Kate Millett, the ambivalent feminist

The author of the 1970 bestseller "Sexual Politics" may have been the women's movement's most unlikely heroine, or maybe not.

Published June 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

How forgotten is Kate Millett? When I stop by my local bookstore to pick up a copy of "Sexual Politics," it doesn't occur to me that I won't find her seminal work, the one that all but launched the second wave of the women's movement. It's worth noting that this is not a chain, where a militant feminist author of the 1970s might not be missed. I go to an independent bookstore in a San Francisco neighborhood peopled by highly educated liberals. I'm directed to the women's studies section and find a single shelf's worth of oddly random titles that include Nancy Friday's "Our Loves, Our Lives," Germaine Greer's "The Whole Woman" and, given the paltry selection, a hefty offering of books on menopause. I return to the front desk and ask a woman, in her mid-30s like me, if Millett might be located somewhere else, possibly in the nonfiction section?

"Let's see ... Kate Millett," she taps at the computer and stares at the screen, searching the store's database and, it appears from her puzzled expression, her own. "Wasn't she a feminist?"

"Yes," I say, and as if delivering an eighth-grade book report, I add, "Millett was very famous 30 years ago; a revolutionary."

"Oh, right," she looks up from the computer. "A revolutionary for 10 minutes." The book, she tells me, is out of print. I'm less confident as I head to a used-book store nearby, but in the remainder bin I uncover two of Millett's lesser-known works: "Flying," the autobiography she wrote when she was 38, and "The Loony Bin Trip," Millett's memoir about her mental breakdown and forced institutionalization. After calling five additional stores, including what I'd expected to be a slam dunk -- a Berkeley feminist bookstore -- and then checking Amazon.com ("This title is out of print ..." it responds as I key in each of her nine titles; only "Politics of Cruelty" is still available), I get a copy at the main library.

How is it that the great Kate Millett has nearly vanished from the collective consciousness? Certainly, she's overlooked by the media that once scrutinized her every move, and is barely a footnote in the minds of the very women who have profited from her labors. For whatever reason, my generation seems to be more familiar with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, Millett's onetime peers. These feminist hall-of-famers -- who respectively authored "The Feminine Mystique" and founded the National Organization for Women; wrote "The Female Eunuch"; and co-founded Ms. magazine -- remain in the Zeitgeist. Biographies of Friedan and Greer were published this past year, as were books penned by both women; and Steinem remains the biggest women's lib celeb of them all.

Thanks to my favorite college professor, I was forced to read "Sexual Politics." In truth, the 543-page polemic, Millett's Columbia University Ph.D. doctoral thesis, reads like one. Save the raunchy literary passages from Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Jean Genet, which Millett uses to illustrate men's use of sex to degrade and undermine women, "Sexual Politics" is a dry read. Millett assails romantic love ("a means of emotional manipulation which the male is free to exploit"), calls for an end to monogamous marriage and the family ("patriarchy's chief institution") and proposes a sexual revolution that would "bring the institution of patriarchy to an end." Millett's classic woke me up, changed my perception of women and myself, as it did for tens of thousands of American women when it first appeared nearly 30 years ago.

In 1970, Millett's dissertation -- which she didn't expect to be published much less read by the mainstream -- became a bestseller. What Millett advocated hardly sounds subversive in 1999, perhaps because much of it is now accepted as basic feminist theology -- most notably, her questioning a patriarchy that relegates more than half its population to second-class citizenship. But at the time, it was striking. Ever since the winning of women's suffrage early in the century, the movement had gone stagnant. With the '60s came the feminists' second wave, and at a grass-roots level anyhow, the nation began hearing rumblings from women voicing their discontent.

There was plenty of it, to be sure. In 1970, women were making 59 cents for every dollar earned by men, and represented just 7 percent of all doctors and 3 percent of lawyers in the country. The Equal Rights Amendment, languishing since 1923, was reintroduced into Congress, but wasn't passed for another two years (and still hasn't been ratified by all the states). Roe vs. Wade was still several years away. Maybe most telling: Good Housekeeping's "Ten Most Admired Women" were identified only by their husbands' names.

