Kate Millett: The Ambivalent Feminist – a Profile


       It may be that a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its
aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination – and in the process bring
us all a great deal closer to humanity (Postscript, Sexual Politics 363).

1970 was the year which marked an explosion of feminist theoretical writing. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Robin Morgan’s edited collection Sisterhood is Powerful were all published in the USA and in Britain, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes appeared. The three revolutionary books which appeared within a few months of each other The Female Eunuch, Sexual Politics and Patriarchal Attitudes – were all best sellers. They were witty, eloquent, wide-ranging and polemical, and they caught and crystallised a moment when the challenges of the sixties to a range of existing authorities had given a new impetus to the politics of liberation. These three works and others like them, did much to define an agenda for a new, self-conscious phase of feminist reading. A striking feature of all three books is that when they discuss literature, they refuse to isolate it from the culture of which it forms a part. Figes considers the Brontës and George Eliot in the context of the restricted th range of possibilities for women in the 19 century. Greer analyses Shakespeare’s plays to find in them a depiction of love and marriage new in the sixteenth century, when romantic love became the basis of marriage as partnership, and the nuclear family emerged as the main unit of a developing consumerism. Millett’s denunciation of the Lawrentian idealisation of the phallus – unforgettably entertaining, and probably unsurpassed, however much more complex feminist criticism has since become– is part of generalised analysis of sexual power relations in a range of texts, not all of them fictional. Millett herself draws attention to the nature of her book as “something of an anomaly, a hybrid, possibly a new mutation altogether” (Preface).

Although thirty years have elapsed after its publication, Sexual Politics is still considered as one of the best books in modern polemical literature. Radical feminist theory found its fullest articulation in Sexual Politics, the ground breaking best seller which made the media and the reading public lionise Millett intensely. When the book was published, Millett was 36, an unknown sculptor and activist living the life of an impoverished Bohemian in New York’s Bowery district. Born Katherine Murray Millett in St. Paul, Minnesota, Millett led a far different life than her strict Catholic parents had envisioned. She attended the University of Minnesota and St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. Supporting herself by teaching, she sculpted and painted in New York city, then spent 2 years in Japan, 1961-3, where she had her first one-woman show. Back in New York, she married sculptor Fumio Yoshimura in 1965, to whom she dedicated Sexual Politics (divorced, 1984), writing about these experiences in Flying (1974). She became active in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and an original committee member of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) founded in 1966. Her first work, Token Learning, 1967, a criticism of curricula in women’s colleges, was published by NOW. Her Columbia Ph.D dissertation, which became the feminist classic Sexual Politics, 1970, marked the beginning of radical analysis in the history of feminist literary criticism. It undertook a radical analysis of patriarchy as it operates in history, culture, religion, psychoanalysis and most centrally literature. Providing witty and innovative readings of Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet, the book’s polemic urged a cultural revolution headed by the oppressed and alienated minorities, predominantly women. Millett argued that humanity will be freed from the constrictions of sex, race and class, by exposing and eliminating the grounds on which oppression operates. Upon the publication of her dissertation, Millett achieved instant fame, and compared with her former dire straits, earned a modest fortune of $30,000. The majority of this she spent to buy property in Poughkeepsie, New York, establishing the Women’s Art Colony Farm for writers and visual artists.

Kate Millett, whether she liked it or not, became an overnight celebrity, lauded as the movement’s perfect figure head. She was brilliant, articulate, attractive, passionate in her activism, generous with her time and surprisingly gracious in interviews. The media swallowed her whole and spit out a simplified spokeswoman for the masses. Time magazine did a cover story about scholar – artist – writer – activist Millet and hailed her as “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation” and The New York Times called her the “principal theoretician” of the women’s movements. She was hardly prepared for all this. Millett herself, as she later disclosed, was acutely embarrassed by the celebrity status conferred upon her. “I am slammed with an identity that can no longer say a word; mute with responsibility,” she wrote (Flying 50). She did not want to be a leader; it’s against the spirit of the movement, she said and mimics the patriarchy’s repressive hierarchy. “Microphones shoved into my mouth….” What’s the future of the women’s movement? How in the hell do I know?— I don’t run it … the whole thing is sordid, embarrassing, a fraud” (Qtd. in Crawford 1999).

