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Kate Millett (1934–2017)

Second-wave feminist Kate Millett wrote with a sweeping ambition that matched the political ferment of the times. We need the same today.

On August 31, 1970, Kate Millett — who died last week at age eighty-two — appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Millett, the author of Sexual Politics, a wide-ranging study of gender, politics, and culture based on her PhD dissertation, was an unlikely subject for a cover that typically featured politicians, celebrities, and athletes. But nothing in 1970 was typical when it came to how the media dealt with women and feminism.

Like much mainstream coverage of feminism during those early, heady days of the movement, the package of articles that appeared alongside the Time cover were all over the place.

One piece famously referred to Millett as “the Mao Tse-Tung of feminism,” before giving a straightforward account of the recent feminist movement, detailing many of its accomplishments. It was full of “on the one hand” back and forths, pitting Gloria Steinem and anti-feminist Lionel Tiger against each other in competing editorials, quoting a string of “ordinary people” alternatively sympathetic to and contemptuous of feminism. The text was confusing, but the subtext was clear: something was afoot, and Time was scrambling to catch up.

Millett completed Sexual Politics not long after losing her teaching job at Barnard College for supporting student strikes. An artist married to the Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura living in the downtown artist scene, she soon found she had penned one of the many unlikely bestsellers that came out of that stage in the feminist movement.

Sexual Politics was a book that could only have been written in a moment of political ferment, a moment that gave works like Millett’s, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and Celestine Ware’s Woman Power — all published the same year — both their urgency and their audience. It was a moment in which radical groups like Redstockings and New York Radical Women, in which Millett was active, had vigorous debates about ideology and tactics.

Hundreds of radical feminist publications reached and connected readers far from movement hubs, along with manifestos, position papers, and pamphlets. Feminists passed around mimeographed copies of long out of print texts to piece together new histories and new canons.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not a uniformly white, middle-class movement: throughout the late 1960s and ’70s, organizations and publications proliferated that represented a range of positions. There were radicals and liberals; socialists and culturalists; sexual radicals and lesbian separatists; civil rights veterans and black nationalists; “politicos” who saw themselves as part of the Left and others who wanted an independent movement.

From 1968 through the early 1970s, the radical wing of the feminist movement staged a series of provocative, highly effective, and media-savvy actions, from abortion speak-outs that challenged all-male panels of purported experts to actions targeting sexist institutions that ranged from the Miss America Pageant to Ladies’ Home Journal.

At the same time, they were part of a fundamentally intellectual movement. Vivian Gornick, a freelance writer who came to radical feminism after covering it for the Village Voice, described the exhilarating moment of discovery:

In the first three days I met Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone . . . They were all talking at once, and I heard every word each of them spoke. Or, rather, it was that I heard the same thing because I came away from that week branded by a single thought. It was this: the idea that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not, is a belief not a reality; it serves the culture; and from it our entire lives follow. Simple, really. And surely it had already been said. How was it I seemed never to have heard it before? And why was I hearing it now?

Millett and the others who came out of that moment were public intellectuals in the sense Corey Robin has described — they saw their words and ideas as “a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.”

Sexual Politics is often portrayed as solely an attack on prominent male writers, especially those revered as subversive by the counterculture, like Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, and Jean Genet. Yet Millett’s discussion of these works takes up only about half the book. The rest is a sweeping narrative that spans literature, politics, history, and psychology. She looks at gains to both the philosophy and practice of women’s rights from the nineteenth to early twentieth century and the attacks they provoked.

Like many radicals, Millett offered detailed readings of Engels’s writings on the family and the long shadow of Freud and Freudianism over beliefs about gender and sexuality. There’s a chilling section that outlines, matter of factly, the Nazi regime’s total attack on the legacy of Weimer feminism, implementing their pro-natalist eugenics by systematically removing women from universities and select professions and taking over existing women’s organizations.

The idea that Millett was “attacking” male writers was also mistaken: these parts of the book were not about sexist literature, much less “sexism in literature” or “the literary world,” but an immersion in what literary texts had to say about sex, violence, and power — and what they could tell us about how such things manifest in the world.

Unlike liberal critics who ostensibly defend literature with rote evocations of “complexity” or treat the whole thing as a parlor game, Millett took the writers she criticized seriously enough to think that what they said might matter and that they might mean what they said. And she was as vivid when praising as critiquing, as in her reading of Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, a novel Millett dubbed “too subversive to be popular”:

She is bitter and she is honest; a neurotic revolutionary full of conflict, back-sliding, anger, terrible self-doubt, and an unconquerable determination to win through. She is a pair of eyes watching society; weighing, ridiculing, judging. A piece of furniture whom no one notices, Lucy sees everything and reports, cynically, compassionately, truthfully, analytically. She is no one because she lacks any trait that might render her visible: beauty, money, conformity. Only a superb mind imperfectly developed and a soul so omnivorously large it casts every other character into the shadows, she is the great exception, the rest only the great mediocre rule.

Millett shared with Lucy these powers of observation; the anonymity was not to be.

Her critics didn’t extend her the same imaginative sympathy she gave her adversaries. In a high-handed piece notable in a career full of them, Irving Howe sneered at Millett’s “middle-class mind,” called her a “female impersonator,” and trotted out the usual handwaving dismissal that established critics employ when faced with radical challenge: that it was a “simplification” and “reductionism.”

