity of sisterhood to the perception of many varieties of indirect aggression by women toward women. With this publication, she broke ranks with many feminists to whom she had close ties.
In addition to Chesler’s solid record of publishing, she often takes an active role in discussions of feminist issues. She has appeared on the Cable News Network (CNN), National Public Radio, Court TV, Nightline, The History Channel, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (formerly the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), Washington Journal, Good Morning America, Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo, and radio and television programs all over the United States. She continues to provoke thought, controversy, and insight into feminist issues.