And voil`, at the peak of the wave, in rode Kate Millett, a rather unlikely heroine -- but then again, maybe not. When "Sexual Politics" was published, Millett was 34, 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, Minn., Millett led a far different life than her strict Catholic parents had envisioned. Married to Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, to whom she dedicated "Sexual Politics," she maintained open relationships with a series of women. Upon the publication of her dissertation, Millett achieved instant fame and, compared with her formerly dire straits, a modest fortune of $30,000. The majority of this she spent to buy property in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., establishing the Women's Art Colony Farm for writers and visual artists.

Whether she liked it or not -- and for Millett, this seems to be forever an ambivalent question -- she became an overnight celebrity, lauded as the movement's perfect figurehead. 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. Millett was hardly prepared. "I'm slammed with an identity that can no longer say a word; mute with responsibility," she wrote in "Flying." "Will this object in my hands, offspring already so remote, become a monster?" Time magazine hailed her as "the Mao Tse-tung of Women's Liberation." But Millett didn't 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 is the future of the woman's movement?'" she wrote. "How in the hell do I know -- I don't run it ... The whole thing is sordid, embarrassing, a fraud." Every campus in the country seemed to want her to speak, which she did, often grudgingly. "I would like to slap their smug little faces," Millett wrote, "and tell them I'm vomiting with terror ... why have you made me a curiosity?"

As intensely as she was lionized, Millett was demonized. In his 1971 essay "The Prisoner of Sex," Norman Mailer, whom in "Sexual Politics" Millett painted as the arch-villain chauvinist, fought back. Spitting mad, he wrote: "Well, it could be said for Kate that she was nothing if not a pug-nosed wit, and that was good, since in literary matters she had not much else." And he called her "the Battling Annie of some new prudery," a "literary Molotov" -- then blasted her purported use of inaccurate research, deceptive quotation and simplistic, flawed logic. How dare she ride roughshod over such artistic geniuses as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, and -- although he never comes out and says it -- Norman Mailer?

Millett's public persona started to tarnish. The women's movement turned on her when she was outed as a lesbian. "The disclosure," said an article in Time, "is bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause." Indeed it did. The gay movement lashed out at her for not coming out sooner. "Never queer enough for the fanatic," she confessed in "Flying." "Confused with straight people."

"Will future historians say that I blew it?" she asked, always conflicted over the part she was expected to play. Unlike Friedan and Steinem, "all far better politicians," observed Millett, and comfortable in their starring roles as Feminists for the People, Millett wasn't easily defined -- and seemed continually misunderstood. There's Friedan, the stately matriarch; Steinem, the brassy babe; and Millett, the manic-depressive, married, bisexual, women's reformer, gay liberationist, reclusive sculptor, in-your-face activist, retiring Midwesterner, brassy New Yorker. There were too many mixed messages; she was far too conflicted and complicated a figure.

Her private life was in turmoil. Sure she was an iconoclast, but a part of Millett never stopped wanting to be the good little Catholic girl. She was tormented by the pain her lesbian front-page news brought her deeply religious mother. "Guilt," wrote Millett, "her retaliation beyond any offense." In the self-described "isolation" that fame had brought, she was increasingly tortured by her manic-depression -- which may well explain Millett's many selves, at war with one another as much as they were with the outside world.

"There is no denying the misery and stress of life," she wrote in "The Loony-Bin Trip." "The swarms of fears, the blocks to confidence, the crises of decision and choice." This is her dark self, the one diagnosed as "constitutionally psychotic," who, against her will, is given electroshock treatments. This is not the self-possessed mother of the feminist movement, this is the other woman who, Millett admits, is constantly wavering -- "I doubt everything," she says.

The feeding frenzy became too much for her. "How does one get out of the movement?" she asked. "Where is the exit? ... I can't be Kate Millett any more ... A joke at cocktail parties ... Just let me watch it from the sidelines. Like other women can. Enjoy the luxury of looking on while someone else does it for us." Be careful of what you wish for. Over the next three decades, she slipped into obscurity. Millett stopped being Kate Millett, America's favorite feminist.

