Kate Millett, the ambivalent feminist
The author of the 1970 bestseller "Sexual Politics" may have been the women's movement's most unlikely heroine, or maybe not.
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By Leslie Crawford
June 5, 1999 | How forgotten is Kate Millett? When I stop by my local bookstore to pick up a copy of "Sexual Politics," it doesn't occur to me that I won't find her seminal work, the one that all but launched the second wave of the women's movement. It's worth noting that this is not a chain, where a militant feminist author of the 1970s might not be missed. I go to an independent bookstore in a San Francisco neighborhood peopled by highly educated liberals. I'm directed to the women's studies section and find a single shelf's worth of oddly random titles that include Nancy Friday's "Our Loves, Our Lives," Germaine Greer's "The Whole Woman" and, given the paltry selection, a hefty offering of books on menopause. I return to the front desk and ask a woman, in her mid-30s like me, if Millett might be located somewhere else, possibly in the nonfiction section?
"Let's see ... Kate Millett," she taps at the computer and stares at the screen, searching the store's database and, it appears from her puzzled expression, her own. "Wasn't she a feminist?"
"Yes," I say, and as if delivering an eighth-grade book report, I add, "Millett was very famous 30 years ago; a revolutionary."
"Oh, right," she looks up from the computer. "A revolutionary for 10 minutes." The book, she tells me, is out of print. I'm less confident as I head to a used-book store nearby, but in the remainder bin I uncover two of Millett's lesser-known works: "Flying," the autobiography she wrote when she was 38, and "The Loony Bin Trip," Millett's memoir about her mental breakdown and forced institutionalization. After calling five additional stores, including what I'd expected to be a slam dunk -- a Berkeley feminist bookstore -- and then checking Amazon.com ("This title is out of print ..." it responds as I key in each of her nine titles; only "Politics of Cruelty" is still available), I get a copy at the main library.
How is it that the great Kate Millett has nearly vanished from the collective consciousness? Certainly, she's overlooked by the media that once scrutinized her every move, and is barely a footnote in the minds of the very women who have profited from her labors. For whatever reason, my generation seems to be more familiar with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, Millett's onetime peers. These feminist hall-of-famers -- who respectively authored "The Feminine Mystique" and founded the National Organization for Women; wrote "The Female Eunuch"; and co-founded Ms. magazine -- remain in the Zeitgeist. Biographies of Friedan and Greer were published this past year, as were books penned by both women; and Steinem remains the biggest women's lib celeb of them all.
Thanks to my favorite college professor, I was forced to read "Sexual Politics." In truth, the 543-page polemic, Millett's Columbia University Ph.D. doctoral thesis, reads like one. Save the raunchy literary passages from Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Jean Genet, which Millett uses to illustrate men's use of sex to degrade and undermine women, "Sexual Politics" is a dry read. Millett assails romantic love ("a means of emotional manipulation which the male is free to exploit"), calls for an end to monogamous marriage and the family ("patriarchy's chief institution") and proposes a sexual revolution that would "bring the institution of patriarchy to an end." Millett's classic woke me up, changed my perception of women and myself, as it did for tens of thousands of American women when it first appeared nearly 30 years ago.
In 1970, Millett's dissertation -- which she didn't expect to be published much less read by the mainstream -- became a bestseller. What Millett advocated hardly sounds subversive in 1999, perhaps because much of it is now accepted as basic feminist theology -- most notably, her questioning a patriarchy that relegates more than half its population to second-class citizenship. But at the time, it was striking. Ever since the winning of women's suffrage early in the century, the movement had gone stagnant. With the '60s came the feminists' second wave, and at a grass-roots level anyhow, the nation began hearing rumblings from women voicing their discontent.
There was plenty of it, to be sure. In 1970, women were making 59 cents for every dollar earned by men, and represented just 7 percent of all doctors and 3 percent of lawyers in the country. The Equal Rights Amendment, languishing since 1923, was reintroduced into Congress, but wasn't passed for another two years (and still hasn't been ratified by all the states). Roe vs. Wade was still several years away. Maybe most telling: Good Housekeeping's "Ten Most Admired Women" were identified only by their husbands' names.
And voil�, at the peak of the wave, in rode Kate Millett, a rather unlikely heroine -- but then again, maybe not. When "Sexual Politics" was published, Millett was 34, an unknown sculptor and activist living the life of an impoverished bohemian in New York's Bowery district. Born Katherine Murray Millett in St. Paul, Minn., Millett led a far different life than her strict Catholic parents had envisioned. Married to Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, to whom she dedicated "Sexual Politics," she maintained open relationships with a series of women. Upon the publication of her dissertation, Millett achieved instant fame and, compared with her formerly dire straits, a modest fortune of $30,000. The majority of this she spent to buy property in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., establishing the Women's Art Colony Farm for writers and visual artists.
Whether she liked it or not -- and for Millett, this seems to be forever an ambivalent question -- she became an overnight celebrity, lauded as the movement's perfect figurehead. She was brilliant, articulate, attractive, passionate in her activism, generous with her time and surprisingly gracious in interviews. The media swallowed her whole and spit out a simplified spokeswoman for the masses. Millett was hardly prepared. "I'm slammed with an identity that can no longer say a word; mute with responsibility," she wrote in "Flying." "Will this object in my hands, offspring already so remote, become a monster?" Time magazine hailed her as "the Mao Tse-tung of Women's Liberation." But Millett didn't want to be a leader; it's against the spirit of the movement, she said, and mimics the patriarchy's repressive hierarchy. "Microphones shoved into my mouth ... 'What is the future of the woman's movement?'" she wrote. "How in the hell do I know -- I don't run it ... The whole thing is sordid, embarrassing, a fraud." Every campus in the country seemed to want her to speak, which she did, often grudgingly. "I would like to slap their smug little faces," Millett wrote, "and tell them I'm vomiting with terror ... why have you made me a curiosity?"