The first part of the book is devoted to the proposition that sex has a frequently neglected political aspect. According to Millett, the second chapter entitled “Theory of Sexual Politics”, is the most important in the book and analyses the social relationship between the sexes from a theoretical stand point, and also attempts to formulate a systematic overview of patriarchy as a political institution. The second section is largely historical, outlining the great transformation in the traditional relationship between the sexes which took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The third and last section is focussed specifically upon the works of D.H.Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, of which the final chapter is devoted to the writings of Jean Genet to emphasise the sexual oppression and also its eradication.

Many recent American Feminist theoreticians including Annette Kolodny have largely drawn inspiration from the conception of “politics” first articulated in Kate Millett’s important radical feminist analysis Sexual Politics, in which “politics” is used to connote any social relationship based on an inequality of power. Millett argued that patriarchy was a political institution which relied on subordinated roles for women. It also distinguished between the concept of “sex” which was rooted in biology, and that of “gender” which was culturally acquired. Other critics in this tradition of examining masculine portrayal of women included Elaine Showalter, Carolyn Heilbrun and Judith Fetterly. Millett’s main thesis was that recognizable feminist criticism and theory must in some way be relevant to the study of social, institutional and personal power relations between sexes, what she in her epochal study called “Sexual Politics”. Sexual Politics expands the concept of the political to give a generalised analysis of sexual power relations in literature and society.

The germ of Millett’s Sexual Politics was presented in “a manifesto for revolution”, the winter of 1968, in connection with the organisation of a women’s group at Columbia University where she was a doctoral student in English and Comparative literature.

“When one group rules another, the relationship between the two is political. When such an arrangement is carried out over a long period of time, it develops an ideology (Feudalism, racism etc.). All historical civilisations are patriarchies : their ideology is male supremacy” (Sexual Politics ii). According to Millett “sexual politics obtains consent through the ‘socialisation’ of both sexes to patriarchal policies” (Sexual Politics iii). Here Millett’s theory is not dissimilar to those of the Marxists Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. The state maintains its rule through force, but also through ideological hegemony. Millett argues that patriarchal ideology permeates every aspect of culture and touches every aspect of our lives – even the most personal. Like other radical feminists Millett sees women therefore, as programmed to a “caste like status” (Sexual Politics 115) that is maintained through force or ideological conditioning.

The book opens with a catalogue of “instances of sexual politics” drawn from modern literature. These examples are grotesque descriptions of sexual abuse of women seen in the works of such chic male authors as D.H.Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. They serve to provide another powerful illustration of the ideological attitudes – canonised in literature and accepted as “normal”– against which radical feminists were rebelling. Millett uses these descriptions of relationships in which women are humiliated and abused to emphasise the status that “politics” obtains in the personal realm of sexual intimacy. Hence the concept “sexual politics”. While considering the power relations involved in such representations, she highlighted the importance of male power and female subordination, showing how consent is manufactured and male domination maintained. She established that sexual relations were political ones and with the popularity of this book, “patriarchy”, “gender” and “oppression” emerged as key concepts in second wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement.

Millett’s book popularised both the phrase “Sexual Politics” and the broadening of the term “patriarchy” beyond its original definition as the rule of the dominant elder male within a traditional kinship structure, to mean the institutionalised oppression of all women by all men. Patriarchy, argues Millett, is a “political” institution and sex a “status category with political implications”. Moreover, patriarchy is the “primary” form of human oppression, without whose elimination, other forms of oppression – racial, political or economic – will continue.

“One is forced to conclude that sexual politics, while connected to economics and other tangibles of social organisation, is like racism, or certain aspects of caste, primarily an ideology, a way of life, with influence over every other psychological and emotional facet of existence. It has created, therefore, a psychic structure, deeply embedded in our past, capable of intensification or attenuation, but one which, as yet no people have succeeded in eliminating” (Sexual Politics 95).

The revelation of the fundamental sexism inherent in the writing of several important male writers such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, aroused the consciousness of more women to sexism in all aspects of American life, and a related phenomenon was the development of feminist academic approaches to history, sociology, philosophy and literature.