The reality is that Kate Millett has continued doing what she had always done: writing, art and activism. In 1973, she published "The Prostitution Papers," a defense of prostitutes' rights; the following year, she came out with "Flying"; and in 1977, "Sita," about an ill-fated love affair with another woman. In 1979, Millett went to Iran to work for women's rights, was soon expelled, and wrote about the experience in "Going to Iran." "The Politics of Cruelty," published in 1994 -- which brought her more attention than any book since "Sexual Politics" -- exposed the ongoing use of state-sanctioned torture in dozens of countries. Some of her books get attention; many fall off the charts. Universities and small galleries occasionally exhibit her work, and colleges ask her to lecture, although less and less often. And she's managed to hold onto her farm, today a well-established artists' colony.

A year ago, Millett surfaced in the most disconcerting manner, when an
she wrote for the London Guardian 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." Despite her credentials, she can't get a decent teaching job, not even at an extension night school. No one returns her calls. She can't even get hired as a temp. "I don't type well enough," Millett writes ruefully. She's offered $1,000 to republish "Sexual Politics," an embarrassing sum she refuses. (Ironically, notes Millett, Doubleday is putting out an anthology of the 10 most important books it's published in the past century -- an excerpt from "Sexual Politics" is included.) Most astonishing 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 the 'new feminist scholarship'?"

Camille Paglia, author of "Sexual Personae," a title that mimics Millett's own, all but screams yes. Writing in her Salon column of Millett's "atrocious book," Paglia blames Millett for starting "the repressive, Stalinist style in feminist criticism ... Her condescending, destructive, bitterly anti-male method of approaching art was adopted as dogma by the women's studies programs as they sprang up everywhere in the 1970s and became insular fiefdoms intolerant of dissent."

Is this to be Millett's epitaph -- a bitter, misguided feminist? She may no longer be on our bookshelves, but Millet is still very much present. A little more than a month ago, she made the news over the Bowery building where she's lived for 40 years; she's fighting to save it from the wrecking ball. The New York Times ran an op-ed piece -- "The Bowery Held Hostage" -- lambasting Millett, "an icon in feminism's radical circles," for single-handedly impeding the progress of the glitzy urban development.

I reach Millett at New York's NoHo Gallery, where she's showing a series of drawings. The exhibit, "Elegy for a Murdered Lady," is devoted to her Aunt Margaret, who died in a nursing home, even though Millett fought family members unsuccessfully to get her out. When I call, Millett is redirecting a delivery man who's convinced that she ordered a stack of tortillas. The story of her life: Millett is misunderstood. "Sir," she says in an amicable, deep and slightly scratchy voice -- it sounds like a smoker's voice -- "I think you might try upstairs."

The tortilla matter cleared up, no, she tells me, she hasn't read what Paglia has said about her. "It's not my style to make that kind of remark about people," she says in genteel St. Paulese. "Maybe she thinks I'm too radical?" Millett asks in seemingly genuine bewilderment. And the New York Times piece, "That was a misunderstanding. I found out the op-ed piece had been commissioned." Contrary to what the Times said, she is not battling Councilwoman Kathryn E. Freed over the property. "We get along quite well." The Bowery building is an important cause of hers, says Millett; the historic building was once New York's worst brothel, so bad for the women that they regularly committed suicide. "Imagine when you've written about prostitutes and you end up living in a building where prostitutes took their lives."

Millett explains she also didn't know her article was on the Internet and appears chagrined that the piece came across as self-pitying. "It turned out to be embarrassing, really," she says. "They took what was newsworthy. What I wrote was longer and funnier." In fact, she tells me, the essay was meant as a diatribe against the oppressive university adjunct system that pays professors paupers wages, not a tract on how Kate Millett has fallen on hard times. Once again, Millett's meaning has been lost in the medium. If only, if only people could understand.

By Leslie Crawford

Leslie Crawford is a San Francisco writer.

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