Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004
Article abstract: Since the 1970 publication of her book Sexual Politics, a manifesto of the feminist movement, Millett has been an acknowledged leader of the modern women’s movement.
Katherine Murray Millett was born on September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father, James Albert Millett, was an engineer, and her mother, Helen Feely Millett, was a teacher. The family’s background was Irish Catholic, and Kate attended several parochial schools. When Kate was fourteen, her father deserted the family. After attending parochial schools with dwindling faith and increasing rebelliousness, Kate Millett attended the University of Minnesota, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in 1956. A rich aunt, who was disturbed by Kate’s increasing tendency to defy convention, offered to send her to Oxford University for graduate study. For two years, Kate Millett studied English literature at Oxford, and she received first-class honors in 1958. Returning to the United States, she obtained her first job, teaching English at the University of North Carolina. In mid-semester, she quit her position and moved to New York City to paint and sculpt. In New York, she rented a loft to serve as her studio and living quarters, and to support herself she worked as a file clerk in a bank and as a kindergarten teacher in Harlem.
From 1961 to 1963, Kate Millett sculpted and taught English at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. She had her first one-woman show at the Minami Gallery in Tokyo. While in Japan, she met her future husband, Fumio Yoshimura, also a sculptor. In 1968, she returned to academic life, working for her Ph.D. degree in English and comparative literature at Columbia University while teaching English in the university’s undergraduate school for women, Barnard College.
At Columbia University, Kate Millett’s concern with politics and women’s rights began to develop and deepen. After returning from Japan, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the peace movement. In 1965, the campaign for women’s liberation attracted her attention and energies. At Columbia, she was a vocal organizer for women’s liberation and a militant champion of other progressive causes, including abortion reform and student rights. On December 23, 1968, because her activism made her unpopular with the Barnard College administration, she was relieved of her teaching position.
In its original form, Sexual Politics was a short manifesto that Millett read to a women’s liberation meeting at Cornell University in November of 1968. In February of 1969, however, Millett began to develop the manifesto into her doctoral dissertation. Working on it with undivided attention, Kate Millett finished it in September of 1969 and successfully defended it to receive her doctorate in March of 1970. She was awarded the degree “with distinction.”
Few doctoral dissertations are published outside the academic community, and fewer still become bestsellers, but Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) was a huge success, going through seven printings and selling 80,000 copies in its first year on the market. Although some reviews of Sexual Politics were decidedly hostile, most critics have judged the book to be a reasonable and scholarly political analysis of gender tensions.
Sexual Politics is divided into three sections. The first, which deals with theories and examples of sexual politics, establishes the fundamental thesis that sex is a political category with status implications. Millett argues that what is largely unexamined in the social order is an automatically assumed priority whereby males rule females as a birthright. In monogamous marriage and the nuclear family, women and children are treated primarily as property belonging to the male. Lower-class women are exploited and reduced to a source of cheap labor, while middle-class and upper-class women are forced into a parasitical existence, dependent for food and favor upon the ruling males. When the system is most successful, Millett says, it results in an interior colonization—the creation of a slavelike mentality in which women are devoted to their masters and the institutions that keep them in bondage.
The second part of Sexual Politics discusses the historical background of the subjugation and liberation of women. The section begins with an account of the first phase of the sexual revolution, which started about 1830 and ended, abortively, in reform rather than revolution, when women in the United States gained suffrage. Going on to analyze the counterrevolution, Millett identifies Sigmund Freud as its archvillain. She dismisses as a male supremacist bias Freud’s theory that “penis envy” is the basis for women’s masochism and passivity and that fear of castration is the basis for men’s greater success at repressing instinctual drives and therefore attaining higher cultural achievement. She also examines and rejects Erik Erickson’s theory of womb envy, among other versions of anatomy-is-destiny thought.
In the third and final section, Millett examines four major modern writers insofar as they reflect the sexual politics of our society. D. H. Lawrence sees women at their most womanly as willing subjects and sacrifices to male creative power. Henry Miller sees women only as sexual partners and sees the ideal sexual partner not as a person but as an object, a genital playground designed solely to fulfill male needs. Norman Mailer is a prisoner of the cult of virility, to whom sexuality means sadism, violence, and usually sodomy as well. Only in Jean Genet, the French chronicler of the homosexual underworld, does Millett find a sympathetic understanding of the position of women. She sees in Genet’s portrayal of the hatred and hostility directed at homosexual “queens” a mirror image and intentional parody of relations between the sexes in heterosexual society.
Since the publication of her book, Kate Millett has been involved in a wide range of feminist activities. In 1970, she partially financed and directed an all-woman crew in the production of a low-budget documentary film about the lives of three women. Although Three Lives was intended for college and other noncommercial audiences, it was premiered at a commercial New York City theater late in 1971 and received generally excellent reviews. Millett then taught a course on the sociology of women once a week at Bryn Mawr College.
