Kate Millett pioneered the term ‘sexual politics’ and explained the links between sex and power. Her book changed my life

Kate Millett pioneered the term ‘sexual politics’ and explained the links between sex and power. Her book changed my life


I still think of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics as the book that changed my life. Its insistence on the importance of patriarchal structures and sexual hierarchies in literature and history, as well as in contemporary society, was eye-opening.

The 1970s saw the publication of several classic feminist texts, including Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. For the most part, these books grew out of the discussions and consciousness-raising groups associated with the early stages of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Many women who became feminists in the 1970s still ask which of these books was most important to them. For me, the answer is unquestionably Sexual Politics.

I was a graduate student, just embarking on a PhD on a Victorian man of letters, when I first read Sexual Politics (or rather, a review of it that sent me racing for the book). It offered a whole new approach to history and to intellectual life.

Until I read it, I lacked the self-confidence – and even the language required – to address the history of the 19th century from the vantage point of a woman. I had believed in the notions of scholarly impartiality and “objectivity” that were dominant in the 1960s – and would come to be seen as expressing views reflecting the position of privileged white men.

Armed with a new critical stance, I went on to become a feminist historian, teaching and researching women’s lives and the history of feminism.

The term “sexual politics”, very widely used now, was then quite new. Millett was the first person to use it in print. Aware it was not only new, but controversial (and to some, incomprehensible), she explained at some length why she saw sexual relationships – and indeed the act of sex itself – as political.

She explained why we needed to move beyond using the term “political” just to refer to a narrow world of parties, chairmen and meetings. Its use, she argued, should be extended to describe “power-structured relationships, to all arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another”.

Power, sex, Miller and Mailer

To emphasise the power structure in sexual relationships, Millet began the book with an extended passage from Henry Miller’s Sexus, which graphically depicts a cruel sexual conquest. It reads in part:

It happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to rebel or even to pretend to rebel. In a moment I had her in the tub, stockings and all […] I lay back and pulled her on top of me. She was just like a bitch in heat, biting me all over, panting, gasping, wriggling like a worm on the hook.

The brutal misogyny evident in Miller’s laudatory depiction of the way his hero, Val, sexually dominates and subdues Ida, the wife of his erstwhile friend, Bill Woodruff, is as shocking to read now as it was in 1970.

Back then, Millett’s insistence on discussing the misogyny in this widely admired text was striking. So was her refusal to privilege the book’s freedom and sexual explicitness as the topic of discussion. The “almost supernatural sense of power” and dominance a male reader might experience, she argued, was very different from what a female reader might experience.

In a chapter titled “Instances of Sexual Politics”, Millett turned from Miller to another iconic mid-20th-century male novelist, Norman Mailer, and his book, An American Dream. Her discussion underlined the extreme violence towards women the kind of sexual domination in Miller and Mailer’s work could encompass. (Ironically, perhaps, the current cover of the Modern Classics edition of Sexus carries a rave from Mailer.)

On hearing the wife he had separated from had engaged in sex with others (something he had done even during their marriage), Rojack, Mailer’s hero, first sodomises and then kills her. Both Rojack and his creator seem to feel this act is entirely justified. There is little motive for this killing, Millett notes, “beyond the fact that he is unable to master her in any other way”. Rojack is exhausted when he finishes – though he now feels triumphant and follows this act of mastery by buggering her maid.

At a time when there is so much awareness of the link between gender hierarchies and disrespect for women with rape and domestic violence, it is quite shocking to see how recent our consciousness of these connections are.

Both Miller and Mailer, as Millett shows, depict their violent, controlling men as heroes. They are entitled to project their masculinity and demand its recognition in ways that would be unthinkable in ostensibly serious literature now.

Her feminist critique of these immensely influential male novelists was unprecedented. The fact she began and ended her book with this critique illustrates how seriously she took literature and ideas. She saw them as the basis of political consciousness and conduct.

Kate Millett’s feminist critique of influential male novelists like Norman Mailer was ‘unprecedented’.
Michael Ward/Getty Images

But not all literary depictions of sexual cruelty take this triumphalist tone, Millett argues. She cites the example of French writer Jean Genet, who was abandoned by his mother, spent part of his adolescence at a reform school and spent time as a homeless male prostitute. Drawing on his own painful personal experiences, Millett argues, Genet depicts sexual violence and brutality from the vantage point of those subjected to it.

