Born 1 October 1940, Brooklyn, New York
Daughter of Leon and Lillian Hammer Chesler; married NachmyBronstein, 1973; children: Ariel, 1978
In 1972 Phyllis Chesler published the controversial Women and Madness, a book which quickly became seminal to 20th-century feminism. Chesler is a psychology professor and psychotherapist as well as a feminist activist and writer. She attended Bard College and the New School for Social Research, from which she earned a Ph.D. in 1969. She has written and lectured widely on a variety of subjects, especially those dealing with the cultural and psychological significance of male and female roles. Chesler has taught at the Institute for Developmental Studies, at the New School for Social Research, and at City University of New York. She is politically active in the women's movement and is the founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1970) and the National Women's Health Network (1976).
Women and Madness takes the feminist position that, throughout history, women have been assigned a secondary and aberrant status in society; consequently, they have often been seen as mad—simply by definition. According to Chesler, mental illness in women is the result either of a dysfunctional exaggeration of the prescribed sex role or of its unacceptable rejection.
Chesler devotes a chapter to the way female patients are viewed clinically and points out that mental health in women is measured by the extent to which they adjust to a role which demands guilt, conservatism, passivity, and self-hatred. She exposes a double standard of diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in women and men, and discusses in some detail the relationship between the female role and the psychiatric symptoms of depression, frigidity, and attempted suicide.
Women, Money and Power (1976), was coauthored with Emily Jane Goodman, a lawyer and also a feminist. It too asks provocative questions but only implies the answers. The book, relying heavily on statistics and documented case studies, begins by dispelling the notion that American women either control money or have the power to manipulate it. In alternating chapters, Chesler and Goodman discuss in psychological and legal terms the economic powerlessness of women. Both conclude that "women, by definition, have been shut out of the male aristocracy, in which a few have greater power than the many, but in which all members, as men, have more power than almost all women." Chesler deals with the ways women have found for surviving in a society which deprives them of all social and economic control; she emphasizes that whatever status and economic privilege women have, they have "by association" with husbands and fathers.
Chesler's 1978 book, About Men, has been hailed by feminists as a classic—the first book ever to be written about the masculine experience as such. Unlike the preceding books, About Men is speculative rather than scholarly. Here Chesler relies heavily on the insights of myth, art, literature, and personal experience. She suggests men, to an even greater extent than women, have failed to come to terms with the essentiality of human relationships. She depicts the bitterness of unresolved conflict between fathers, sons, and brothers being projected on women in the form of hostility and envy—thus isolating men in a society where only males have value.
Chesler writes: "A sexual revolution might destroy what men do so well together, away from women: the making of Hisstory, the making of war, the triumph of phallic will…. I write in the belief that understanding can weaken the worship of death—that has dominated patriarchal consciousness and human action for so long."
In 1977, before About Men was published, Chesler became pregnant with her first child, son Ariel. Chesler's With Child: A Diary of Motherhood was published in 1979, a journal of her experiences during pregnancy, childbirth, and her first year as a mother. In this work, punctuated with insights as well as unresolved questions, Chesler gives voice to rarely expressed ambivalence of motherhood, the intensity with which a mother both loves and hates her child. This book marked a turn in Chesler's career, and the beginning of a series of books concerned with mothering. While With Child explores the personal aspects of mothering, her next two works examine the legal side of motherhood. In Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986), Chesler exposes gender biases in the child-custody decision process. Refuting the popular belief mothers are given preference in custody cases, Chesler shows that in the contested custody cases she studied, fathers were awarded custody more often than were mothers, even when the father was abusive.
Chesler's concerns and arguments about motherhood and custody were crystallized in a single case. Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M. (1988) discusses the Baby M. surrogate-mother case of the 1980s as it reflected wider societal patterns of paternal rights and maternal obligations, the abuse of women by the legal system, and of women and children through the practice of adoption. Chesler also describes her own involvement in the case, which extended beyond the role of author to that of supporter and advocate for the biological mother, Mary Beth Whitehead.
In Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness (1994), Chesler chronicles the negative effects of bias against women in the health care and criminal justice systems. This collection of previously published essays includes tales of women on trial, women in psychiatric institutions, and women in custody battles. Chesler also contends that the media contributes to this patriarchal bias. She followed up this title with Feminist Foremothers in Women's Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health (1995), which she coedited with Esther D. Rothblum and Ellen Cole. Letters to a Young Feminist (1997) contains brief essays about such diverse topics as marriage, the pro-choice movement, abuse, the working world, and political oppression, which Chesler directs "loving voice" to a new generation of women. She wants to help feminists and potential feminists alike "to see [their] place in the historical scheme of things" and to "choose whether and how to stand [their] feminist ground in history." Chesler recounts not only what feminists have accomplished, but what still remains to be done, while arguing for solidarity against the patriarchal bias she documented in earlier works.
Chesler is a provocative and controversial writer whose work has been both hailed and dismissed by critics. Reviewers have criticized her books as messy, biased, and inconclusive, while others have found the same books to be groundbreaking, courageous, and convincing.
American Scholar (1973). Journal of Marriage and the Family (Aug. 1980). LJ (1 Sept. 1976). NYTBR (31 Dec. 1972, 4 April 1976, 5 Jan. 1986, 26 June 1988). Psychology Today (Feb. 1986). PW (13 May 1988). WS (1973).
—JUDITH P. JONES
UPDATED BY EILEEN M. ANDERSON
LEAH J. SPARKS