Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Sexual Politics is a nonfiction book written by Katherine ("Kate") Murray Millett (1934–2017). Millett was an artist, professor, writer, and activist who was especially concerned with feminist and mental health issues. Sexual Politics began as Millett's PhD dissertation, which she completed at Columbia University in New York in 1970. It is strongly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 book The Second Sex, though it is distinguished from that work by the way it connects women's experience to the political realm. It is considered an important landmark in the history of feminist criticism and has been reprinted many times and translated into several languages. However, it should be noted that modern feminist theory has become significantly more nuanced in the years since the work of early feminist pioneers (such as Millett) was produced.
Sexual Politics begins with an analysis of the ubiquity of patriarchy—or the system of male domination in a culture—and shows how it permeates every aspect of society. The work is considered to be a central text of "second-wave feminism," a period that is often associated with the phrase "the personal is the political"—which ties the daily experience of women to systematic issues of gender oppression. Millett argues further that psychoanalysis is a systematic way in which culture attempts to perpetuate patriarchy.
Millett analyzes several twentieth-century literary works with explicit sexual scenes to show how male writers' descriptions of sexuality are infused with issues of power and, consequently, the subjugation of women—with masculinity associated with dominance and femininity with passivity. She identifies many patriarchal characteristics that were present in the sexually explicit scenes in works by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and D. H. Lawrence.
The book's critique of sexuality as portrayed in literature then moves to a cultural critique and an examination of general ideological bias in modern Western society. Millett emphasizes a key distinction between anatomical sex and gender, the latter of which she argued is an ideological construct; she states that, while chromosomal makeup determines a person's biological sex and reproductive organs, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are socially constructed.
Millett analyzes how modern Western concepts of gender have evolved through history and argues that, because they are social constructs evolving from specific historical circumstances, we should now move beyond them and realize that people's abilities and characters are not determined by their assigned gender roles. She states that there are men who can excel in domestic roles and women who can be successful leaders, scientists, and creative artists—and she asserts that talent in any sphere should not be restricted by gender.