Operating in a homosexual world, he sometimes chooses drag queen prostitutes brutalised by pimps, clients and lovers for this purpose. The abject drag queens at the bottom of this hierarchy show what it is to be female, in this “mirror society of heterosexuality”. Genet also wrote about women, in his play The Maids and other works, using them, too, to show that brutal sexual hierarchies both reflect and provide the foundations for other social hierarchies and structures.

For Genet, Millet argues approvingly, sex and the power structure around it is “the most pernicious of the systems of oppression”.

Naming and defining ‘patriarchy’

As she moved from discussing “instances of sexual politics” to articulating its theory, Millett, like many other feminists of the 1970s, framed her discussion in terms of the patriarchy. The naming and defining of “patriarchy” as a system “whereby that half of the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male”, was seen at the time as a major step in understanding the nature of women’s oppression.

It offered a framework for showing how widespread the oppression of women was – and the many ways it was reinforced. It was not only a system of government, but an ideology that conditioned both men and women to accept a particular form of sexual hierarchy and to develop an appropriate understanding of their role, status and temperament within it.

Millett, like many feminists of the 1970s, framed her discussion in terms of the patriarchy. Women’s Lib March Washington DC 1970.
Library of Congress/Warren K Leffler

The concept of patriarchy also offered a way of understanding the consequences of the biological differences between the sexes. It could be seen in sociological terms in the constitution of the family. There was an anthropological dimension, too, as it was reinforced through myth and religion.

Psychologically, it was reinforced through the infantilisation of women and in their internalised sense of inferiority and self-hatred. Patriarchy could also be seen in economic and educational systems that perpetuate women’s inferiority and economic dependence – and in the many ways force has been used in legal and cultural systems.

Intellectual courage and imaginative power

Millett’s discussion of sexual politics was extraordinarily wide-ranging. After introducing some of her key literary texts, she provided an extended historical discussion of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as historical background to the present.

Broadly linking Britain and America, she explored what she saw as the “first sexual revolution”: the 19th-century feminist campaigns for women’s education and political rights, and the texts, like John Stuart Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women, that delineated and critiqued the inferior position occupied by women.

In Millett’s historical sweep, the 19th-century sexual revolution was followed by a counterrevolution, comprising the attacks on women’s rights evident in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, on one hand, and the impact on American women of Freudian psychoanalysis and the ideas of some of the post-Freudians, on the other.

The concept of “penis envy” was a particular target, showing so clearly how women’s inferiority was internalised. The counterrevolution provides the context for the more detailed discussion of the male novelists who are dealt with in more detail in the book’s final section – where D.H. Lawrence is added to Miller and Mailer. These three iconic male writers, who both reflect and shape cultural attitudes, are described by Millett as “counter-revolutionary sexual politicians”.

The scope of Millett’s discussion is impressive. Its breadth speaks both to her own intellectual courage and imaginative power, and to the limited state of scholarship on women at the time she was writing.

Kate Millett.
Linda Wolf/Wikipedia, CC BY

This book began as a PhD at Columbia University. While Millett was allowed extraordinary latitude, she had to make do with very limited resources. If one were attempting to cover the historical span she dealt with now, one would be overwhelmed by the vast scholarship on gender in the history, literature and sociology of the 19th and 20th centuries that she addresses. But all of this was in the future, and she had to make do with a very small number of works, as her own bibliography makes clear.

‘A revelation’ or ‘like homework’?

It was the combination of this broad scope and her incredible intellectual freedom and independence that were most important to me when I first read her book.

Millett was a revelation, with her sharp (and sometimes funny) feminist critique of canonical texts and her critical reading of history that placed women at the centre. I was also struck by her endorsement of some historical figures, like John Stuart Mill, and ridiculing of others, like art critic John Ruskin or Tennyson.

Her analysis of the Victorian period was particularly appealing to me, but so too was her literary analysis. All these things would become central in feminist scholarship in the subsequent decades. But her work linked this scholarly dimension to a contemporary political critique and program.

For Millett, this critical reading of these canonical male texts was in itself a political act, demolishing a canon and allowing a new space for women to read. I found it exhilarating – though it did mean I ultimately abandoned that PhD.

Some found Sexual Politics hard to read and too abstract to be of use to contemporaries concerned about women. In the Guardian, Emily Wilson suggested it could feel “at times, just a wee bit like homework”. But its energy and sweep appealed to many – and Wilson herself concluded “you will undoubtedly be a better woman for it”. Sexual Politics was a sensation, an instant bestseller, and for a couple of years Millett found herself constantly giving university talks and lectures, and appearing in the media.

