Feminism and Fame

From The Tablet:  https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/267502/feminism-and-fame

In the third of four excerpts from Phyllis Chesler’s ‘A Politically Incorrect Feminist,’ fear of flying

By Phyllis Chesler
August 17, 2018

I had chosen to work with Betty Prashker, who was Kate Millett’s editor at Doubleday.

After Kate read Women and Madness, she immediately endorsed it, which made me very happy. This was new—women being able to blurb each other’s books in a way that impressed publishers. I called Kate to thank her. We made plans to get together.

I visited Kate at her farm near Poughkeepsie, New York. She viewed the land she had bought in a 19th-century kind of way, as the only thing that one can count on. Kate planned to grow Christmas trees and sell them to pay the taxes and for renovations. The property had three big buildings that needed upgrading and perpetual care. Kate also envisioned the place as a summer retreat for women artists, who would work on the farm half the day (mowing, planting, building) and on their own work the rest of the time.

Kate and I had a wonderful evening. She grilled thick steaks and opened bottle after bottle of wine, and we laughed about “our movement.” It was a bit like being in a college dormitory or like having a sister, something I knew nothing about.

We were up quite late. Kate said: “They may think they’ve seen everything, but wait until they see you. You’re something else.”

Our dear friend Linda Clarke tells me that Kate told her: “Phyllis is going straight to the top.”

How much pleasure I took in being able to pledge the sorority of our first feminist icon. Icons are mesmerizing. Kate was there first, right on the cover of Time magazine. Kate had died for our sins, so to speak. Kate knew how to boss women around, but all the bullying she’d done could not compare with how prominent anti-feminists mocked her and how lesbian feminists had bullied her into coming out as bisexual and/or as a lesbian. Kate also suffered resentment, envy, even hatred because she was famous. She wrote about this in her next book, Flying.

A year later, our editor, Betty, followed me into the bathroom and urged me to persuade Kate to remove “all the lesbian material” from Flying, because with it the book was not going to fly at Doubleday. I told her I couldn’t do that. Betty probably feared that the lesbian content would doom the book. How could she have known that a gay and lesbian movement would soon become a major and visible force fighting for equality?

Perhaps Betty also did not like the self-indulgent and demanding voice of the book, which I found Joycean and was the very thing that I admired about it.

In 1973, my friend Erica Jong’s comic novel Fear of Flying was published. It garnered John Updike’s effusive praise and began its path to best-sellerdom. Kate lost Doubleday and moved to Bob Gottlieb at Knopf, where the book was published in 1974 and bombed. I love both books.


Before the 1970s, most women who worked in publishing were secretaries and editorial assistants, were grossly underpaid, and watched as young man after young man was promoted to editor. Reviews of women’s books were not as frequent or as positive as reviews of books by men; more men reviewed books in mainstream and intellectual media than women did. Eventually feminists protested this and made some headway, but all too soon editors began to tap feminists who were at loggerheads ideologically to review each other’s works, which they were only too happy to do.

In the 1960s, women did not write feminist books. Women wrote some best-sellers, but mainly they were cookbooks or about sex, not liberation. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966) were sensations. Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique (1963) was not an immediate best-seller.

However, from 1970 to 1975, “dancing dog” feminists (the phrase is Cynthia Ozick’s) turned out book after book. We were sought after, written up, interviewed, and could do no wrong. Suddenly our work was celebrated, and publishers or other writers gave us book parties.

At a book party for Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Vivian Gornick rushed up to me, breathless and panicked.

“What does she want from me?” Vivian pleaded. “What am I supposed to do?”

“She” was the lesbian activist Rita Mae Brown.

Rita Mae casually strolled by and said: “Just look at her beautiful green cat eyes. I can’t stop looking at them.”

She was completely and defiantly oblivious to the panic she was causing.

Rita Mae, a daughter of poverty, went on to publish Rubyfruit Jungle, live briefly with the tennis star Martina Navratilova, settle down, fox-hunt in the Southern countryside, and write best-selling detective novels with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown.

Continue reading at:  https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/267502/feminism-and-fame

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