The feminist writer and activist Kate Millett died on September 6 at the age of eighty-two. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Millett was in Paris with her wife, Sophie Keir, when she died.
Millett became an influential feminist writer and critic in the 1970s when her book Sexual Politics, a dissertation turned feminist manifesto, became a best-seller in 1970. While part of the publishing push of second wave feminism—its publication came in between Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch—Millett’s Sexual Politics was more of an intellectual assertion, less interested in the Friedan project of equal opportunities and significantly more queer-friendly than Friedan or Greer’s work. Millett was interested in identifying and defining the political and cultural subjugation of women.
Sexual Politics was an unlikely best-seller, a critical look at the works of four male writers—Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, D.H. Lawrence, and Jean Genet—as case studies of how women are politically and culturally controlled. Millett’s “battleground,” Rebecca Mead wrote in the afterword of a new edition of Sexual Politics, was “impossibly abstruse high culture.” Millett’s fundamental argument, that the relationship between men and women was inherently political, formed of a gender politics defined by power and control, and reflected in culture, was radical at the time of its publication. “In the matter of conformity, patriarchy is a governing ideology without peer,” Millett wrote in Sexual Politics, “it is probable that no other system has ever exercised such a complete control over its subjects.”
The book went on to sell 80,000 copies in its first year and has been reprinted numerous times. Millett wrote that “sexual dominion” is the “the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power,” undoubtedly formed one of the intellectual pillars of second-wave feminism, injecting the movement with a philosophical perspective that would prove enduring. Sexual Politics had the same blind spot that nearly every second-wave book produced by white women did, however; namely, the elision of race and class for the ambiguous term “sisterhood.” The same year that Sexual Politics became a best-seller, another book, The Black Woman: An Anthology was published. In it, writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker questioned the limits and limitations of “sisterhood,” as defined by white feminists.
Still, in 1970, Millett’s book was a revelation. If Millett’s Sexual Politics is less known than, say, Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, then that’s either an accident of cultural memory or the purposeful exchange of Friedan’s more digestible examples of gender equality. While Friedan asserted that equal opportunity would pave the pathway for women’s liberation (straight, white women, to be exact), Millett articulated a cogent theory of patriarchal systems, rethinking gender as part and parcel of politically and culturally coercive systems.
In the process, Millett denounced the institutions of marriage and family, the latter she described as “a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole.” She argued that the end of sexual oppression demanded a sexual revolution, one that would embrace what she described as “traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage.” That included, Millet argued, “homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy,’ adolescent, pre- and extramarital sexuality.”
If the tension between Friedan’s anti-queer, equality-focused feminism, and Millett’s radicalism sounds familiar, then it’s because those tensions haven’t disappeared. While Millett’s definitions of politics and power, as well her claim that the cultural is political, have been embraced well beyond second-wave feminism, her radical embrace of sexual revolution remains contentious.
But, as Maggie Doherty argued last year in the New Republic, Millett’s work, particularly her critique of writers like Norman Mailer (Millett called these men “counterrevolutionary sexual politicians”) remains profoundly relevant. Doherty writes:
[...] We’ve witnessed heated literary arguments that demonstrate Millett’s legacy. Think of the discussion surrounding Jonathan Franzen, a writer who now garners as much ire for the antifeminism legible in his novels as he does for sexist remarks made in interviews. Or consider Rebecca Solnit’s back-and-forth with one men’s magazine last year. When Solnit mocked Esquire’s list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” she pointed both to the omission of female authors and to the troubling representation of female characters. Many of these books, she argued, were essentially “instructions in women as nonpersons.” When male readers fired back, Solnit responded, citing Millett, that books shape men’s views on women and sex—and some books suggest men have a right to both at will. The line between literature and life looks very thin once again.
Though Sexual Politics was undoubtedly Millett’s most influential book, she was a prolific writer, producing nine other non-fiction books. Millett’s books included 1990's The Loony Bin Trip, a memoir of her bipolar diagnosis and her refusal to accept it, and 2001's Mother Millett which recounts her role as a caretaker to her dying mother. In addition to her writing, Millett was also a sculptor and her work was exhibited numerous times throughout her lifetime.