Millett, Kate 1934–

views updated

Millett, Kate 1934–

PERSONAL: Born Katherine Murray Millett, September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, MN; daughter of James (an engineer) and Helen (a teacher; maiden name, Feely) Millett; married Fumio Yoshimura (a sculptor), 1965 (divorced, 1985). Education: University of Minnesota, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1956; St. Hilda's College, Oxford University, M.A. (first class honors), 1958; Columbia University, Ph.D. (with distinction), 1970. Politics: "Left, feminist, liberationist."

ADDRESSES: Home—295 Bowery, New York, NY 10003-7104; (summer) Millett Farm, 29 Old Overlook Road, Poughkeepsie, NY 12603. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: Author and professor. Sculptor, photographer, and painter, 1959–, with numerous exhibitions, including Minami Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, 1963, Judson Gallery, New York, NY, 1967, Los Angeles Womens Building, Los Angeles, CA, 1977, and Courtland Jessup Gallery, Provincetown, MA, 1991–94; writer, 1958–. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, English professor, 1959; New York, NY, kindergarten teacher, 1960–61; Waseda University, Tokyo, English teacher, 1961–63; Barnard College, New York, NY, English and philosophy professor, 1964–69; Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, sociology professor, 1971; California State University, Sacramento, distinguished visiting professor, 1973; New York University, adjunct professor, 2000–. Founder, Women's Art Colony Farm, Poughkeepsie, NY.

MEMBER: National Organization for Women (education committee chair, 1965–68), Congress of Racial Equality, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Library Journal Best Books of 2001 award for Mother Millett.



(Editor) Token Learning: A Report on the Condition of Higher Education for Women in American Colleges, National Organization for Women (New York, NY), 1967.

Sexual Politics, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.

The Prostitution Papers, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1971.

The Basement: Meditations on Human Sacrifice, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1980.

Going to Iran, Coward (New York, NY), 1981.

The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.


(Director) Three Lives (documentary film), Impact Films, 1971.

Flying, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.

Sita, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1977, revised with new introduction by Millett, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.

(Contributor) Caterpillars: Journal Entries by 11 Women, Epona, 1977.

The Loony-Bin Trip, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.

A.D.: A Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.

Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First Thirty-Eight Years, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Catonsville, MD), 1997.

Mother Millett, Verso (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor of essays to numerous magazines, including Ms.

SIDELIGHTS: Author Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, a rare doctoral thesis-turned-bestseller, became a rallying cry for radical feminism in the 1970s. "It attacked the very people credited as authors of sexual liberation—(Sigmund) Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Jean Genet—and gave emerging 70s feminists the sexual metaphor that went on to define their politics for years to come," Maureen Freely wrote in the Guardian. Sexual Politics transformed Millett from anonymous artist to feminist icon; a generation later, she has reemerged from obscurity with Mother Millett, in which she relates her attempts to save her aging mother, Helen, who is institutionalized in their native St. Paul, Minnesota. "In this latest memoir Millett is, as usual, egotistical, prone to paranoia and fascinated by clinical atrocity—but also, as usual, worth reading for her chal-lenges to the less commonly questioned forms of dehu-manization," Martha Bridegam wrote in Gay and Lesbian Review. "Warts and all, this book belongs in your brain. You'll argue with Kate Millett as you read, but the important part is, you'll think."

Millett's books include The Loony-Bin Trip, Flying, Sita, The Politics of Cruelty, and The Basement: Meditations on Human Sacrifice, all of which explore the challenges of womanhood in the United States. Though Millett often addresses feminism and homosexuality, "overall social, not just sexual, change is Millett's concern," Susan Paynter wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "and she uses her teaching, writing and speaking talents to make her contribution."

Millett's Sexual Politics had seven printings and sold 80,000 copies in its first publication year. It has been reprinted two times, once in 1990, and again in 2000, the latest edition including a new introduction. Jane Wilson, in the New York Times Book Review, called it "an original and useful book … that imposed a moratorium on reiterated, dead-end feminist complaint against the male chauvinist pig in the street." Muriel Haynes, in Saturday Review, described Sexual Politics as "an impressively informed, controlled polemic against the patriarchal order, launched in dead seriousness and high spirits, the expression of a young radical sensibility, nurtured by intellectual and social developments that could barely be glimpsed even twenty years ago."

Her acclaim, however, came at a price, according to Wilson. "In her uncomfortable new spokeswoman status she was urged on by her sisters to do her duty in speaking out on their behalf, while also being browbeaten and harassed for her arrogance and 'elitism in presuming to do so.'"

