In the final of four excerpts from Phyllis Chesler’s ‘A Politically Incorrect Feminist,’ destroying feminism’s own best minds
By Phyllis Chesler
August 30, 2018
In the mid-1960s, young African, Hispanic, Native, and Caucasian American activists became a driving force for civil rights, free speech, and academic freedom. In manifestos, conferences, and teach-ins, young Americans also opposed the Vietnam War, capitalism, and racism; some eventually became willing to use violence. The mainly male leaders fought about socialism versus communism, totalitarianism versus democratic socialism, and whether Soviet Russia or the United States was more to blame for the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. However, the quarrelsome male socialists, Black Power, Native, and Latino activists shut most women out of significant roles in these debates. In 1965 and 1966, many male movement leaders expected women to make them coffee, do the typing and mimeographing, and provide sex.
As feminist ideas gained currency, women on the left refused to be treated in this way. They began drafting manifestos of their own, which were treated with contempt. Some men also humiliated the women. When Marilyn Webb, a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), tried to speak about women’s liberation, the men yelled: “Take her off the stage and fuck her.”
SDS morphed into the Weather Underground. Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dohrn, and Mark Rudd, among many others, began a program of bombing commercial and government buildings and robbing banks. They held up a Brink’s armored car and killed a police officer. Some blew themselves up by accident. Survivors went underground.
The FBI spied on the Weather Underground as well as on Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, and SDS. Weirdly, the FBI also infiltrated nonviolent feminist groups and collectives; informers and agents provocateurs filed reports that many of us later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The FBI had been scouring hippie and lesbian feminist communities in its search for radical left-wing female fugitives. They found no one. Then, in 1974, the Weather Underground fugitive Jane Alpert, who had been in touch with Robin Morgan at Ms. magazine, surfaced voluntarily and met with the FBI. Jane was ready to denounce male leftists. She’d become a feminist.
All hell broke loose.
In 1969 Jane had participated in eight bombings of commercial and government buildings in New York City. These bombs led to no deaths or injuries.
She was sentenced to 27 months in jail. Soon after, the FBI arrested five more fugitives, all feminists with whom Jane had lived or traveled. Robin defended Jane by blaming some of the newly arrested women for not taking proper precautions.
Jane had one wish before she went to jail: She wanted to meet the feminists whose work she’d been reading. We gathered in Kate Millett’s loft. When Jane arrived, Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson exited noisily and in a rage. They believed that Jane had named names and was therefore responsible for the arrest of one of her former underground comrades and for the imprisonment of several feminists.
In 1974, Ms. published Jane’s ode to “Mother Right,” which Gloria Steinem introduced. “Mother right” was a “new feminist theory” that claimed that women are naturally nurturing and compassionate caregivers, biologically different from, and superior to, patriarchal men, who wage war against each other and against women, whom they victimize.
At the time I wanted to believe that this theory could be true. But if it was, how to explain women’s cruelty to children, men, and each other?
Robin had formed a “Circle of Support” for Jane that divided the feminist movement in an ugly way: Either you believed in a matriarchy or you didn’t; either you believed in class warfare or you didn’t; either you were against the government or you were for it; either you sympathized with Jane and Robin or you viewed them as traitors.
Feminists had already fought about whether class warfare against the system or reform of the system would free most women. We had fought about whether lesbianism and identity politics were the cutting edge of feminism or the most reactionary, narcissistic, and self-defeating of positions. White feminists berated themselves constantly because women of color were not with us in droves. Some of us made genuine overtures to try to interest women of color in joining us; others made only token efforts. While there were many important individual exceptions, most feminists of color chose to fight for women’s rights with other women of color or for racial-minority rights with both men and women of color.
Jane and Robin were supported by Gloria, whom Robin had persuaded to back Jane’s position by having Gloria introduce Jane’s article and giving it prime space in Ms. This led to a great division among feminists. It prepared us to believe the worst about each other: it unleashed demons, exposed fault lines, and was the training ground for what later came to be known as the great feminist sex wars about pornography, prostitution, and censorship. As I said at the time, the FBI could have saved taxpayers money by leaving us alone: Feminists did not need agents to do us in. We did a pretty good job of that ourselves.