Phyllis Chesler

By: Devin McKinney
October 1, 2014

Phyllis Chesler in 1979, thinking over motherhood.

“My failings and strengths are those of an intellectual and an artist, rather than those of a ‘crisis-intervener’ or a revolutionary organizer,” wrote psychologist PHYLLIS CHESLER (born 1940) in her groundbreaking Women and Madness (1972). Yet that book did nothing if not intervene in a crisis — women’s oppression by the institutional and theoretical paradigms of mental health — and organize the components of a consciousness revolution. Chesler’s sweep reached back to pantheistic myths of abducted daughters and underworlds and forward to the bare cells of the modern American snakepit, where thousands of women had been brutally albeit legally confined, often for nothing other than being lesbian, doubting the maternal mission, or experiencing a hellish menopause. No one before had so methodically undone the hooks and straps of women’s psychosocial bind, or analyzed the therapeutic orthodoxies by which marriage and motherhood, “the unchosen necessities of the past… were revived as salvation myths for twentieth-century women.” Chesler could outrage even her allies: Noting the blind spots of apparently liberated revisionists like Laing and Szasz, she pushed ideological bigotries of her own (e.g., a miscomprehension of male homosexuality just as backward and destructive as Freud’s — worse in a way, since she lacked the Victorian age as an excuse). But in reconceiving madness as both construct and chemistry, and attacking psychoanalysis as a pillar of male chauvinism, Chesler left the pillar cracked — so deeply that it was only a matter of time, and consciousness, before it crumbled completely.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dizzee Rascal, Walter Matthau, Larry Poons, Richard Corben.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).


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