Millett struggled personally. Flying chronicles her attempts to cope with the vast publicity that accompanied Sexual Politics. Her devout lesbianism and its effect on family and lovers were central to Flying, as well as Sita and A.D.: A Memoir. "The publicity that has attached to figures such as Kate Millett in America is unimaginable," Emma Tennant wrote in the Times Literary Supplement. "Her greatest desire … was to reconstruct some sort of personality for herself after the glare of the cameras had begun to fade."

Attempting to give up lithium, she became erratic and her family had her committed to a mental hospital in the early 1980s. Millett based The Loony-Bin Trip on her own experiences while in confinement. According to Darby Penny, in a review and interview for Off Our Backs, "Millett eloquently traces her horrifying experiences in the mental health system, from her 'involuntary commitment' and electro-shock treatments to the abuse and betrayal endured at the hands of her friends, family, and, ultimately, a legal system that subjected her to incarceration and isolation." Marilyn Yalom, comparing the work to Ken Kesey's bestseller One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, wrote in the Washington Post Book World: "Millett's prose is rich, her passion compelling…. [She] takes us into internal landscapes where no one goes by choice." Karen Malpede added in Women's Review of Books, "This is a harrowing, hallucinatory, heroic book…. It is written in the style of vision and rhapsody, the tongue of a super-agile mind spilling out rivers of image and thought, emotion, sexual desire, fantasy, historical or linguistic fact."

Millett's candor induced a mixed response from many mainstream reviewers. Joy Williams wrote in Chicago Tribune Books: "The title tells a great deal about the tone of this book—plucky, breezy, a flip bravado masking a quavery confidence…. There is no sense of the mind examining itself, of the judgement of the present upon the past." In Millet's own words about her time in the mental hospital, as told to Darby Penny, "[The] diagnosis does you in; that, and the humiliation of being there. I mean, the indignity you're subjected to."

"Women like [Millett], it was claimed, were acting out at society's expense the unresolved conflicts implicit in their relations with their fathers," Liam Hudson, recalling the backlash to Sexual Politics, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement. "The Loony-Bin Trip reveals that the stock response was uncannily accurate; in fact, it reads at times like a case history made up by a male chauvinist in order to discredit her views…. [Millett] describes her realization that, all along, she has been obsessed with her father, and that the nature of her obsession has been incestuous."

Irony had Millett rescuing her mother, who had helped institutionalize her daughter only a few years before. Mother Millett features the conflicts and ironies of family, age, institutionalism, and regionalism. "Helen Millett was a feminist before Kate really knew what the word meant and she went on to become a respected business leader later in life. She worked for civil rights, supported gay rights and took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam," Freely wrote. "But she was also a strict and formidable matriarch. And Kate had always been 'the outlaw of the tribe, the artist, the queer, even the crazy, since in certain ill-advised moments, my sisters and even my mother have seen fit to deliver me over to state psychiatry.'"

"She picked the right daughter," Millett writes in Mother Millet. "We are on the lam. It's a movie, and it's the most unlikely American car fantasy. We are Thelma and Louise, this frail old woman beside me, and I some undefined criminal type."

Social ills also interest Millett. The Basement is a chilling account of the 1965 torture-death of Indianapolis teenager Sylvia Likens, from her viewpoint as well as that of her killers. In The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, Millett, using the Spanish Inquisition as a reference point, rages over what she says is torture as a government policy in nearly half the nations of the world. "The knowledge of torture is itself a political act," she wrote in her conclusion. "To speak of the unspeakable is the beginning of action." Finding The Politics of Cruelty alternately engaging and frustrating, Elissa Gelfand wrote in Women's Review of Books that "not everyone will share Millett's belief that exposing and condemning the continued global acquiescence in state-sponsored violence constitute political action."

Despite her acclaim for Sexual Politics, Millett fell into oblivion for a generation. "How forgotten is Kate Millett?" Leslie Crawford asked in "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." Crawford recalled an unknowing clerk: "'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?'"

Someone else was paying attention, though. Upon reading Crawford's review and learning that Sexual Politics was out of print, University of Illinois Press (UIP) publicity director Kim Grossmann approached UIP director Willis Regier, who decided to re-publish, not only Sexual Politics, but also Flying, Sita, and The Loony-Bin Trip. On re-issuing these works, Regier stated in a UIP press release, "Had Millett's career fizzled out in 1970, she would have been a romantic episode—the brash and daring Jim Morrison of feminism. But her continued dedication to the things she cared about when she was younger—particularly art and community and movies—makes me inclined to take her early writing even more seriously."

