(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Millett began writing Sexual Politics as a doctoral dissertation under the guidance of Steven Marcus, a distinguished critic and professor at Columbia University. In books such as The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England, Marcus combines a sensitive understanding of historical trends and literary works to create a highly nuanced and sophisticated brand of cultural criticism. The structure of Sexual Politics shows that Millett employs Marcus’ method to write a polemical and political form of history and criticism. She is not merely concerned with political and literary arguments in their historical context; she is determined to advance the argument for sexual revolution and the liberation of women. Her critique is radical in that she is calling for change and measuring the writers she studies against her criteria regarding what constitutes positive reform. She is, in other words, avowedly ideological. She is asking whether a specific work has the right politics—does it demean or honor women’s rights?

By adopting an ideological position and pursuing it with verve, Millett is able to write with extraordinary energy and humor. She is not awed by the august writers she analyzes, because it is not their greatness per se that she confronts but rather their positions on the sexual issues that interest her and that she has defined to her satisfaction. She is thus her own authority on the subject, and as such she can face her formidable male subjects on the same level. It is an unusual stance for a historian or literary critic to assume, especially one who has been academically trained. Usually it is the creative writer turned critic who adopts such a commanding voice.

A good example of Millett’s stance is her treatment of D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow. Lawrence has often been admired for creating strong women, but Millett sees in his creation of Ursula a stereotype of the castrating female: “Her vehicle of destruction is moonlight, for Lawrence is addicted to the notion of the moon as a female symbol, once beneficent, but lately malefic and a considerable public danger.” This is classic Millett, deflating with humor what she regards as Lawrence’s pretentious symbolism and his factitious use of women to support it. To say “Lawrence is addicted” is to reduce his literary work to the level of a personal compulsion, a neurosis, and to deprive him of his authority. By calling attention to such characters and scenes, Millett...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)