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Kate Millett

Kate Millett

Author and sculptor Kate Millett (born 1934) was one of the leading theorists of the feminist movement of the second half of the 20th century.

Katherine Murray Millett was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 14, 1934, the second of three daughters. Her father, a contractor, abandoned the family when Kate was 14 years old. Although college educated, her mother at first had to support the family by demonstrating potato peelers, but eventually worked as an insurance agent.

Worked as Artist

Born into an Irish Catholic background, Millett attended parochial elementary and high schools. In 1956 she received her B.A. degree magna cum laude and phi beta kappa from the University of Minnesota. She majored in English. After graduation she attended St. Hilda's College at Oxford University and in 1958 received first class honors in English literature. In the fall of that year she returned to the United States to teach English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but resigned after several weeks and moved to New York City. There she began painting and sculpting, supporting herself by working as a file clerk and kindergarten teacher. She lived in a loft on the Bowery.

In 1961 she went to Japan to continue her sculpture. During her two year stay there she taught English at Wasada University and exhibited her art work in a one-woman show in Tokyo. While in Japan she met Fumio Yoshimura, a sculptor, whom she later married (in 1965).

Wrote Feminist Manifesto

On her return to the United States she continued her art, exhibiting her furniture sculpture at a New York gallery in March 1967. She also taught English at Barnard College, and in the fall of 1968 she entered the graduate program in English and comparative literature at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. with distinction in 1970.

Millett's doctoral dissertation began as a feminist manifesto on "sexual politics" presented at a meeting of a women's liberation group in the fall of 1968. During the 1960s Millett had become increasingly politically active in the antiwar and civil rights movements. By the mid-1960s she had joined the then-nascent women's movement, and in 1966 she became chairwoman of the education committee of the newly-formed National Organization for Women (NOW). In December 1968, because, she claimed, she "wore sunglasses to faculty meetings and took the student side during the strikes," Millett was fired from her Barnard teaching post.

The doctoral thesis was completed in September 1969, successfully defended in March the following year, and published as Sexual Politics in August 1970. The work was an immediate sensation (within months it had sold 80,000 copies), and Millett herself became something of a media star. Despite this superficial recognition, the book remains a classic statement of radical feminist theory. Its central thesis is stated succinctly in the original 1968 manifesto: "When one group rules another, the relationship between the two is political. When such an arrangement is carried out over a long period of time it develops an ideology (feudalism, racism, etc.). All historical civilizations are patriarchies: their ideology is male supremacy." Sexual Politics includes a wealth of historical and anthropological information, as well as one of the most important critiques of misogynistic aspects of Freudianism. It concludes with the first extended feminist literary analysis, which focuses on the degraded images of women found in such male authors as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

Explored Women's Realities in Male-Dominated World

In 1970 Millett produced a low-budget documentary film, Three Lives, which depicted the everyday lives of three women from a feminist point of view. The Prostitution Papers first appeared in 1971 as part of Woman in Sexist Society, edited by Gornick and Moran; in that version it was a formally experimental work that presented four female voices, one of them Millett's and two of them prostitutes', exploring the realities of their lives as women in a male-dominated world. The work was published as a book in 1973 and again in 1976. In her 1971 preface Millett stressed the importance of understanding the differences among women and not masking them beneath a "fraudulent 'sisterhood."' She urged, "Loving someone is wanting to know them."

It is this drive to understand that appears to have motivated many of Millett's succeeding works that explore increasingly extreme human experiences, a direction that culminated in her long essay The Basement (1979), which is about a grotesque case of an Indiana girl who was tortured and murdered in the early 1960s. Millett learned of it in 1965, and apparently it haunted her imagination for years; it became the obsessive theme of her sculpture, for a decade a series of cages. Millett came to see the girl, Sylvia Likens, as symbolic of all women in patriarchal society who are always at risk of rape and death because their sexuality is feared and condemned.

Flying, along with Sexual Politics probably Millett's most important work, appeared in 1974. A dazzling psychological chronicle of the speeded-up life she lived in the wake of Sexual Politics, it is an autobiographical confessional that stands with the greats in the genre. In particular, Flying focuses on the complexities of her lesbian relationships with women named Celia and Claire, as well as her bond with her husband, Fumio. Sita (1977) is a similar, if less successful, autobiographical exploration of the dissolution of a lesbian relationship.

In 1981 Millett published Going to Iran, which was a new journalistic account of a trip she made to Iran in March 1979 to address Iranian feminists on International Women's Day. The Shah of Iran had just abdicated, and the Ayatollah Khomeini had not yet fully consolidated his power. Nevertheless, Millett was soon expelled by the fundamentalist government for her feminist views. The chronicle is recorded in the rigorously honest style of her earlier works.

Later works include The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment published in 1994. Here, Millet uses her writing to sound a wake-up call to the world. She states, "Knowledge of torture is itself a political act, just as silence or ignorance of it can have political consequence." A.D., published in 1995, is defined as a memoir of her Aunt Dorothy.

Further Reading

Background on the contemporary women's movement is found in Sara Evans, Personal Politics (1979), a useful history, and in Josephine Donovan, Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism (1985), which locates Millett's theory within its intellectual context. Millett later wrote in opposition to pornography. One of these articles appears in Pleasure and Danger, edited by Carole S. Vance (1984). See also Ms. Sept./Oct. 1995; March/April 1994. □

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