Chesler, Ph.D, is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s
Studies at City University of New York. She is a best-selling
author, a legendary feminist leader.
Many (white, male) writers throughout history have suffered
from both poverty and plagiarism. If they were not born rich,
they all had day jobs. Many were never paid for their published
writing. Some had to pay to be published. Writers—even
the greats—also suffered scathing reviews. Some were censored.
Their books were burned. Some were imprisoned, sent into exile,
or murdered for their thought crimes against religion or against
our time, our work, especially our best and most radical feminist
work, simply goes out of print and stays there. It dies softly.
It does not get translated into other languages. We are lucky
if it is noted at all, even if only to be critically savaged.
More often, it is simply not reviewed. The tree falls, no one
hears the sound.
people ask me how long it took to write my first book, Women
and Madness, I usually answer: my entire life. And although
it became a bestseller, it also led to countless sorrows for
me. My university colleagues feared, envied, and perhaps even
hated me for my sudden prominence. They made my academic career
a permanently uphill ordeal. Some feminists scorned the success;
those who had demanded that I publish “anonymously”
and donate the proceeds to the “revolution” stopped
talking to me.
buoyed by a rising feminist movement—this was the late
’60s after all—I coasted my way through the many
patriarchal assaults and university-based punishments launched
against me. I’d learned that one measure’s one’s
success by the strength of one’s opposition. I was not
looking to please patriarchal ways of thinking but to transform
despite publishing quite a lot after that—I also perished,
institutionally speaking. It took me 22 years to become a full
professor, my tenure was challenged again and again, as were
my promotions (which determined one’s salary and one’s
pension). I never received a serious (i.e., tenured) job offer
at any other university.
that first book of mine was embraced by millions of women. It
was reviewed prominently, positively, and often. However, it
was also damned. Psychologists and psychiatrists were offended,
enraged. I was certainly not invited to lecture to such groups,
at least not until feminists had more senior roles within them.
author rarely learns why a particular person has been assigned
a review or why they’ve undertaken it. Here’s one
story of mine that I’ve never before shared, a rather
bizarre, Byzantine, only-in-Manhattan tale that unfolds over
a 33-year period. I don’t think the story is unique. What’s
unique is that I was finally able to connect the dots.
the players have died. I’m still here and writing about
1973, Partisan Review ran a very negative review of
Women and Madness, written by Dr. Louise J. Kaplan, a psychoanalyst
whom I did not know and whose work I knew nothing about because
she had not yet published anything. I was surprised that such
a classically liberal and somewhat neoconservative journal had
bothered to review a radically feminist work. How had this come
how. Sociologist Norman Birnbaum, a repulsive man in every way,
once tried to date me, and impress me, by telling me how many
important literary figures he knew. Nevertheless, I spurned
She spurned him.
he handpicked Dr. Louise and used his close association with
Partisan Review editors to seal the deal.
the spring of 1973, seven months after my publication date,
Dr. Louise criticized Women and Madness for its “statistical
analysis” which was “simplistic and superficial.”
She attributed the book’s support among feminists to its
having taken “the ultimate radical stance, particularly
(in relation) to bisexuality, lesbianism, and (in the) definitive
rejection of maleness.” She chided the book as a “prototypical
female monologue . . . a ladies-magazine smorgasbord of Demeter,
Sylvia Plath, the penis-envy paragraphs of Freud, the usual
bits from Reich . . . ”
not believe this is the book I wrote but, as they say, critics
are entitled to their opinions.
later, Edith Kurzweil, the editor of Partisan Review,
whom I had subsequently befriended and whose Holocaust-era book
I had later reviewed, admitted that Dr. Norman, who was very
friendly with her and her husband, William Phillips, had arranged
Dr. Louise’s review.
I reviewed my archives for my 2018 book, A Politically Incorrect
Feminist, I found a scathing review of Women and Madness,
published in the Village Voice on Oct. 11, 1973—and
written by Dr. Louise Kaplan’s husband, Dr. Donald M.
Kaplan, a professor at NYU’s prestigious postdoctoral
program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His critique was
oddly placed in a nonacademic venue. I had totally forgotten
about this and may not even have read it at the time.
Donald’s review characterizes the book’s ideas as
immature, “scattered, impetuous, and sensational”;
its author as an “intellectual hustler” whose statistics
are “incomplete,” and purposely “deceptive”;
an author who “favor(s) lesbianism as a definitive solution
to the problem of gender differences,” “equates
psychosis and social heroism . . . (and views) madness as a
form of positive, militant feminism.”
