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Letter to a Young Feminist #1

This is what a veteran feminist wants to convey to her heirs.

Phyllis Chesler
Phyllis Chesler

Here I sit, head bent, writing you an intimate letter. I sense your presence, even though I don't know your name. I envision you as a young woman, possibly a young man, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, but you may also be a decade older or younger than that. You may not yet be born.

You are either poor or rich; you are any or all the colors of the human rainbow, all shades of luck and character. You are my heir. This letter is your legacy: Without your conscious intervention, that legacy may again lie dormant for one hundred years. Or longer.

I imagine you are a person who wants to know why evil exists. People commit evil deeds because we, the good people, do not stop them. To quote Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing." Ah, Burke, evil also triumphs when good women do nothing.

Men alone are not responsible for patriarchy; women are also their willing, even ardent, collaborators.

Yes, the world is different now than it was when I was your age. In only fifty years, a visionary feminism has managed to seriously challenge, if not transform, world consciousness. Some astronauts, army officers, ministers, prime ministers, and senators are women—there are women's studies programs too, and you can't open a newspaper without reading about some man on trial for rape or sexual harassment. But the truth is women are still far from free. We're not even within striking range.

”I imagine you are a person who wants to know why evil exists.”


Fundamentalist passions are threatening to destroy what feminists have accomplished. Three examples immediately come to mind.

The right to an abortion remains under an increasingly bloody siege.

Although we now understand that rape is epidemic and has lasting consequences, we are, as yet, unable to stop it. Today, in Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Guatemala, Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan, Afghanistan, rape has become a systematic, full-fledged weapon-not merely a spoil-of war. In an era of ethnic cleansing, rape is a form of gender cleansing.

I want you to know what our feminist gains are, and why you must not take them for granted. (Although it is your right to do so—we fought for that too.) I also want you to know what remains to be done. I want you to see your place in the historical scheme of things, so you may choose whether and how to stand your ground in history.

Hear me: It may be the 21st century but, in my view, we are still living in the 1950s. The poet Sylvia Plath (Goddess rest her soul) is about to put her head in the oven again. I am saying that we have not come far enough. We are also still living in the 1930s, and that great writer, Virginia Woolf, is slowly making her way down to the sea, about to drown herself. No, we are still living in 1913. The sculptor, Camille Claudel, who assisted her lover, Auguste Rodin, on some of his works, is—even as we speak, trussed up and on her way to a lunatic asylum. Claudel was imprisoned in one by her own mother and brother, Paul (the poet). The family condemned her to languish there for thirty years. She died in captivity, in 1943.

”It may be the 21st century but, in my view, we are still living in the 1950s.”


I often want to discreetly remove Rodin's august name and replace it with Camille Claudel's in various museums around the world—but then, I'm also the one who wants to behead the statue of Perseus who stands, triumphantly, at the top of the steps at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, holding aloft Medusa's severed head. Her honor demands it, her snaky locks tempt me to it.

There's a worthy precedent for such an action. Did you know that in 1914, while British suffragists were jailed, beaten, and force-fed (they went on hunger strikes) for demanding the vote, suffragist Polly Richardson marched into a London museum and swung an ax at Diego Velazquez's Rokeby Venus? Society howled. Velazquez's perfect woman is a reclining nude, and vain too; we observe Venus observing herself (and us) in a mirror. Perhaps this was Richardson's way of saying: My Lords, this portrait mocks real women who are, in fact, powerless. How does it feel to have something you value mutilated and destroyed?

Some say that Plath, Woolf, and Claudel were "mad" geniuses who'd have ended up the same sad way even if they'd each been nourished in a woman-loving family and culture. How can such cynics be so sure?

Although many a sane woman has, in the past, been locked away in a loony bin, I am not saying that madness itself is a myth. Madness is real. Neither ideology nor good friends can save a woman from it. Still, the accumulation of daily slights and humiliations that most women must learn to absorb, to "not see," does have a way of calling down more than the usual number of demons. I am thinking about the demands for perfection to which most girls and women are routinely subjected, combined with the lack of rewards—in fact, the grave punishments that most women must endure in order to survive. I am no longer talking only about educated white women of genius with whom you may be most familiar, but about all women, of all colors, in all lines of work. So many women are deprived, punished, forced to walk a far narrower line than most men ever are. Our genius does not save us, nor does our obedience.

”Do not hesitate because your actions may not be perfect enough, or beyond criticism.”


Dutiful women, rebellious women, "mad" geniuses too, so many of us are systematically ground down and "disappeared," rendered invisible, forced to sink out of sight for centuries at a time. We lose touch with one another in our own lifetimes.

If we cannot see each other, we cannot see ourselves.

You must stand on our feminist shoulders in order to go further than we did.

Confinement distorts character. Centuries of women have been swallowed whole and doomed to such darkness that, like prisoners, we instinctively come to fear the light; it is blinding, unnatural. We fear standing up, we take small and careful steps when we do, we stumble, and we look to our jailors for protection.

Stand up as early as you can in life. Take up as much space in the (male) universe as you need to. Sit with your legs apart, not together. Climb trees. Climb mountains too. Engage in group sports. Dress comfortably. Dress as you wish.

How do we stop injustice?

We begin by speaking truth to power. That child who told the emperor he was naked is one of ours.

We begin by daring to remain connected to those whom prejudice silences, renders less than human.

We begin, of course, by fighting back.

”If you're on the right track, you can expect some pretty savage criticism.”


Towards that end, you must move beyond words. You must act. Do not hesitate because your actions may not be perfect enough, or beyond criticism. "Action" is how you put your principles into practice. Not just publicly, or towards those more powerful than you, but also privately, towards those less fortunate than you. Not just towards those who are (safely) far away; but towards those with whom you live and work.

If you're on the right track, you can expect some pretty savage criticism. Trust it. Revel in it. It is the truest measure of your success.

Those who endure small humiliations daily say that the most lasting and haunting harm resides in growing accustomed to such treatment, in large part because others insist that you do.

After all, they have. What's so special about you? "So, your boss asked you and not your male colleagues to make coffee at the meeting—big deal. At least you have a job." "So, your husband keeps forgetting his promise to help out with the housework. At least you have a husband."

Always implied, but unspoken: "It could be worse." But things could also be better. That will not happen if you do not act heroically.

Survivors of serious atrocities say they are haunted by those who heard their screams but turned their backs, closed their doors, remained neutral, refused to take any stand other than an opportunistic one.

One cannot remain a bystander without becoming complicit.

Morally, one must "take sides." But, once a person takes the side of anyone who's suffered a grave injustice, listens to her, believes what she says, tries to help her—that quiet act of humanity and courage will be viewed as a traitorous act.

Commit such treason as often as you can.

Women's hearts, men's hearts, are irretrievably broken when people default on the dream of a common, moral humanity (we are all connected, what happens to one happens to all) and do nothing.

I think such interventions are possible when we are inspired by a larger vision, guided by a great dream. Not otherwise. Women do not need a room of their own. Feminists, both men and women, need a very large continent of our own.

Nothing less will do.

This is an excerpt from my first letter in my book, Letters to a Young Feminist. It is still in print and may be purchased here.


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Feminism

Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology, the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness (1972), An American Bride in Kabul, and Requiem For a Female Serial Killer (2020).