Apart from her devastating and salutary critique on male authors, Kate Millett attacked Freud too. One of the central critiques feminists have levelled against Freud and his followers concerns the extent to which they believe that psychosexual development is biologically determined. Obviously, Freud’s own comment, “Anatomy is destiny,” implies biological determinism. It is clear elsewhere, in his writings that Freud did in many instances subscribe to this view. Another noteworthy feature of Millett’s Sexual Politics is that even after thirty years, it remains the most substantial negative feminist analysis of Freudianism. She also zeroes in on what she sees as its inherent biological determinism. She provides an amusing example of the lengths to which neo-Freudians have gone to shore up the theory of the biological necessity of male aggressiveness in physical relationship. Ransacking the annals of sub-human biology, theorists discovered the prehistoric cichlid fish. They concluded that “the male cichlids failed to find the courage to mate unless the female of their species responded with ‘awe’.” As Millett acerbically comments, “how one measures ‘awe’ in a fish is a question perhaps better left unanswered” (Sexual Politics 209).

More seriously, Millett charges that the net effect of Freud’s message has been to inform “the dispossessed that the circumstances of their deprivation are organic, therefore unalterable” (Sexual Politics 220). The central concepts of Freudian theory have been used as clubs to keep women submissive. Should she grow insubordinate, she will invade the larger world … [“ male territory”] and seek to “compete”, thereby threatening men. Other feminists concur with this view. Millett continues: “In such cases Freud and his school will do all in their power to convince her of the error of her ways … the renegade must adjust or succumb” (Sexual Politics 186).

Another central feminist objection to Freudian ideas about female psychology is the obvious male bias inherent in them. As Millett notes, Freud follows the misogynistic Western philosophical tradition initiated by Aristotle (Sexual Politics 182). She argues that Freud’s work attempts to rationalise the invidious relationship between the sexes, to ratify traditional roles and to validate temperamental difference. But later feminists differed from Millett’s view. Juliet Mitchell’s landmark work Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) was published during the height of Millett’s fame and re-evaluated Freud in terms of Feminism and catalogued the misreadings of psychoanalysis in the earlier feminist works. For instance, Mitchell argued that Freud did not claim that women were biologically inferior to men, but offered a “scientific” means as to understand why women were constructed as such in a patriarchal society. At base, Mitchell claims that Freudian theory is an expose, not a defence of patriarchy. The French theorists also differed from their American counterparts in this major aspect: its use of psychoanalytic theory as an explanatory tool. Whereas Millett denounced Freud as a key agent of patriarchy, French theorists LuceIrigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva followed Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of woman’s construction as the “other”, by seeking to explore the ways in which “language” and “culture” construct sexual difference and to do this they drew on the work of the Freudian psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan.

Millett had her own quaint ideas about romantic love and family. She assails romantic love – “a means of emotional manipulation, which the male is free to exploit” (Sexual Politics 37), calls for an end to monogamous marriage and family and proposes a sexual revolution that would “bring the institution of patriarchy to an end” (Sexual Politics 363). Millett’s classic woke women up, changed their perception of women and themselves, as it did for tens of thousands of American women when it appeared nearly 30 years ago and continues to do so even today. But what Millett advocated hardly sounds subversive in 2002, perhaps because much of it is now accepted as basic feminist theology. But as intensely as she was lionised, Millett was demonised. Her public persona started to tarnish after 1970. The women’s movement of which she had been hailed as the new spokesperson, turned on her when she confessed that she had a love affair with a woman. This disclosure discredited her as a spokeswoman for the cause. Unlike Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, she was not to be easily defined and seemed continually misunderstood. Added to the self-described “isolation” that fame had bought, was her manic–depression. In the later books, especially in The Loony Bin Trip one comes across the other woman, who Millett admits, is constantly wavering. Over the next three decades, she slipped into obscurity. Millett stopped being Kate Millett, America’s favourite feminist.

The reality is that she has continued doing what she had always done: writing, art and activism. After 1970, her later work is increasingly concerned with the contribution made by women’s autobiographies to a feminist political history. This can be seen in Three Lives (1970), a documentary directed by Millett, which allows women to tell their stories in their own words, The Prostitute Papers (1971), a defense of prostitutes’ rights and two autobiographical novels Flying (1974) and Sita (1977) about her doomed love affairs with another woman. Both novels are consciousness-raising and woman-centered narratives. The Basement (1979) is a study in the sexual politics of female identity. She visited Iran in 1979 to advocate women’s rights after the revolution, but was expelled by Khomeini’s government for her efforts. These experiences are recounted in Going to Iran (1982). In 1990, she published The Loony Bin Trip describing her own manic-depressive history. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment published in 1994, brought her more attention than any book since Sexual Politics and which exposed the ongoing use of state-sanctioned torture in dozens of countries. She, as well as teachers, gives lectures on a wide variety of topics from the use th of torture in the 20 century to psychiatric abuse.