1978 and 1995, Dr. Louise published four books. In 1991, she
produced Female Perversions: The Temptation of Emma Bovary.
It was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton. But despite
her own success, Louise was not done with me. In 2004-2005,
unbeknownst to me, we were both working with the same editor
at the same publishing house.
now, Louise’s husband had been dead for more than a decade
and she had become known as a feminist. Ironically, just as
Second Wave feminism had initially disgusted her—now,
more than 30 years later, she had become a celebrated left-wing
Louise was now trying to defend a feminism that, in my view,
had become hopelessly Stalinized and opposed to Western Enlightenment
values. I said so in my 2005 book, The Death of Feminism:
What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom.
this book-baby was stillborn, because suddenly, the editor canceled
my book tour and stopped sending out galleys to reviewers. I
only found out about this at the lovely book party that the
publisher was already committed to give me—when the lead
publicist burst into tears and told me that all publicity had
been canceled; she did not know why.
my editor about this directly. At first, she only told me that
“one of her other authors” had told her that I disliked
her and that I was very unhappy. I could barely breathe but
I found a list of her other authors, saw Louise’s name
on it, and quickly faxed the editor a copy of Louise’s
old Partisan Review piece.
editor was dumbstruck but, to her credit, immediately admitted
that “quite frankly” she’d been “gaslighted.”
It was too late to save my book—and too late for her to
back out of the latest edition of Women and Madness, which she
was also publishing with a new introduction; it was also too
late to back out of publishing Louise’s book Cultures
of Fetishism which came out in 2006.
Death of Feminism critiqued Western feminists for their
multicultural relativism (which is not the same as multicultural
diversity); for their peer-pressured deep dive into postmodernism,
anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism; for their mindless embrace
of Islam—as if a religion was a race—and an endangered
and persecuted race at that, not as an increasingly supremacist,
totalitarian ideology which silenced all Muslim dissent via
torture and murder.
documented the failure of academic and activist feminists to
understand honor killings and honor-and-shame tribal societies
and thus, I explained their abandonment of “brown and
black” women trapped in such cultures. I also noted the
escalation of intolerance among feminists and their peculiar
concern with the alleged occupation of a country that did not
exist (Palestine) than with the very real occupation of women’s
bodies worldwide. A virtue-signaling anti-racism had already
trumped anti-sexism among feminists and the consequences are
still being felt today.
I wrote about all this back in 2005. Unfortunately, the book
received only a handful of reviews and found no foreign publishers.
It was taken out of print which is where it remains. I believe
that copies may still be obtained online.
just imagine if we’d all been able to have a public and
ongoing conversation about what I’d written about. We’d
be 16 or 17 years into one of the most important conversations
for 21st-century feminism.
is only one example of the kind of crazy shit that can, perhaps,
routinely happen to a feminist writer. But there is more, so
I’m a “successful” feminist writer. Just think
about those who are not visibly “successful,” whose
work is excellent but has been forgotten, “borrowed,”
not cited, laid to rest before it could do its considerably
good work in the world. I think about this all the time.
now for some unrequested advice.
wary of small presses—but be even warier of large ones.
Avoid small feminist presses—but large corporate publishers
might be the death of you. Self-publish—but never self-publish
unless you can personally fund a marketing, social media, and
publicity campaign that might cost $150,000 or more. If you
find a small publisher who loves your work but neither of you
can make a ha’penny from it—stick to them like Krazy
is another tale told out-of-school. It concerns publishing right
now, or as of a few years ago.
a feminist cannot be “politically incorrect,” not
even in a book with that precise title. In this very work, I
was not allowed to write at length about my 21st-century preoccupations,
which include the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism; the
failures of feminism; 9/11, Jihad terrorism, and Islamism; the
dangers of identity politics; the nature of honor-based violence,
including honor killing—I’ve published four pioneering
studies on this subject which have allowed me to submit affidavits
to judges in political asylum cases—all these subjects
were deemed too politically incorrect and not part of the earlier,
more acceptable, and more “positive” moments of
the gender-neutral, liberal and left Second Wave.
no cause for alarm. I had worked happily with the same editor
and the same agent. They both had a real enthusiasm for what
they hoped I would write. A bestseller! They wanted a jazzy,
bubbly, harmless, only slightly naughty account of “girls
together gaily.” Maybe a bit of an intellectual memoir.
yes, my editor wanted me to “come out” as a lesbian.