Art is a large part of Millett's life, being a sculptor, photographer, and painter, and founding the Women's Art Colony Farm in Poughkeepsie, New York, for aspiring female writers, visual artists, and musicians. The colony is a self-supporting and economically independent facility, where residents divide their time between their art and working the farm. As Millett stated on her Web site, "We alternate between building and farming. We learn a whole lot from both of them and will use it the rest of our lives, the farm a kind of school of the material reality our educations neglected, giving us skills, know-how, empowerment, even courage."

Staying active in feminist causes, not just nationally, but internationally as well, Millett spoke at a February 2004 conference sponsored by the University of Illinois, Back to the Future: Generations of Feminism. Summarized in the Chicago Journal, Millett called "the future of feminism" "tonight's evening news gender wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," where prospects for Afghan women have deteriorated. "Where women before would have been flogged, now they're raped for showing an inch of skin at the market." Added the Chicago Journal, Millett felt "U.S. women, who should help, are no longer paying attention."

Millett lives in New York, where for a number of years she has been fighting eviction attempts by city officials who want to raze her loft and art studio in lower Manhattan in favor of an urban renewal project. "The day they wreck it, I'll be swinging on the wrecking ball," she told an interviewer for the New York Times.



Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, 1991, Volume 1, HarperCollins (New York, NY).


Art in America, December, 1995, p. 92.

Books and Bookmen, June, 1971.

Book World, November 22, 1970.

Canadian Forum, November-December, 1970.

Gay and Lesbian Review, March 2002, Martha Bride-gam, review of Mother Millett, pp. 31-32.

Guardian, June 19, 2001, review of Mother Millett, p. 8.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1977; June 15, 1995, p. 840.

Library Journal, June 15, 2001, Mirela Roncevic, review of Mother Millett, p. 72; January 2002, review of Mother Millett, pp. 50-51.

Life, September 4, 1970.

Listener, March 25, 1971.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 16, 1979; July 7, 1991, p. 10.

Mademoiselle, February, 1971.

Ms., February, 1981; May, 1988; September-October, 1995, p. 78.

Nation, April 17, 1982; July 23, 2001, Hillary Frey, review of Mother Millett, p. 36.

National Review, August 30, 1974.

New Leader, December 14, 1970.

New Republic, August 1, 1970; July 6-13, 1974; July 7-14, 1979; May 16, 1994, pp. 33-38.

New Statesmen & Society, August 5, 1994, p. 38.

Newsweek, July 27, 1970; July 15, 1974.

New Yorker, August 9, 1974.

New York Times, July 20, 1970; August 5, 1970; August 6, 1970; August 27, 1970; September 6, 1970; December 18, 1970; November 5, 1971; May 13, 1977; November 25, 2001, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1970; June 23, 1974; May 29, 1977; September 9, 1979; May 16, 1982; June 3, 1990, p. 12; June 16, 1991, p. 28; August 13, 1995, p. 17; October 6, 1996, p. 96.

Observer, November 20, 1994, p. 719; August 13, 1995, p. 17.

Off Our Backs, July-August, 2003, Darby Penney interview, "Insist on Your Sanity: An Interview with Kate Millett," p. 40.

People Weekly, April 2, 1979.

Publishers Weekly, April 23, 2001, p. 62.

Saturday Review, August 29, 1970; June 15, 1974; May 28, 1977.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 1973.

Signs, winter, 1996, p. 467.

Time, August 31, 1970; December 14, 1970; July 26, 1971; July 1, 1974; May 9, 1977.

Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 1971; October 7, 1977; November 8, 1991, p. 10; September 2, 1994, p. 32.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 3, 1990, p. 5.

Washington Post, July 30, 1970.

Washington Post Book World, January 8, 1978; May 13, 1990, p. 7; June 10, 2001, p. TO8, Liza Feather-stone, review of Mother Millett.

Women's Review of Books, October, 1990, pp. 7-8; June, 1994, pp. 1, 3-4; September, 2001, Meryl Alt-man, review of Mother Millett, pp. 1, 3-4.


Chicago Journal Online (August 5, 2004) "The Future of Feminism," April 2004.

Kate Millett Web site, (August 6, 2004), "Millett Farm.", (June 5, 1999), Leslie Crawford, "Kate Millett, the Ambivalent Feminist"; (February 11, 2000) Craig Offman, "Kate Millet Finds a New Home."

University of Chicago, Department of Education Web site, (August 6, 2004), "Back to the Future: Generations of Feminism."

University of Illinois Press Web site, (March 21, 2002).

About this article

Millett, Kate 1934–

Updated About content Print Article