Sexual Politics

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

Sexual Politics remains one of the founding works of contemporary feminist criticism. Even as feminist critics have dissented from some of Millett’s conclusions and acknowledged the polemical nature of her book and its skewed readings of literary history, they have championed its bold staking out of the female critic’s right to assess literature from a woman’s perspective. There has been such an explosion of feminist criticism since 1970 that Millett’s importance can easily be forgotten. Few women’s studies departments or programs existed when her book was published, relatively few female critics, and a still smaller number of female academics who were assessing literature’s treatment of women. Moreover, Millett’s argument that the male ego in literature (especially in the novel) had steadily devalued women proved to be a shocking and controversial position attacked by writers such as Norman Mailer in his counterargument, The Prisoner of Sex (1971).

Although Mailer shows instances in which Millett simplifies the characters and situations created by male authors, his attack has not done much to deflect the force of her argument. There might be legitimate reasons that authors such as Mailer have shown women in debased roles, but Millett prevails in her assertion that it is always women who must be given such subordinate roles. Women read the characters created by Mailer, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and other men differently from the way those authors and male critics do, Millett contends. Mailer’s reputation among feminist readers and critics has never recovered from Millett’s critique, and the other male authors discussed in Sexual Politics have been subject to major reevaluations in large part because of Millett’s penetrating and skeptical treatment of them.

Sexual Politics stimulated or perhaps released a torrent of feminist criticism because it demonstrated that the canon of modern literature was subject to revision. The canon was dominated by male writers, and their maleness had rarely been made an issue before Millett’s book. The structure of Sexual Politics and its very title heralded many of the developments in women’s studies programs and in feminist criticism. Part 1 of her book, “Sexual Politics,” establishes the term as a diagnostic tool in chapters titled “Instances of Sexual Politics” and “Theory of Sexual Politics.” In “Instances of Sexual Politics,” Millett uses Mailer’s novel, An American Dream, to show how a female character, Ruta, is depersonalized in terms of her class, sex, and nature, whereas the narrator, Rojack, a Harvard graduate who is a college professor and politician, is given the role of lording it over her and other women. The essential relationship of men and women in Mailer’s fiction is that of master and servant, Millett concludes. Women are repeatedly at men’s service; they are, in short, the obscene projections of men’s imaginations. Millett couples this...

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Sexual Politics Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sexual Politics is a study of the political aspects of sex. It is divided into three parts: “Sexual Politics,” “Historical Background,” and “The Literary Reflection.” In part 1, Millett gives examples of the ways in which power and domination are defined in contemporary literary descriptions of sexual activity. She analyzes the work of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. A good example of Millett’s style and point of view in this section is her treatment of Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream, in which “female sexuality is depersonalized to the point of being a matter of class or a matter of nature.” Mailer’s hero, Stephen Rojack, has anal intercourse with a German maid, Ruta, who has the “invaluable ‘knowledge of a city rat.’ ” The word “invaluable” is Millett’s, and she uses it to emphasize the ideology of sex that she finds deplorable in Mailer’s writing. To combat Mailer’s domination of women through his use of language, she responds with a dismissive and sarcastic style: “How evil resides in her [Ruta’s] bowels or why Ruta has a greater share of it that [sic] her master may appear difficult to explain, but many uncanny things are possible with our author.” Mailer is only one example that proves that “sex is a status category”—as Millett puts it in “Theory of Sexual Politics,” the second chapter of part 1.

In part 2, Millett describes the development of sex roles in the nineteenth and...

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Sexual Politics Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of Sexual Politics on literary and cultural criticism, and on the women’s movement in the 1970’s and afterward. It was a best-seller, a controversial work both praised and attacked, and a text used in many college courses in literature and women’s studies. Although female critics before Millett raised similar issues, none of them were as bold, as inflammatory, or amusing. Even readers who opposed her ideas could no longer regard writers such as Miller and Mailer in the old way. Woman as a category in literature deserving special attention was given new meaning, and exhilarated students and scholars took up the polemics of Sexual Politics, refining the book’s conclusions and modifying and expanding its theses. The phrase “sexual politics” became part of the vocabulary of the time.

Sexual Politics has maintained its special place in women’s studies. It is universally acknowledged as a pioneering work. Feminist scholars have serious reservations about Millett’s book and have deplored the crudeness of some of its techniques—chiefly a penchant for ignoring the style and structure of literary works in favor of a content analysis that implies that a writer’s work is merely the sum of his or her ideas and opinions. Millett lacks subtlety, these scholars conclude, and she exaggerates the originality of her own position by ignoring the foundations in women’s literature and criticism on which her own work is built. Even Millett’s harshest critics, however, pay tribute to her vivid style, which continues to energize readers and to pose important questions. She set an agenda for women’s studies which has by no means been exhausted.

Sexual Politics Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Belsey, Catherine, and Jane Moore, eds. The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. The introduction links Millett’s work with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes, witty, eloquent, and wide-ranging polemics reflective of the 1960’s, when the existing authorities were challenged by the politics of liberation.

Gornick, Vivian. Essays in Feminism. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. In “Why Do These Men Hate Women,” Gornick discusses Mailer’s response in The Prisoner of Sex to Sexual Politics. While praising his eloquent defense of Miller and Lawrence against Millett’s “distorting polemic,” she finds that other aspects of his argument confirm Millett’s conclusions.

Humm, Maggie. Feminist Criticism: Women as Contemporary Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Discusses Millett as a pioneer in feminist criticism and her indebtedness to Simone de Beauvoir. Provides a close reading of the style, structure, and ideology of Sexual Politics.

Mailer, Norman. The Prisoner of Sex. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Mailer’s rebuttal to Millett, which takes the form of a keen literary analysis of two of Millett’s targets: D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. Mailer demonstrates that Millett rips quotations out of context and literally rewrites many of the scenes she purports to describe.

Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and the Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge, 1991. Recognizes Millett as a pioneering feminist scholar who takes on the “massively male precincts of literary history.”

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1985. Contains a chapter on Sexual Politics as a feminist classic. Discusses the response of feminist critics to the book, particularly their rehabilitation of Freud and their reservations about Millett’s treatment of him.