You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Kate Did

Today's most heated literary arguments uphold the legacy of Kate Millett's 'Sexual Politics.'

Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Getty

One morning in 1970, on a day she was to speak at Emory University, Kate Millett—erstwhile sculptor, recent Ph.D. student, and now, to her chagrin, the spokeswoman of the Women’s Liberation Movement—stood up from the breakfast table and promptly vomited all over one of two Persian rugs covering the floors of her Bowery apartment. Her husband, the sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, looked on in dismay. The expensive rug was a new addition to Millett’s life. It had been purchased in a week of “libertine glory,” when Millett spent all of the $800 earned from the sale of her first book, Sexual Politics, on two carpets and an old car. Soon enough, the book would earn Millett $30,000—at the time, a small fortune. In her own words, she was “shamefully, pointlessly rich.” She was also miserable.

It had been a momentous 18 months for the self-identified “downtown sculptor,” a woman used to running in bohemian circles. In February of 1969, she was a doctoral candidate in English at Columbia University as well as a dedicated feminist activist, a member of the Redstockings and the New York Radical Feminists. Two months earlier, she had been dismissed from her teaching appointment at Barnard for her leading role in the 1968 student protests. Without a source of income and, in her words, “up against a wall,” she began to work urgently on her thesis. Millett decided to expand a “witty and tart” paper, also called “Sexual Politics,” that she’d delivered at Cornell the prior year. In the expanded version, she would trace the way literature reflected the sexual revolution and counterrevolution. As she later told Time, the project “got bigger and bigger until I was almost making a political philosophy.” She filed the dissertation in 1970; one of her advisers compared the experience of reading the work to “sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker.” She managed to get the book published by Doubleday. Holding the first copy in her hands, she was both elated and nervous, worried about its reception in the mainstream press as well as the response of her fellow radical feminists. 

The reactions of both camps went beyond anything Millett could have anticipated. Suddenly, she was wanted on every college campus. She was invited onto daytime talk shows. (Her Minnesotan mother warned her against appearing onscreen with unwashed hair.) Her book appeared in editorial cartoons. Her phone rang constantly. Her portrait, by the painter Alice Neel, graced the cover of Time; the magazine crowned her “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation.” At the time of the cover story, Sexual Politics had sold more than 15,000 copies and was in its fourth printing.  

At the same time, Millett was in demand at feminist rallies and caucuses. Audiences pressed her to announce her sexuality, and there was a lot riding on her answer. At the dawn of the decade, the movement was divided over the question of homosexuality. Betty Friedan, who seemed to launch feminism’s second wave with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, had been hostile to concerns of lesbians; in 1969, she called them a “lavender menace.” Lesbians reclaimed Friedan’s insult, printing it on their t-shirts when they protested the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City. This was the fractious feminist movement that Millett was supposed to head. She first came out as bisexual (disappointing her Catholic family), then later as a lesbian. This drew her into new organizing circles, where her romantic life was closely watched.

Sexual Politics by Kate Millett
Columbia University Press, 416 pp., $25.00

Millett wasn’t prepared for this kind of attention. (She would later be diagnosed with manic depression, a diagnosis that she has rejected.) Impassioned and impulsive, she didn’t have the disposition to play spokesperson for a movement. “Better to operate on an even keel like Friedan and Gloria and the others,” she later reflected. “All far better politicians. But I am not a politician. Not ‘Kate Millett of Women’s Lib’ either.” And though Millett wasn’t averse to overseas trips—she’d studied Victorian literature at Oxford, then sculpture in Japan—the constant travel took its toll; appropriately, her memoir of these years is called Flying. The words that recur in it are “crazy,” “dizzy,” and “overwhelmed.”

Though she may not have been the “politician” that her moment called for, Millett’s political influence is undeniable. Nearly fifty years after her book’s publication, her arguments about the politics of culture reappear with remarkable frequency. The publication of a new edition of Sexual Politics—out this month from Columbia University Press—attests to the renewed interest in her work. At a time when the structural changes promised by 1970s feminists seem difficult to envision, let alone attain, Millett’s belief in the importance of cultural representation is affirming. Perhaps, as Millett suggested, a new way of reading can produce a better way to live.  