But how could I do that without writing an entire book about
sexuality—if I ever wanted to delve into it at all. Please
understand that, although I was a very radical feminist and
ran with the most radical lesbian feminists—that, until
I was 45 years old, I was hopelessly heterosexual. A serious,
hard-wired man junkie. Two husbands, many male lovers. The original
lady of Babylon.
knew this. Everyone felt sorry for me, wrote me off as a “closet
case.” Accepted me as I was. But this frustrated my otherwise
completely supportive editor and became a point of tension between
I don’t think what happened was unique. I believe this
was and still is happening to many other authors, too. It’s
just that nearly 60 years in the writing life did not spare
what happened next: I had to do mortal combat with 4,000 editorial
challenges and demands (yes, I counted them up) made by at least
two, but probably by three different editors. No one editor
had seen what the other two editors had to say. This felt like
a prolonged assault. It did not improve the writing so much
as provide the editors with an opportunity to knock the work
down, not elevate it.
was beyond exhausting, frustrating, even insulting. Junior people
were asking foolish questions. Of course, some comments/queries/challenges
were useful. I wish there had been more of them.
in which I critiqued identity politics was rejected outright.
Well, maybe it was not a perfect or even a final draft, it needed
work, but the publisher was afraid of legal, critical, and perhaps
even violent repercussions. I questioned, no, I deplored identity
politics. I questioned the use of gender over sex. I viewed
this as dangerous. I went through every one of my own “identities”
to reject each one. In my case, I concluded, you might only
be able to find me in my books—but once I finished a work,
I was gone, I was no longer there.
work was not done after wrestling the 4,000 challenges to the
ground. The manuscript was then submitted to two outside “sensitivity”
readers, one for race, the other for gender. Had they only been
as literate as I was, it might have been acceptable, but both
lacked my knowledge base. These were terrifying and demoralizing
of the two or three editors—I’m not sure which one—demanded
that I attribute the song "Embraceable You" to Nat
King Cole or I’d be seen as an ignorant racist. But the
song was written by two white Jewish boys (George and Ira Gershwin);
Ginger Rogers first sang it in a musical in 1930, and the divine
Billie Holiday made it her own in 1944, all long before Nat
King Cole’s mellow rendition ever appeared. No matter.
ultimate indignity: The gender editor removed what I’d
written about a custody case that I myself had worked on and
substituted her own version of reality which included quoting
from the poor woman’s ex-husband, who ranted on and on
at a fathers’ rights website.
I insisted on my own version. As I’ve written: Everything
was a fight.
truly bad things continued to happen. My editor was “let
go” for corporate reasons. This orphaned my book. The
editor who inherited the work barely read it. She was also too
busy to talk to me. She had an option on my next book which
she swiftly declined. My agent then refused to represent this
editor who inherited me chose to rush it out with a lead time
of about two or three months, and with a pub date of Aug. 28,
a time of year when everyone is away. I could be wrong but I
doubt they sent out copies to the right potential reviewers.
They probably did send them to all the precisely wrong reviewers,
and to only a few of them. Although the book was endorsed by
some feminists of standing, only one review appeared in the
mass media—and it was written by a former employee of
one of the feminists whose far-less-than-perfect actions I’d
exposed. It was a breathtakingly vicious review.
the conservative media happily reviewed this title; they were
overjoyed because I’d criticized feminists, including
left feminists; but not radical feminism. Never that. Perhaps
they failed to make this distinction.
the printer managed to drop 40 pages of a science fiction novel
right into the middle of my book. I only found out about this
when a few readers who knew me reached out to me. The publisher
shrugged it off. “This happens.” Although they paid
me to read for the audiobook, they chose not to publish a paperback
version of this title.
then the publicist told me, with great disappointment, that
it was too late to book readings at Barnes & Noble—and
that only one bookstore was even willing to have me at the end
bookstore is that?”
Rare Book Room at the Strand.”
I was in heaven. I may have spent a quarter of my life browsing
there. The venue had sentimental value to me and it represented
a love of books that is missing from the chains.
the last moment, I managed to fill the place with more than
100 people and I hope that a good time was had by all. It aired
several times on C-SPAN. I also read at a wonderful store, Book
Culture, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where a spirited
Q-and-A took place.
was it. No editor ever appeared to greet me, support me, see
me in performance, take me out for a drink.
may we learn from this? I’m really not sure. Wait for
better times? Form your own publishing company? Take up needlepoint?
Write like hell and never stop, just keep going?
these times, every author, not just me, faces such ordeals.
It does not matter if you’ve been a bestselling author
or a legendary pioneer. Nothing will spare a writer from such
Walt Whitman had to self-publish. Herman Melville was very negatively
reviewed and had to work as a customs inspector. I could go
on. You get my point.