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Doris Lessing: R.I.P

by Phyllis Chesler

Martin Cleaver/AP 

I began my first book, Women and Madness (1972), with a quote from Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City: “They all looked half drugged or half asleep, dull, as if the creatures had been hypnotized or poisoned…it was painful…to walk among her own kind, looking at them as they were, seeing them, seeing us, the human race, as visitors from a space ship might see them….they went about their lives in a condition of sleepwalking: they were not aware of themselves, of other people, of what went on around them.”

 Lessing published this in 1969, the same  year in which I made world headlines for demanding millions in reparations for women who had been misdiagnosed and mistreated by institutional psychiatry. I did so at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association and on behalf of the newly formed Associated for Women in Psychology.

 Lessing was as prickly about the feminist movement as Margaret Mead and Simone de Beauvoir were. In an NPR interview with Lessing when she was “just shy of her 89th birthday, “the writer briskly rejected the label most frequently attached to her: feminist icon—particularly when applied to her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook. Lessing told NPR:

 “Oh, It’s just stupid; I’ve seen it so often,’ she said.’ I mean, there’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook. The second line is: ‘As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.’ That is what The Golden Notebook is about!’”

 Lessing was an all-out communist and then an all-out follower of Sufism and then an all-out science fiction writer. She was something of a True Believer but her cults kept changing. I was skeptical about R.D. Laing--although I had the greatest warmth towards the man himself, aka “Ronnie”; Lessing viewed him as a lesser God.

 Lessing did not want to be judged as a member of a cult that she, herself, had not chosen. Even then, she left her chosen cults, one after the other. According to NPR, she even refused to allow the Queen of England to appoint her a Dame of the British Empire because “in the author's words — "There is no British Empire."

 One has to admire such a stubborn, independent spirit and I do, I do.

 But one still may wonder about the anti-feminism of such accomplished women.

 I debated Mead on this very subject in 1977 and “won” the debate and thereafter, Mead and I became friends. We continued to disagree about rape. Mead strongly believed that if a woman was raped that she  had obviously violated some cultural taboo and had provoked the rape. Because she insisted upon this in public, the entire feminist community of Cincinnati that had turned out to hear us, disinvited her to the planned after-party. I decided I could not go without her and so we spent the rest of the evening alone, together. I could never get her to change her mind about rape. Or, about the feminist movement. She stopped me, mid-speech, took the microphone, and said: “You are obviously a very brilliant young woman, but how many more like you are there in that movement of yours?”

 Trust me, I defended our feminist honor with grace and humor.

 Simone de Beauvoir was also rather prickly about the evolving feminist movement as was the future (1972) President of APA, Dr. Anne Anastasi—the first woman APA president in over fifty years.  In 1969, Dr. Anastasi told me, sotto voce, that “women had been treated so badly for so long that they were, indeed, now in terrible shape.”

 These ostensibly anti-feminist views on the part of our heroes, our most immediate foremothers, were painful and puzzling. Perhaps too few women in their personal lives or of their generation had respected or behaved with compassion towards these ambitious and talented women. Mead was born in 1901, de Beauvoir, in 1908, and Lessing in 1919. Perhaps their mothers were cruel to them, or unhappy with their own lives or were not proud of their talented daughters, or simply preferred sons to daughters. Certainly, this was one source of Sylvia Plath’s considerable pain, a common pain of talented daughters; I write about this at length in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.  

 According to Jan Hanford, who hosts an unofficial website  devoted to Lessing and her work, Lessing’s “mother, obsessed with raising a proper daughter, enforced a rigid system of rules and hygiene at home, then installed Doris in a convent school, where nuns terrified their charges with stories of hell and damnation…’There is a whole generation of women," (Lessing) has said, speaking of her mother's era, ‘and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic - because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.’”

 I thought Lessing’s work was sturdy, industrious, plodding, enchanting, and boring-- but she wrote about ideas in a very serious way and that in itself was thrilling. Lessing’s books, (The Golden Notebook and The Four Gated City), and Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, played dominant roles in the evolution of woman’s consciousness in the 1960s.

 Rest In Peace, Doris Lessing. Know that you were greatly admired by younger and equally ambitious women.

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Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 15 books including the best selling Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. Her new book, An American Bride in Kabul may be purchased here. She may be reached at her website


Carol posted: 2011-11-09 13:42:53

Very informative!

Carol posted: 2011-11-13 15:48:39

Very informative!

nr posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:03

Well obviously I didn't know any of them, but have read them some. And my impression is that women like these three view themselves as better than women, more like men in their intelligence and skills, they are above us. As for Mead's quote here: she was right. We refuse to bow to our husbands, we behaved as though we too had ownership of our bodies and had choice, without having to curry their favour to earn it. Oh there is still a branch of feminism that asks men favour, and upon receiving it, yells ~~ agency, choice, empowerment!! Mead, de Beauvoir and Lessing didn't ask. But they thought because men accepted their brilliance, grudgingly especially in the case of Mead, that meant they were above other women. They just didn't get, that they had been given it and it could be taken away too.

Andrea posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:27

In 1969, Dr. Anastasi told me, sotto voce, that “women had been treated so badly for so long that they were, indeed, now in terrible shape.” This doesn't seem like an anti-feminist statement to me. It is true. In any case, thanks Dr. Chesler for the analysis of the complexity of identity and politics of famous women in previous generations.

Zvi Lando posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:38

I can remember, as a young man, from Israel, being in The Netherlands for a few months when I picked up "The Golden Notebook". It was a long a tiring journey, but one which left me changed forever. Being brought up in the macho socialist society of The Kibbutz - I too left the Left, and began to get an inkling of that other sex we call Woman. It angered me, each year when the Nobel was given to some other, second rate writer, waiting until this century to do it. God bless Doris - you touched me in a way no other has.

Sister Hawk posted: 2013-11-22 15:44:16

How sad it is that even the aforementioned women refuse to align themselves with feminism--another depressing example of woman's inhumanity to woman! Long live Amelia Erhardt (sp?)!

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