Sexual Politics

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

Sexual Politics remains one of the founding works of contemporary feminist criticism. Even as feminist critics have dissented from some of Millett’s conclusions and acknowledged the polemical nature of her book and its skewed readings of literary history, they have championed its bold staking out of the female critic’s right to assess literature from a woman’s perspective. There has been such an explosion of feminist criticism since 1970 that Millett’s importance can easily be forgotten. Few women’s studies departments or programs existed when her book was published, relatively few female critics, and a still smaller number of female academics who were assessing literature’s treatment of women. Moreover, Millett’s argument that the male ego in literature (especially in the novel) had steadily devalued women proved to be a shocking and controversial position attacked by writers such as Norman Mailer in his counterargument, The Prisoner of Sex (1971).

Although Mailer shows instances in which Millett simplifies the characters and situations created by male authors, his attack has not done much to deflect the force of her argument. There might be legitimate reasons that authors such as Mailer have shown women in debased roles, but Millett prevails in her assertion that it is always women who must be given such subordinate roles. Women read the characters created by Mailer, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and other men differently from the way those authors and male critics do, Millett contends. Mailer’s reputation among feminist readers and critics has never recovered from Millett’s critique, and the other male authors discussed in Sexual Politics have been subject to major reevaluations in large part because of Millett’s penetrating and skeptical treatment of them.

Sexual Politics stimulated or perhaps released a torrent of feminist criticism because it demonstrated that the canon of modern literature was subject to revision. The canon was dominated by male writers, and their maleness had rarely been made an issue before Millett’s book. The structure of Sexual Politics and its very title heralded many of the developments in women’s studies programs and in feminist criticism. Part 1 of her book, “Sexual Politics,” establishes the term as a diagnostic tool in chapters titled “Instances of Sexual Politics” and “Theory of Sexual Politics.” In “Instances of Sexual Politics,” Millett uses Mailer’s novel, An American Dream, to show how a female character, Ruta, is depersonalized in terms of her class, sex, and nature, whereas the narrator, Rojack, a Harvard graduate who is a college professor and politician, is given the role of lording it over her and other women. The essential relationship of men and women in Mailer’s fiction is that of master and servant, Millett concludes. Women are repeatedly at men’s service; they are, in short, the obscene projections of men’s imaginations. Millett couples this...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)