Not many dissertations begin with a close reading of a scene of anal rape. But Millett’s was no typical dissertation. Though filing for a doctorate in English, she ranged widely over the disciplines. Two long sections on the history of women’s liberation and of sex-based oppression—“The Sexual Revolution” and “The Counterrevolution”—were flanked by studies of what Millett calls the “literary reflection” of patriarchy. Drawing on Weber, Engels, and Arendt, among others, Millett aimed to show how the relationship between the sexes was one of “dominance and subordinance.” This power relationship was institutionalized, she argued; it was a form of “interior colonization,” a kind of oppression “sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification.” Children were socialized to their roles in this “caste system,” thus consenting to a system of inequality long before they understood their world in such terms. “However muted its appearance may be,” Millett wrote, “sexual dominion obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power.”   

To make the case for this world order, Millett selected four writers to study as “cultural agents,” writers who “reflected and actually shaped attitudes.” D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer were eviscerated for their misogyny and sexual mysticism, while Jean Genet was lauded for exploring the psychology of sexual oppression. Lawrence, she argued, defined love as “dominating another person.” Miller was the voice of “contempt and disgust,” a writer whose works are marked by “neurotic hostility” and “virulent sexism.” Mailer, still a literary celebrity at the time of Millett’s writing, she saw as “a prisoner of the virility cult,” who presents “masculinity as a precarious spiritual capital in need of endless replenishment and threatened on every side.” Millett closely analyzed the scene of anal rape from Mailer’s 1965 novel An American Dream, and described it as a “rallying cry for a sexual politics in which diplomacy has failed and war is the last political resort of a ruling caste that feels its position in deadly peril.”

By examining literature in this way, alongside political history and in terms of its political content, Millett aimed to make an intervention in her discipline—and, in so doing, to make a change in the so-called real world. In 1970, women made just over fifty cents on every for every dollar a man earned and made up only 9 percent of the professions. Harvard had only two tenured female professors on its faculty. The academy, not to mention the society it studied, was in dire need of a change. “I have operated on the premise that there is room for a criticism which takes into account the larger cultural context in which literature is conceived and produced,” she wrote in her preface. “Criticism which originates from literary history is too limited in scope to do this; criticism which originates in aesthetic considerations, ‘New Criticism,’ never wished to do so.” Sexual Politics is polemical, but it’s also academic. It’s dense, heavily footnoted, and one could fairly call its style plodding.

The advantage of this approach is that Millett could advance iconoclastic ideas with scholarly rigor. She drew on anthropology and legal history to denounce the institution of marriage and the family, which she called “a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole.” She celebrated a sexual revolution that she characterized as “an end of traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage: homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy,’ adolescent, pre- and extra-marital sexuality.”

These ideas were radical, but they were also very much of the time. The year 1970 saw a slew of feminist book publications, including Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. These women were Millett’s collaborators and friends. Like Millett, they advocated for the abolishment of monogamy, marriage, and the nuclear family. Firestone described a “sexual class system” in terms that much resembled Millett’s. She called pregnancy “barbaric,” lauded artificial reproduction, and imagined a utopia in which, children, like Eros, would move freely through the world. Greer, an Australian with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, encouraged women to taste their own menstrual blood and discouraged them from partnering monogamously. “Women,” she claimed, “have very little idea of how much men hate them.” Such words wouldn’t have been out of place in Millett’s book.  

What seems remarkable now is how seriously the cultural mainstream engaged with these revolutionary ideas—which isn’t to say approved of them. These women were reviewed widely, and often well. Their book sales were impressive—Dialectic was a bestseller, and Eunuch sold out its first print run in a matter of months. They were invited to speaking engagements with the very men they challenged—Greer took on Mailer at a 1971 “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” In the August issue with Millet’s cover portrait, Time ran five articles on the goals and organizing practices of the radical feminists.

Not everyone was prepared to take these women seriously. In a quibbling, condescending review for Harper’s, the critic Irving Howe called Millett a “middle-class mind,” an “ideologue,” and “a female impersonator”; he dismissed her as “a little girl who knows nothing about life.” (Millett was 34.) Her application of Marxist theory to relations between the sexes particularly rankled for Howe, who saw his chance to remind Millett and her compatriots that true inequality took the form of class-based oppression. “Are the ladies of the Upper East Side of Manhattan simply ‘chattel’ in the way the wives of California grape pickers are,” he asked, “and if so, are they ‘chattels’ held by the same kinds of masters?”

Condescension and sexism aside, Howe had a point. The problem with treating sex as a class in its own right was that it tended to obscure economic class—along with race and sexuality. Millett and her fellow radical feminists often elided crucial differences between women—black and white, working-class and wealthy—in the name of “sisterhood.”  

