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”.
Millett described the “consent” of the female to this male-over-female paradigm as a process of socialisation in which women were constrained to be passive, ignorant, valued if at all for bearing children, a function shared with animals; men were distinguished by the distinctly human characteristics. Women were socialised to accept both the superiority of men and their own inferiority, which was then justified by assertions of male biological superiority: men were physically stronger. Patriarchy itself was seen as inevitably derived from the superior physical strength of the male. Millett went on to hypothesise a civilisation that was pre-patriarchy; if this civilisation existed, she reasoned, then male strength could not be the signature reason for patriarchy.
Millett also attacked gender as such. There were too many varieties of biological phenomena associated with being male or female to reify any simple-minded biological determinism. She saw the constituent parts of gender as socially determined, ideologically reinforced by master-sex dominance.
Millett also described the economics of sexual politics: females worked for no money or less money. She described the ways in which women have always worked but without adequate recompense, which helped keep women under the sway of men. She also described the use of force against women, including the phenomena of compulsory pregnancy and rape. She analysed the role of the state in maintaining the inferiority of women and also the role of legal systems in various societies.
Remarkably, she noted how “references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment”. Jokes about wife-beating abounded while it was society’s position that no such brutality really existed. Millett claimed that hostility towards women was expressed through laughter and “[m]isogynist literature”, which she called “the primary vehicle of masculine hostility”, being both a “hortatory and comic genre. Of all the artistic forms in patriarchy it is the most frankly propagandistic. Its aim is to reinforce both sexual factions in their status.”
Millett’s methodology was new. While using anthropology, sociology, economics and history to back her argument, she found the meaning of sexual politics and sexual power in literature. She eschewed prior schools of literary criticism and declared her own criticism a “mutation”: “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.”
Millett used contemporary literature to demonstrate her notion of “sexual politics”. While other critics danced on the graves of dead writers, Millett dug some new graves herself. She especially concentrated on the works of D H Lawrence (dead but widely read as if he were a contemporary), Henry Miller (then living), Norman Mailer (living) and Jean Genet (then living). While she discussed ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature in the west and eastern literature in general as bulwarks of misogynist hierarchy, she opened her book with three sex scenes, one each from Henry Miller’s Sexus, Norman Mailer’s An American Dream and Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal. She explicated the power dynamics in each sex scene – Genet being contrapuntal because he approached “sexual hierarchy from the oblique angle of homosexual dominance”. She used Genet because he dealt with sexual oppression.
When Millett wrote Sexual Politics, Miller, Mailer and Lawrence were the sages of sexual liberation. These writers were primary influences on the generation that came of age in the 1960s. It is hard now to understand the grip these writers had on the imagination. For the left and the burgeoning counter-culture, these were the writers of subversion. In fact, they helped to socialise a generation into believing that force and violence were valued elements of sex. Millett’s analysis destroyed their authority.
I cannot think of anyone who accomplished what Kate Millett did, with this one book. It remains the alpha and omega of the women’s movement. Everything that feminists have done is foreshadowed, predicted or encouraged by Sexual Politics.
Born 1934 in St Paul, Minnesota. Graduated University of Minnesota, 1956; subsequently worked as a professor of English at Barnard College and as a sculptor. Received PhD from Columbia 1970, and wrote a series of radical feminist books, including political and cultural treatises and autobiography. Made the film Three Lives (1971) and was active in feminist politics, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment in America and women’s rights in Iran. Currently sells Christmas trees from her farm, where she runs an artists’ colony. Her key book was Sexual Politics (1970). Re-emerged internationally with The Politics of Cruelty (1994), an investigation of the use of torture across the world. Among more personal works are Sita (1977), about a lesbian love affair, and Mother Millett (2001), the story of her mother’s final years.