She was seen by some as the central intellectual figure in the women’s movement – not a status she ever sought or claimed. Shortly after the book was published, she featured on the cover of Time Magazine in August 1970, an extended and rather curious essay titled: “Who’s come a long way, baby?”.

The essay is curious because the author seems to have not quite decided whether to praise Millett or condemn her. Sexual Politics had then sold more than 15,000 copies and was in its fourth edition – despite being, as the essay noted, “a polemic suspended awkwardly in academic traction”. Alongside its presentation of Millett’s views, the essay offered facts and figures to confirm the subordinate status of women in the United States and an account of the lengthy battle waged for women’s rights.

At times, it seemed almost admiring – and to seek to support her overall argument. But it made the discomfort of some of her male readers very clear, quoting one of her thesis examiners, who said reading the book “is like sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker”. The sting was there from the start, however. Millett was described not only as an “ideologue”, but as “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation” – which didn’t reflect her sense of intellectual freedom.

The essay also quoted several male anthropologists and medical specialists who questioned her scholarship in their particular area and deplored her lack of concern about motherhood. Some, like Canadian anthropologist Lionel Tiger, then became the subject of feminist criticism. But in the essay, their expertise is unquestioned.

Whatever admiration there was disappeared six months later, when Time published another article: Women’s Lib: a Second Look. This piece consisted entirely of criticisms of Millett’s views and “lack of intellectual sophistication”: from Irving Howe, Tiger (again), and some women, including Janet Malcolm.

In the earlier article, questions about lesbianism as a source of division within the women’s movement had been raised. Here, to seal Time’s disapproval – and make sure she was no longer acceptable –  the magazine outed her as “bisexual”. The discomfort Millett caused male readers became evident in other publications too, especially from literary men. She was subjected to a vicious critique from Irving Howe in Harper’s Magazine and became the central target of Norman Mailer’s extraordinary satirical outpouring of male woe, The Prisoner of Sex.

A forgotten feminist?

Millett’s initial popularity did not endure. She faced hostility from within the women’s movement, too. Some demanded a closer identification with lesbian women, both publicly and in print. Others felt no one should be allowed to occupy the position of intellectual leader in a movement so hostile to hierarchy and structure.

Much has been made of the fact that, by the mid-1990s, Sexual Politics was no longer in print. At this time, Millett was describing herself as “the feminist time forgot”. Sexual Politics continued to be read, however, and extracted for collections and anthologies.

The question of Millett’s continuing influence is a complex one and its form sometimes amorphous. Although it is academics who write most often about her, she did not – and indeed did not intend to – set a research agenda. Some of her ideas and approaches were directly challenged by the new feminist scholarship across the humanities and social sciences that developed in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her antipathy to Freud, for example, was rejected by feminists who saw psychoanalysis as offering important insights into femininity and how women understood and experienced it.

The concept of patriarchy, too, was being questioned by feminist scholars like Veronica Beechey and Joan Acker, who felt this notion of a global and almost universal system of male domination was unhelpful. It lacked specificity. On one hand, it made it hard to analyse the different kinds of sexual hierarchies that existed in different times and places. On the other, it seemed to deny women any kind of agency in negotiating the structures they lived under, or in determining their own lives.

Andrea Dworkin wrote that Kate Millett ‘woke up’ a sleeping world.
Hachette

For many of those involved in feminist scholarship from the 1970s onwards, it was studying women’s lives and activities, their contribution to literature, history and society that seemed important – rather than focusing only on their oppression.

Quite apart from these specific issues, however, There is a very strong sense among many academics, journalists and feminist activists of the later 20th century that Millett who opened their eyes to the sexist world around them. “The world was sleeping,” Andrea Dworkin wrote, “and Millett woke it up.”

Sexual Politics may have been out of print in the 1990s, but it reappeared in 2000. And it was republished again, to much more acclaim, in 2016, with a foreword by noted feminist Catharine A. MacKinnon and an afterword by New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead. This time, it received serious attention from some of the mainstream liberal press (including The New Yorker and The New Republic) that had ignored it the first time round.

There is a strong sense in these articles that Sexual Politics was a product of its time. That emphasis on the importance of critical reading, its linking of cultural criticism with radical politics and its optimism about the possibility of a sexual revolution that would bring about a complete reordering of the sexual hierarchy all belong to the 1970s.

Millett’s death in 2017 led to more discussion of her importance to a whole generation of feminists. Her sense of the importance of ideas and her optimism now seem utopian. But for many of us who read Millett in the 1970s, these very qualities helped give us the courage to challenge the intellectual and political worlds we lived in. For some of us, it changed our lives.




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