(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sexual Politics, Kate Millett’s closely reasoned analysis of the patriarchal bias that underlies literary productions, was one of the earliest works to apply feminist literary theory to specific works of literature. Millett demonstrates how male-dominated culture has produced writers and literary works that are degrading to women and hurtful of efforts to reform and alleviate the conditions of women’s lives. Sexual Politics is recognized as a classic work of the feminist movement and is arguably the most brilliant and cogent statement on the tyranny of sexual stereotypes to appear in twentieth century North America.

Chapter 1 deals with what sexual politics is. Millet makes the attempt to define, describe, and provide examples of the “ancient and universal scheme for the domination of one birth group by another—the scheme that prevails in the area of sex.” It is Millett’s view that sex underlies all political questions and that it is necessary to bring this principle to the public attention before any positive steps can be taken to remedy it. Chapter 2 provides a cultural and historical background of the feminist movement, pointing out the direction that feminist agitators needed to follow.

Separate chapters on D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet demonstrate the relevance of the general concepts of sexual politics to the field of literary criticism. In the development of Millett’s analysis, Lawrence is ridiculed for his sentimental presentation of macho virility, Miller is exposed as a misogynist of the first order, Mailer is seen as anxiety-ridden and fearful of losing power to women and homosexuals, and Genet is shown to parody heterosexual love relationships in his depiction of homosexuals. The common thread in all these male writers is their concern to perpetuate (consciously or unconsciously) male domination over the female. It is important to observe that Millett believes that all these writers are important and gifted writers—despite what she believes to be the deleterious effects of their literary productions.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Kate Millett writes in the introduction to a revised edition of her feminist classic Sexual Politics that her purpose in writing the work was to restate and reestablish the fact of historical patriarchy in modern terms and for my generation, to see it as a controlling political institution built on status, temperament, and role, a socially conditioned belief system presenting itself as nature or necessity.

These goals exemplified the aims of the American feminist movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The movement sought not only to examine but also to combat a pervasive, persistent, thoroughly institutionalized and internalized patriarchy in Western society, which silenced women’s voices, distorted their lives, and universally treated their concerns as peripheral.

In the 1970’s, the canon presented to students in American universities was overwhelmingly male and decidedly from a male viewpoint; this viewpoint was often touted as universal. Millett’s Sexual Politics pioneered the field of feminist literary criticism through its systematic, evidence-based, and often in-depth examination of the work of many authors, illustrating through literary and cultural criticism that masculine viewpoints are not unbiased reflections of human nature, but rather support the patriarchal power structure that has existed since the beginnings of Western civilization.

Millett begins her study by dissecting descriptions of sexual intercourse written by men, specifically Henry Miller in his Sexus (1949) and Norman Mailer in his An American Dream (1965). Millett demonstrates how the language used in describing the sexual act speaks to the subjugation of women as persons, which in turn speaks to the larger issue of a patriarchal power structure. The politics of sexual activity—that is, the question of with whom and under what circumstances women are permitted to engage in sex—is an essential part of patriarchal power. In Millett’s terms, in such a power structure, women are never their own agents; they are commodities silenced by the freedom of men to sexually possess them. The tacit or outward acquiescence of women, in turn, works to define their selves in terms of men.

Building on the evidence of sexual politics in literature, Millett describes next a theory of sexual politics, transitioning from an individual, intimate view of the sexual act to the broader scope of political reference. She clarifies the connection between the individual and society at large by outlining several areas in which patriarchy wields its influence.

The first area of influence Millett terms “ideological”; human personality is defined as strictly “masculine” or “feminine.” A masculine personality shows “aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy”; A feminine personality shows “passivity, ignorance, docility, ’virtue,’ and ineffectuality.” Millett further identifies the male/masculine role as typically involving leadership and ambition and the female/feminine role as involving domestic servitude and childbearing....

(The entire section is 1268 words.)