When did I first meet Gloria Steinem? That’s lost in the mists of time. I was impressed by her 1964 exposé in Show magazine of a bunny’s life at the Playboy Club. However, that excellent piece sparked no movement, nor did it free Gloria from what I perceived as the tyranny of having to maintain a perfected female appearance.
Gloria has a “little girl lost” appeal about her that gets people to want to help and take care of her. It affected me that way too. She would sometimes look up at me with a trusting, even slightly helpless look, and it worked like a charm. The effect is somewhat unnerving as well as flattering. Neither of us was a lesbian, although it was a subject we sometimes discussed. We were both told, over and over again, that lesbianism was either a more perfect form of feminism or a form of excessive man-hating.
The first time I was attracted to a woman (not that it led anywhere) I told Gloria about it immediately, as if it were some kind of breakthrough.
She sighed and asked, “Do you think it will ever happen to me?” Gloria wasn’t part of the downtown Manhattan feminist scene.
Her activism was preceded by the revolutionary speak-outs on abortion and on rape; the consciousness-raising groups; the sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations; the founding of NOW; and the enormous proliferation of feminist articles, books, and ideas. So did the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and hundreds of amazing feminist articles and books, including Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Shulie Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate.
Gloria came to the party a bit late, but when she did she desperately wanted to be part of it.
Bella Abzug pulled Gloria into the National Women’s Political Caucus. Bella was a civil rights lawyer and an antiwar-antinuclear activist in Women Strike for Peace. She didn’t start out as a feminist, but she was a quick learner. The woman, the politician—the champion—in her saw an opening in women’s fight for equal rights. In 1970 she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bella was teaching Gloria everything; she took Gloria everywhere, introduced her to everyone—a canny move because Gloria drew the cameras and the laughter. Bella was a heavyweight; Gloria was her arm candy. Bella bellowed; Gloria charmed.
Bella was a colorful New York character, a little bit Damon Runyon, a little bit Mollie Goldberg, maybe even a little bit Mae West. Bella had a pretty face, Jewish lungs, and New York chutzpah. Despite her bulk, she always cut a fashionable and colorful figure in her signature hats.
Gloria began speaking publicly, usually with African-American women. Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter were among her speaking partners.
Gloria’s partnering with African-American women was a principled act, even if it was only a symbolic one, a way to minimize the fact the too few African-American and minority women joined CR groups, marched, and made common cause with white women—at least, at that time. In my view, psychologically, I’m guessing that perhaps Gloria felt she wasn’t as tough, savvy, or street-smart as African-American women have to be to survive. I think that she felt she needed that kind of backup.
Gloria invited me to a meeting at Brenda Feigen’s Tudor City apartment. Years later, Feigen wrote that she had been treated badly as a student at Harvard Law School in the mid-1960s, an experience that turned her into a “feminist by default.” At Harvard at that time, sports facilities and eating clubs were off-limits to women. After she graduated, law firms refused to interview her because “they were not hiring women.” Brenda went on to direct the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and advised NOW about abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Brenda was also a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Brenda married a businessman, gave birth to a daughter, got divorced, took up with women, moved to Los Angeles, became an entertainment lawyer, and produced a movie (Navy Seals). In 2000 she published a good book, Not One of the Boys: Living Life as a Feminist. The meeting at Brenda’s home was about whether we should all found a new feminist magazine. The room was filled with the wives and daughters of wealthy and influential men; the women themselves were lawyers, writers, and editors at women’s magazines. Clay Felker, the editor of New York magazine, was interested in helping, and in fact he published the pilot issue of Ms. magazine as an insert in New York at the end of 1971.
This was a time when feminists everywhere were founding groups, organizations, academic journals, economic networks and credit unions (which did not last), and a women’s bank (which also did not last). Ms. was another such heady venture. I favored it. I did not foresee how successful the first issue would be; how hard Gloria would have to work to keep it afloat; how demanding the feminist writers would be; and how so many writers would feel mistreated (because their words were changed without permission and their fees were late). Most of all, I did not foresee how Gloria’s very being would become consumed by the magazine, which increasingly became her baby, her identity, and her brand.
At the time I thought, Yes! But I also thought, What they’re after is a front-page New York Times photo featuring a long line of women, civil rights style, all holding hands. At the far left is a smiling Angela Davis. At the other end of this unlikely Rockettes line is Happy Rockefeller. The point: Sisterhood trumps class, race, and ideology. Sounds great, but is it possible?
The journalist Jill Johnston was a lesbian Pied Piper. Dykes followed her everywhere. She was also something of a Kerouac figure, always on the road: Now she’s here, now she’s gone.
Jill and I talked about Greek myths and psychoanalytic thinking. We were not attracted to each other sexually; at least, I wasn’t attracted to her. But I was attracted to her mind. In later years we gossiped up a storm about editors and book advances and the foibles of other writers.
Jill had come out in the pages of the Village Voice (“Lois Lane Is a Lesbian”). She kept asking me, the straight girl, why she had felt compelled to do so. She also confided in me.
“Don’t you think the Jews are taking over our movement?” she asked me.
“Why do you say that?” Answering her question with one of my own was a typically Jewish response.
“There are so many loud and pushy Jewish feminists in New York City.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re saying?”
Jill insisted she was not anti-Semitic. “My very best friend, Shainde, is Jewish,” she explained.
“You’re digging a deeper hole for yourself, my friend,” I replied.
I took her comments as racist and anti-Semitic. I resolved to visit Israel for the first time.