As is often the case, reactionaries had a better sense of the stakes. In 1971, Mailer spent the better part of his book The Prisoner of Sex attacking Millett: “The land of Millett is a barren and mediocre terrain, its flora reminiscent of a Ph.D. tract, its roads a narrow argument, and its horizon low.” But despite his invective, Mailer conceded a surprising amount. Whereas Howe sneered at Millett for bringing Marx into a discussion of “housewives,” Mailer wrote,

Women were indeed a class if one saw them in terms of their economic treatment. There the statistics were clear and overwhelming. One could of course make a formal study . . . Of the Americans who earned more than $10,000 a year, only 2 percent were women. In the professions, 7 percent of the doctors were women, 3 percent of the lawyers, and 1 percent of the engineers. In America — where one did not expect such differences — even men opposed to Women’s Liberation were willing to agree that the economic exploitation of the female was a condition in need of amendment.

Unfortunately, Mailer went on to lament, the radicals saw this economic exploitation as linked to culture and sexuality, and if there were to be a cultural or sexual revolution, that would be too much for him: “There was an idea at the core of Women’s Liberation which was fundamentally radical and so could not be ignored unless he [Mailer] were willing to cease thinking of himself as a revolutionary.”

Mailer was defiant, but he was arguing on Millett’s terms. Even the black-on-red cover of the paperback Signet edition looked like a riff on feminist bestsellers.

These exchanges were not just entertaining theater or a pitched competition for book sales. Mailer and Millett shared a sense of the world as a psychological battleground between the sexes, a war of all against all. Violence and cruelty, sexual violence and the fear of violence, were constant themes in her work. In 1995, she published a collection of essays entitled The Politics of Cruelty, which explored accounts of imprisonment and torture from Ireland to South Africa and colonial Algeria.

Looking back, it is easy to see how this vision led many of Millett’s contemporaries into the dead-ends of crusades against pornography or attempts to attack sexual violence through the power of the state, especially after the backlash against feminism in the 1980s made more visionary solutions seem out of reach. But considering the primary texts of the period, the reality of this fear was an undeniable historical fact that shaped the entrance of many feminists into radical politics.

Millett and other radicals also shared Mailer’s sense that economic equality for women could not come without fundamental cultural change. For many feminist radicals, a central claim was that women themselves represented a class — or, at least, that they did not necessarily belong to the same class as their husbands, brothers, or male peers, however similarly situated they might appear. It was not an argument without its flaws, but it was also not without explanatory power in a world where women lacked access to the public sphere, reproductive rights, and no-fault divorce. And it was certainly not an evasion of economics and material conditions.

As Bonnie Dow has shown, 1970, the year of Sexual Politics, was the peak of media coverage of the feminist movement. While a surprising amount of stories were substantive, many of them were also hostile. A common tactic was to concede the justice of liberal demands in order to castigate radicals; Dow notes how television accounts would shoot radicals differently to make them appear unattractive or “angry.”

How to deal with the media became a central tactical concern. By refusing to speak to male reporters, radicals helped pull women off the “lifestyle pages” when newspapers were forced to assign them to cover protests. Radicals were also weary of the elevation of movement celebrities. The Time magazine cover became iconic in part for the striking and atypical use of an Alice Neel painting in place of a photograph; Millett had refused to sit for a photoshoot.

The spotlight on Millett became harsher as 1970 wore on. Life ran a profile filled with red-baiting and innuendo about her bohemian life and marriage. In December, Time profiled her again, this time foregoing innuendo for accusation. Millett’s support for gay rights and “confession” of bisexuality meant that the movement could be dismissed as “a bunch of lesbians” — a charge other outlets were willing to pick up and which led many liberals into a desperate and doomed mission to protect the “image” of the movement. Betty Friedan, icon of the liberalism Millett challenged, infamously expelled lesbian activists from the National Organization for Women, referring to them as the “lavender menace.”

Most of Millett’s obituaries have noted the struggles she faced in the aftermath of this whirlwind. Her 1974 book Flying traced this aftermath, noting near the start: “I can’t be Kate Millett anymore. It’s an object, a thing. A joke at cocktail parties. It’s no one.”

Like many movement veterans — contrary to the often inaccurate clichés of the post-sixties “tenured radical — Millett was beset in later years with psychological and financial instability. In the late 1990s, she recalled how, without the community the movement had once provided, many of her contemporaries had suffered in isolation:

Recently a book inquired Who Stole Feminism? I sure didn’t. Nor did Ti-Grace Atkinson. Nor Jill Johnston. We’re all out of print. We haven’t helped each other much, haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created community or safety. Some women in this generation disappeared to struggle alone in makeshift oblivion. Or vanished into asylums and have yet to return to tell the tale, as has Shula Firestone. There were despairs that could only end in death: Maria del Drago chose suicide. So did Ellen Frankfurt. And Elizabeth Fischer, founder of Aphra, the first feminist literary journal.

Firestone died under tragic circumstances in 2012, but Millett was able to continue writing and making art, if not without great struggle. Her later works crossed genres to explore her romantic relationships, her contact with the psychiatric establishment, her relationship with her mother, and her estrangement from a beloved aunt who funded her education because of her bisexuality.

Drawing on her experiences, she became an advocate for those she saw as victimized by flawed mental health diagnoses and treatments. She fought against her eviction from her home on the Bowery as part of a development project, and was a central figure at the Women’s Arts Colony that helped sustain her work. And she lived long enough to see a renewed interest in her work in the last decade.

The memoirs of feminist activists and writers from those early years are filled with accounts of what Ms. magazine would term the “click” moment — a sudden coming into consciousness, when what had seemed like just the unfortunate facts of life could be understood as part of an ideological and political system. I thought of these accounts during Occupy, as one after another young person talked about their underemployment, debt, and insecurity and the shame it had once carried; and how that shame dissolved in the light of collective experience and analysis.

If Millett’s work feels vibrant and relevant today, it may be less because of the particulars of her vision than because of the sense that we are in such a moment — and that we need writing as ambitious and uncompromising as Millett’s. If we take inspiration from this boldness, her later struggles should also inspire us to build the communities and supports we need to be in it for the long haul.