Kate Millett Biography

Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)