Jill decided to atone for this conversation by giving a party and inviting some glamorous guests to her place in New Paltz, New York. She was nervous about the party, so she got drunk and couldn’t drive. She also couldn’t buy party food, so I did it for her on my way down.
When I got there Jill said: “Phyllis, I want you to meet Martha Shelley, a Jewish lesbian. I invited her just for you.”
Martha was a poet and also a member of Radical Lesbians and the Gay Liberation Front. She had participated in the feminist takeover of RAT Subterranean News, the Grove Press sit-in, and the Lavender Menace action. Martha was lesbian feminist royalty. At Jill’s party, Martha and I stood in a corner and talked revolutionary politics for an hour. Every so often we looked over at the other women, noted that they were getting drunk and not talking feminism, and laughed. “Are we the only two Jews here? Is that it? The non-Jews get drunk and get into bed with each other, and the Jews analyze and organize?”
No; Susan Sontag was there too.
Susan was known as the Dark Lady of Letters and often was the only woman whose name was listed among the otherwise all-male Manhattan glitterati. Susan sported a sophisticated streak of white hair atop her long black mane. In 1964, Partisan Review published her “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Years later, the co-editor of the magazine, Edith Kurzweil, told me that the piece had had to be heavily edited and that no one had expected it to become a literary sensation.
When Susan and I first met I was shocked that she knew so little about feminism, given her reputation. I may have been the only person who didn’t treat her as formidable. I told her, “You know, I read your book Against Interpretation. I loved it. And now here you are, not looking that much older than me, and you’re so naive.” She responded immediately by saying, “Listen, why don’t we get together and, you know, just talk or go to a movie or play records or whatever you’d like.”
It took me a year to take her up on her invitation.
Once, Susan was speaking on a panel about female power. She asked me whether I thought that Margaret Thatcher could represent positive power for women. I told her that, psychologically speaking, even when a nonfeminist woman becomes a prime minister, her achievement may exert an unconscious, positive influence in terms of women feeling empowered and men’s understanding that women can be powerful. Susan said that she’d have to think about that.
She introduced me to her lover, María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-born playwright. In 1977, I attended one of María’s plays, Fefu and Her Friends, which required the audience to move from one small stage to another while the actors repeated the same act three times. Who could ever forget that? It was enchanting.
Years later, Susan and I met by accident at a screening of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. We stopped, smiled, and acknowledged each other’s presence. Susan said, “Of course, you’d be here.”
“Well,” I responded, “you’re here too.”
Maybe she was there as a filmmaker or as a film critic, but maybe, like me, she was also riveted by a warrior in female form, a woman in drag, a doomed visionary betrayed by the king she saved.
I was already seen as a feminist leader when a new, young feminist appeared: Andrea Dworkin, whom I first met in 1974 when she was in crisis with her publisher. She turned to me for help, and that remained the nature of our relationship for more than 30 years.
We are all always in crisis with our publishers. We expect to change the world immediately with the power of our pen, and when a book doesn’t garner good reviews, or any reviews at all, we panic; it feels like we’re failing the revolution, not to mention our own ambition.
Like Kate Millett and Shulie Firestone, Andrea was a genius. Also like them, she was destructive, self-destructive, intense, demanding, paranoid, feared, despised, and misunderstood—but also deeply admired and loved, rather passionately, by her followers. Andrea was a fire-and-brimstone feminist preacher and was seen as the feminist advocate against pornography, prostitution, and sexual violence against women. Andrea was a daring and talented essayist and novelist. She conducted many campaigns against pornography and wrote many important books, including Woman Hating, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and Letters from a War Zone.
When her first book, Woman Hating, was published in 1974, Andrea said that she could not convince president Jack Macrae at Dutton to advertise, promote, and distribute copies of the book in a manner that would ensure its visibility; she organized a sit-in at Dutton. Through a third party I heard that Jack said, “Well, even important feminists like Phyllis Chesler don’t like the book, so what can I do?” I had said no such thing; I hadn’t even read the book. I called Andrea and asked her, “Why haven’t you called me directly?”
Her answer was shocking. “Well, I suppose I thought you might have said that about my work, since I consider yours so superior.”
By then I had read the book. I told her to come over and I gave her a resoundingly warm endorsement for her publisher to use. Her book deserved it.
Andrea and I became friends. Yes, of course, we quarreled—on matters of both style and substance, and on the nature of coalition politics, plagiarism, intimate partner choices, the dangerous consequences of bad-mouthing colleagues, the danger of cults—but we always made up. At least we did for about 30 years. I thought we had a privileged and rather tender friendship, and I cherished it despite the difficulties.
The first time Andrea met my mother was an unforgettable moment. My mother said to Andrea, who always wore denim overalls, like a farmer: “And who are you? The garbage man?”
Andrea and I were shocked and tried not to laugh. My mother broke the ice by declaring, “My daughter is no better than you. She doesn’t dress like a professor. What is wrong with the women in your group?”
Now Andrea was shocked. “Mrs. Chesler, Phyllis is one of the most glamorous women in our movement.”
Who knew that Andrea noticed such things?
I didn’t think of myself as glamorous, but I did wear lipstick and I didn’t try to look scruffy or like an adolescent boy. Sometimes feminists held my appearance against me.
Some of the sisters also objected to my being married to a man. In the mid-1970s a group of Australian lesbian academics invited me to speak, then rescinded the invitation when they learned that I was straight and married to a man, and probably planned to travel to Australia with him. (I had.) A radical lesbian-separatist Australian rock band came to my defense: “No matter who she sleeps with, she’s still the author of Women and Madness and we want to hear her.”
Sweet, sweet women.
Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.