Four years ago, Millett surfaced in the most disconcerting manner, when an article she wrote for The London Guardian (June 23, 1998) was excerpted and circulated on the Internet. In the article, titled “The Feminist Time Forgot”, Millett comes across as desperate and destitute, fearful of future “bag-lady horrors”. Most startling is the news that she earns a living selling Christmas trees from her farm. “I begin to wonder what is wrong with me,” she writes. “Am I ‘too far out’ or too old? Is it age? I’m 63. Or am I ‘old hat’ in the view of ‘new feminist scholarship’?” (The Guardian, Online, 24 April 2002). One cannot just help wondering whether this is to be Millett’s epitaph– a bitter, misguided feminist? The great Kate Millett has nearly vanished from the collective consciousness. Certainly, she’s overlooked by the media that once scrutinised her every move. The very woman tribe that has profited from her labors and especially of this generation seems to be more familiar with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, Millett’s onetime peers. And whatever that is projected by the media about her, comes across as self-pitying. Regarding her article which appeared in The Guardian, she says, “It turned out to be embarrassing, really; they took what was newsworthy. What I wrote was longer and funnier. In fact, the article was meant as a diatribe against the oppressive university adjunct system that pays professors paupers’ wages, not a tract on how Millett has fallen on hard times. Once again, Millett’s meaning has been lost in the medium.” (Online, June 5, 1999).

Nearly thirty years ago, Kate Millett was a completely revolutionary feminist, who wrote through her life about themes that could really upset some people. In a time where women were becoming more important in society, she criticised the position that women were taking in it. She was judged for all that she wrote and was taken into an asylum because people thought she was crazy, but from there she kept on writing, and she even wrote about the behaviour inside the asylum. She was a fighter then and even today, and never gave up on her thoughts. She was irreverent and did not mind to say what she thought, even if that meant to lose her freedom inside an asylum. And she shows no sign of giving up the fight:

“But I have also spent 40 years as a down town artist habituated to the existential edge and even as I proclaim that all is lost, I am planning a comeback … imagining a sinecure in human rights for extreme old age, matched editions of my collected works, and final glory” (Interview by Mark Blasius).

Blasius, Mark. An Interview with Kate Millett. Online, 24 April 2002.

Brooks, Ann. Postfeminisms. London: Routledge, 1998.

Crawford, Leslie. “Kate Millett, the Ambivalent Feminist”. Salon. June 5, 1999. n.pag. Online. Internet. 24 April 2002.

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory. London: Routledge, 1996.

Gamble, Sarah, ed. The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post Feminism. London: Routledge, 1994.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Towards a Feminist Autobiography: Kate Millett’s Flying and Sita; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior” (1979) in Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980: 221-37.

Keating, Anne.B. “Kate Millett”. Contemporary, Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Biobibiliographical Source Book. 361 69.eds. Denise C.Knight and Sandra Pollack. West Port: Greenwood P, 1993.

Kolodny, Annette “This Lady’s Not for Spurning: Kate Millett and the Critics”,

(1976) in Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980 : 238-59.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Double day, 1970.

————. The Prostitute Papers, 1971.

————. Flying, 1974.

————. Sita, 1977.

————. The Basement, 1979.

————. Going to Iran, 1982.

————. The Loony Bin Trip, 1990.

————. The Politics of Cruelty, 1994.

————. .A. D, 1995.

————. “The Feminist Time Forgot”, The Guardian, Tuesday, June 23, 1998.

Schneir, Miriam, ed. The Vintage Book of Feminism. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Steinbuch, Tom. “Take your Pill, Dear’: Kate Millett and Psychiatry’s Dark Side”, Hypatia 8:1 Winter 1993: 197-204.

 Teaches English at Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Her doctoral work was on Denise Levertov, an American poet. She has published many articles on poetry. Her field of interest includes poetry and Women’s Studies.

Default image
Teaches English at Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Her doctoral work was on Denise Levertov, an American poet. She has published many articles on poetry. Her field of interest includes poetry and Women’s Studies.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124