Kate Millett is an activist and supporter of a full range of women’s liberation groups, from the National Organization for Women to the Radical Lesbians. She has been involved in attempts to organize prostitutes, and in August of 1970 she took part in the symbolic seizing of the Statue of Liberty in celebration of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, prohibiting discrimination because of sex, by the House of Representatives. (The amendment ultimately failed to be ratified by enough states to become law.)
Sexual Politics removed Millett from the anonymity of the New York art world and established her as a widely interviewed spokesperson for the women’s movement. Within months, however, the author realized that she could not control the image of herself that was projected by the press and on television. In the midst of her excessive celebrity, Millett found herself unsuited to life as a talk-show exhibit, but she did not quit the scene. Once recognized as an articulate member of the women’s movement, she had somehow ceased to be a free agent. In her uncomfortable new spokeswoman status, she was urged by other women to do her duty in speaking out on their behalf, while, at the same time, being browbeaten and harassed for her arrogance and elitism in presuming to do so. Millett’s book Flying (1974) details her struggle to remain self-aware, personally happy, and productive in the face of all the publicity she was receiving as a result of Sexual Politics. The central theme of Flying, as well as that of her 1977 memoir Sita, is her avowed lesbianism and the effect that her honest admission of lesbianism had on her public and private life. The extent of the publicity attached to Millett was so intense that her greatest desire after the publication of Sexual Politics was to reconstruct some sort of private personality for herself after the glare of the cameras had begun to fade.
With her two autobiographical works finished, Millett turned to a topic that had haunted her for more than ten years—the brutal torture and murder of an Indianapolis teenager named Sylvia Likens. The Basement, released in 1980, offers a chilling chronology of Sylvia’s last months, from her point of view as well as her killers’. The book combined reporting, the various consciousnesses of those involved in the crime, and a feminist analysis of power to follow human realities wherever they might lead. What emerges is not only the story of an isolated incident but also that of the powerlessness of children, the imposition of sexual shame on adolescent girls, and the ways in which a woman is used to break the spirit and body of younger women. Clearly, the fourteen years that Millett spent pondering Sylvia’s fate and how to detail it enhance the book’s value. Quite apart from any feminist polemics, The Basement can stand alone as an intensely felt and movingly written study of the problems of cruelty and submission. The Loony-Bin Trip (1990) recounts the ordeals Millett experienced after her involuntary hospitalizations in psychiatric wards for manic- depression, her divorce from sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, and the painful efforts she made to reconstruct her personal and public identities despite her illness. Millett now spends most of her time at a farm she owns where an art colony of other like-minded artists and activists reside.
Kate Millett will be remembered primarily as the author of Sexual Politics. Sexual Politics is an impressively informed, controlled analysis of the patriarchal order by a young radical sensibility that is challenging the confinements of cultural stereotypes and institutions in order to envision possibilities for refashioning power relationships between the sexes. With its phenomenal success, Sexual Politics provided the women’s movement with a theoretical background for its struggles against male domination. It also pioneered academic feminist literary criticism, which has since influenced heavily the teaching and research on literature in many American colleges and universities. In addition, by avowing and celebrating first her bisexuality and later her lesbianism, Kate Millett has become an articulate and influential spokesperson in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Combining feminist ideals with careful and controlled analyses of the limitations and abuses of patriarchal social control, she has emerged as a champion of human rights.
Charvet, John. Feminism. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. Traces the evolution of feminism from its beginnings in eighteenth century thought to the twentieth century. The chapter “Radical Feminism” includes a summary of the major arguments of Sexual Politics.
Donovan, Josephine, ed. Feminist Literary Criticism. 2d ed. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989. A series of essays examining the impact of feminist literary criticism on the academy. The first essay places Sexual Politics in the context of other works that analyze images of women created by male authors.
Millett, Kate. Flying. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. After the phenomenal success of Sexual Politics, Kate Millett found herself both canonized and reviled as the near-mythical leader of the women’s movement. This book recounts the relationship between a writer’s life and her art, and her attempts to salvage a believable, productive woman out of the uproar surrounding the publication of her first book.
Millett, Kate. The Loony-Bin Trip. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. An autobiographical account of Millett’s thirteen-year struggle with manic-depression, her treatment with the drug lithium, and her decision in 1980 to stop taking the drug. Her account is an indictment of psychiatric treatment as a form of social control that she resolutely challenges and opposes.
Millett, Kate. Sita. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. Millett’s autobiographical account of her first diagnosis as a manic-depressive, her divorce from her husband, and the road to recovery she journeyed when she met and fell in love with Sita, a woman ten years older than Millett, artistic, witty, seductive, and strong. The memoir recounts the successes and despairs of a deeply felt lesbian relationship.