Born 14 September 1934, St. Paul, Minnesota
Daughter of James and Helen Feely Millett; married Fumio Yoshimura, 1965 (divorced 1975)
The second of three daughters, Kate Millett attended parochial schools in St. Paul. Her father, a contractor, abandoned the family when Millett was fourteen. Her mother took a job selling insurance, and the girls helped support the family. Millett graduated from the University of Minnesota, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in 1956. She studied literature for two years at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, and earned first honors. She began her teaching career at the Women's College of the University of North Carolina. In 1961 she moved to Japan where she continued teaching English and sculpted. In 1968 Millett was hired to teach at Barnard College, and began work on a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia, where she received a doctoral degree with distinction in 1970. Since receiving her degree, she has taught as an instructor and visiting professor at several schools, including Bryn Mawr (1970), Sacramento State University (1973), University of California at Berkeley, Extension College (1974), SUNY Stonybrook (1997), and New York University (1998).
Millett's activism in the causes of women's liberation and student rights led to the loss of her teaching post at Barnard College in December of her first year. However, a speech delivered to a women's group at Cornell became the germ of her doctoral thesis. This thesis may be considered the first major literary criticism of the new, or second wave of feminism. She sets forth the postulate that the oppression of women is essentially political, and then discredits religious, literary, philosophical, and "scientific" constructs erected by male supremacists to justify their advantage. A second section documents the feminist revolution and male chauvinist counterrevolution in the history of ideas, and the third section exposes the phallic supremacism of three modern male literary idols: D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer. Finally Millett sets up Jean Genet, the French homosexual writer, as master social critic who reverses every status hierarchy in Western culture, including that of masculine and feminine. After receiving her Ph.D. in August, 1970, Millett's thesis was published by Doubleday. It sold 80,000 copies in the first six months of publication. Titled Sexual Politics, her work brought feminism to the forefront of cultural discussion. With the media both praising and lambasting the book and its author, Millett and her work became a reification of "women's lib."
The Prostitution Papers (1971, revised 1976) began as a chapter for Vivian Gornick's Woman in a Sexist Society (1971). Millett edited oral narratives from two prostitutes and a feminist lawyer, and added an essay of her own arguing how prostitution is only one salient example of the ways in which femaleness has been reduced to a commodity. Millett called the chapter "a quartet in four voices," and had four statements printed side by side in columns; but when the chapter was published separately as a book, the experimental layout was abandoned. The 1976 edition includes Millett's firsthand account of the 1975 French prostitutes' revolt.
Millett's experience with spoken language led her to produce and direct the film Three Lives, the biographical accounts of three women's lives, and inspired her fourth book. Frankly confessional, Flying (1974) was Millett's response to the enforced two-dimensionality of being created as a media feminist and showed her need to bring together disparate private and public selves. Originally planned as a scholarly treatise in defense of homosexuality, this book became instead a supremely vulnerable book about Millett's own sexuality, her work, her feelings, her friends, and the feminist movement. Using the writing of the book itself as a framework, Millett intercuts scenes from other periods of her life, giving the effect of a sculptural assemblage.
Another largely autobiographical account is Going to Iran (1982), a little-noted account of Millett's experiences in this country during some of the most turbulent months of the Iranian Revolution. Her primary interest throughout is the evolving status of women, which she observes as having deteriorated markedly from what began as a popular revolution dissolved into fundamentalist reaction. Imbued with the penetrating insight and critical awareness emblematic of Millett's work, Going to Iran offers a poignant and disturbing perspective on the myriad issues confronting contemporary Iranian women. Predictably, Millett was viewed with considerable suspicion and animosity by Iranian authorities, and thus, for political reasons, was officially detained and ultimately deported.
Her seventh publication, The Loony-Bin Trip (1990) concerns her ordeals as a psychiatric patient forced, on multiple occasions, to suffer the trauma and indignities of involuntary hospitalization. Because of the nature of the work, Millett had trouble finding a publisher and waited five years to publish the charged personal account. One of its greatest strengths lies in the unflinching honesty with which Millett portrays the inner workings of her mind as she endured not only her manic-depressive disorder, but also the well-intended though nonetheless devastating treatment she received at the hands of family, friends, and physicians.
Turning her attentions once again to social injustice in much the same way she did with Sexual Politics, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment (1994) seeks to expose and understand torture of political prisoners. Millett examines political hierarchy and state power in torture literature, both to bring the individual stories of pain and humiliation into the common consciousness, and to demonstrate how powerless the individual has become against the absolute power of the state. Millett explains "We're not even awake to the fact that hundreds of years of tedious, hard won guarantees and protections are being lost in this century at the very time when we also have more human rights groups." Analyzing torture as a wielding of patriarchal force and oppression through state terrorism, particularly in South America, Millett "would love this book to be the beginning of not just a study of this form of literature but a study of the real growing dangers of state control, of the danger involved when churches and religions formulate political policy."
In addition to her writing, Millett is an accomplished visual artist whose sculpture and painting have frequently been exhibited in cities throughout the United States. Her capacity for obsession drives her visual art. For 10 years, Millett sculpted almost nothing but cages, her response to a newsmagazine article about the murder of a sixteen-year-old girl by her female guardian and a group of kids. In 1978 Millett formed a cooperative artists' colony at her farm in Poughkeepsie, New York, which she continues to operate. Women artists, including writers, sculptors, photographers, and painters, all receive studio space in exchange for their contributions to the maintenance of the colony. Millett lectures on feminism and human issues, and through these diverse means, continues her efforts to raise public consciousness of persisting social injustices and contribute to the continued elevation in the quality of women's lives. A pacifist and international feminist activist, her politics are frequently denigrated and her works sometimes harshly reviewed in the major press. Nonetheless, her influence is pervasive, and a generation of feminist writers has taken her for its model. She has set a standard for powerful feminist criticism, social activism, and provoked reevaluation of confessional and journal writing as artistic literary forms.
Token Learning (1967). Sita (1977). The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice (1979).
Cohen, M., The Sisterhood (1988). Jelinek, E., ed., The Traditions of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present (1986). Mills, S., et al, Feminist Readings/Feminists Reading (1989). Moi, T., Sexual/Textual Politics (1985).
CA (1978, 1991). CLC (1992). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Belles Lettres (interview, Spring 1995). Chrysalis (1977, 1978). Harper's (1970). Ms. (1974, March 1988, May 1988). NYTBR (3 June 1990). WRB (Oct. 1990).
—FRIEDA L. WERDEN,
UPDATED BY JULIET BYINGTON