By the early 1970s, some were questioning the sisterhood ideal. The Black Woman: An Anthology appeared the same year as Sexual Politics. Edited by Toni Cade Bambara, the anthology introduced the writers who would become central to Black feminism—Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Bambara herself. The collection of poems, stories, and essays celebrates the lives of black women as it interrogates the prescriptions and proscriptions associated with both Black Power and women’s liberation. In her introduction, Bambara asked “how relevant are the truths, the experiences, the findings of white women to Black women? Are women after all simply women?” Answering her own question, she speculated,

I don’t know that our priorities are the same, that our concerns and methods are the same, or even similar enough so that we can afford to depend on this new field of experts (white, female).

For Bambara and her contributors, race and sex were distinct but overlapping categories that combined to produce a unique and heightened form of oppression. Contributing writer Frances Beale called this “double jeopardy.” Nearly twenty years after The Black Woman appeared, Kimberlé Crenshaw developed “intersectionality theory” as a way of analyzing the colliding forms of discrimination that members of oppressed groups may experience. The widespread currency of the intersectional concept—now invoked in contexts ranging from college course descriptions and Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweets—is one measure of our distance from Millett’s moment.

Search the Internet today for Kate Millett, and you’ll find several articles noting her seeming obsolescence and attempting to revive her reputation. The first comes from Millett herself. Her 1998 personal essay for the Guardian, “The Feminist Time Forgot,” detailed her struggles to find employment. Her finances in decline, her books out of print, she worried that her generation of feminists had failed to “create the community necessary to support each other” and were now facing “a lacuna between one generation’s understanding and that of the next.” 

Sexual Politics was still out of print the following year, when one journalist combed the Bay Area for a copy. “How is it that the great Kate Millett has nearly vanished from the collective consciousness?” asked Leslie Crawford. Fast-forward to 2013, the year Millett was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and you’ll find Katie Ryder arguing that “Kate Millett still matters.” In 2000, the University of Illinois Press reissued all eight of Millett’s books. Columbia University Press’s new edition of Sexual Politics, just released this month, features an introduction by the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and an afterword by New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead. Reflecting that “much has remained unchanged” since 1970, Mead reminds us that structural and legislative changes have lagged behind shifts in culture. “In some ways,” she writes, “it seems that we got the cultural change that feminism promised, without the concomitant political transformation.”

An ad for the first edition of ‘Sexual Politics.’

Still, today’s cultural debates loom large; in this sense, the return of Sexual Politics is well-timed. In the last six months alone, 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.

Still, it’s hard to imagine any work of literary scholarship—let alone a Ph.D. dissertation—landing its author on the cover of Time today. While the contemporary academy has its share of public intellectuals, most of its scholars write for audiences of specialists (after all, they are employed to do just that). Millett, by contrast, was writing in the waning years of what Louis Menand has called the age of “heroic criticism,” a time when the stakes of literary debate seemed high. The books you preferred said something about your politics, even your morals. If you wanted to change the way people lived and loved, you might very well set out to change the way they read.

This faith in literature—in particular, this faith in the academic study of literature—is perhaps the thing that most marks Millett’s work as the product of another time. It’s striking that in the years after her first book’s release, when she was spending much of her time advocating for “gay liberation,” it occurred to her that the best thing she could do was not speak, or organize, or teach, but write a book of literary criticism, a “SexPol of gay and straight, a scholarly objective approach more convincing to the authorities.” She mapped it out one night at her farm-cum-feminist artist colony in Poughkeepsie: “First lay down a theory about the two cultures, our segregated society. Then find in homosexual literature the emotional truth of the experience as it was lived.” The book never came to be, but the dream of it tells us something about what it meant to be a literary scholar, and a radical feminist, in the early 1970s. 

“Will future historians say that I blew it?” Millett asked in Flying. The answer has to be no. Sexual Politics may have its intellectual and political flaws, like any text that documents a way of thinking proper to the past. But what Millett’s work showed were the ways that political action and cultural expression interpenetrate. Both sites of struggle were necessary to bringing about the “altered consciousness” that, for Millett, would mark a sexual revolution and bring “a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.” We’re not out of this desert yet; in some ways we are more lost than ever. But culture, Millett taught us, may help us find our way to a better land.

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not acknowledge that Millett rejected a diagnosis of manic depression.