Kate Millett: In Memoriam

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Andrea Dworkin on Kate Millett: Sexual Politics in the New Statesman 

The world was sleeping and Kate Millett woke it up. Betty Friedan had written about the problem that had no name. Kate Millett named it, illustrated it, exposed it, analysed it. In 1970 Kate Millett published the book Sexual Politics. The words were new. What was “sexual politics”? The concept was new. Millett meant to “prove that sex is a status category with political implications”. She pointed to male dominance in sex, including intercourse. In challenging the status quo, she maintained: “However muted its present appearance may be, sexual domination obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power.”

Thirty-three years later, it is hard to remember or envision the convulsive shock of this new idea. Male-over-female had been seen as a physical inevitability not unlike gravity. Nothing that had to do with sex was open to questions of power, dominance or hierarchy. Social sex roles originated in and were determined by biology or a supernatural divinity. The male was the figure of action, even heroism. He alone was made in God’s image. He ruled in religion, marriage and politics as conventionally understood. His sovereign place as head of the family was unchallenged. Millett called this arrangement “patriarchy”, which she described as “male shall dominate female, elder male shall dominate younger”. …

De Beauvoir, Lessing—now Kate Millett, by Marcia Seligson

… Kate Millett’s book on “sexual politics” is thus a rare achievement. Its measure of detachment is earned by learning, reason and love, its measure of involvement is frankly set out. It is a piece of passionate think ing on a life‐and‐death aspect of our public and private lives.

We are plunged in at the deep end, in a not unappreciative commentary on a scene of sex in and just out of the bath, from Henry Miller’s “Sexus,” rapidly followed by a more complexly brutal passage from Mailer’s “An American Dream.” Per missive fiction proffers rich mate rials. The pornographic element now so assimilated by imaginative litera ture as to confound the legal distinctions of censorship has ex posed far more than beds and bodies. Its freedom shows truths and fan tasies about sex hitherto disguised. Moreover, the act of sexual descrip tion is itself aggressive, indulgent, attractive, repulsive. These scenes are crucial. The power‐politics of patriarchal society creates the com placent zest of Miller’s hero as he subdues his women, and creates too the desperate arrogance of Mailer’s Rojack. …

What Kate did, by Maggie Doherty at The New Republic

… 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.”   …

“Sexual Politics” and the Feminist Work That Remains Undone at the New Yorker

In the fall of 2014 Time magazine published a list of words that, it proposed, should be banned—a click-bait compilation of terms and phrases that had become so buzzy and catchy that they had proliferated into cringe-inducing overuse. Among them were “bae,” a term of endearment; “disrupt,” a Silicon Valley cliché; “literally,” when used to mean “figuratively”; and “feminist.” About this last the magazine asked, “When did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.” …

Forty-four years earlier, Time magazine had made a different kind of statement about feminism, devoting a cover story to Kate Millett and “Sexual Politics,_”__ as a means of addressing the burgeoning movement at large.__ _Millett was described as “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation,” hailed as the theorist whose analysis served both as cultural diagnosis and polemical manifesto. These were times in which, as the magazine characterized it, “the din is in earnest, echoing from the streets where pickets gather, the bars where women once were barred, and even connubial beds, where ideology can intrude at the unconscious drop of a male chauvinist epithet.” Much of _Time’_s tone was lightly mocking of the movement—and now seems drenched in the unconscious sexism it sought to define—which makes its treatment of Millett’s work strike a present-day reader as surprisingly respectful. “There is no questioning the impact of her argument,” the magazine notes, while giving an accessible summary of “the patriarchy,” as more densely characterized by Millett in her book: “Women are helpless . . . because men control the basic mechanisms of society.” …

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