Millett, Kate (1934—)

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Millett, Kate (1934—)

American writer, feminist, political activist and sculptor whose 1970 book Sexual Politics has become a feminist classic. Born Katherine Murray Millett on September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota; daughter of James Albert Millett (an engineer) and Helen (Feely) Millett (a teacher and seller of insurance); University of Minnesota, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1956; St. Hilda's College, Oxford, M.A. (first class honors), 1958; Columbia University, Ph.D. (with distinction), 1970; married Fumio Yoshimura (a sculptor), in 1965 (divorced); no children.

Became actively involved in the civil-rights movement (1960s) and was one of the early committee members of the National Organization for Women (NOW, 1966); published Sexual Politics (1970), which was hailed as a manifesto on the inequity of gender distinctions in Western culture; made a documentary film about women, Three Lives (1971); published first autobiographical work, Flying (1974); wasinvolved in feminist politics, particularly in demonstrations for Equal Rights Amendment (1970s); remains active in feminist and civil-rights issues and continues to work as a sculptor.

Selected writings:

(nonfiction) Token Learning (1967), Sexual Politics (1970), The Prostitution Papers (1971), The Basement: Meditations on Human Sacrifice (1979, rev. ed. 1991), Going to Iran (1981), The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment (1994), Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autobiography (1995); (autobiographical works) Flying (1974), Sita (1977, rev. ed. 1992), The Loony-Bin Trip (1990), A.D.: A Memoir (1995).

Kate Millett's name has been synonymous with the women's liberation movement since the publication of her doctoral dissertation, Sexual Politics, in 1970. Exploring through a dissection of literature and political philosophy the premise that male/female relationships are power-structured, and that this must change before women can obtain equality, the book has since been ranked with Simone de Beauvoir 's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan 's The Feminine Mystique in its importance in the canon of feminist writing, and Millett's candid views on overall social—not just sexual—change have proved enduringly controversial.

Born Katherine Murray Millett in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1934, Millett was 14 when her father abandoned the family. Her mother, who had a college degree, had great difficulty finding a job in the postwar era that favored employing men, who were presumed to be the breadwinners of their households, over women, forcing her to work selling insurance. (Helen Feely Millett received only her commissions; her male coworkers received both commissions and a salary.) Despite the family's difficult financial circumstances, Millett graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1956, and then went to Oxford University for two years of graduate study, earning her master's degree in 1958. In 1959, she moved to a loft in the Bowery in New York City to pursue painting and sculpting, supporting herself by teaching kindergarten in Harlem. From 1961 to 1963, she lived in Japan, teaching English at Waseda University and continuing her study of sculpting. In Japan, Millett met sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, whom she married in the United States in 1965 (they were later divorced). She would remain active as a sculptor throughout her writing career, occasionally exhibiting in one-woman shows in New York up through the 1990s.

Upon her return to the United States, Millett became involved with the burgeoning civil-rights movement and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) while teaching at Barnard College. In 1965, as chair of the education committee of the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW), she gave impassioned speeches on women's liberation, abortion reform, and other progressive causes. Barnard was not impressed with her political activities, and in 1968 relieved her of her duties. When she returned to teaching the following year, she was working on her doctoral thesis, which in 1970 won her a doctoral degree with distinction from Columbia University and was published later that year as Sexual Politics.

Selling 80,000 copies in its first year of publication, Sexual Politics became a bestseller as well as a landmark in the women's liberation movement, and catapulted Millett into celebrity. The national media cast her as a spokeswoman for women's liberation (she was on the cover of Time's August 1970 issue), causing some in the movement to brand her elitist and arrogant for presuming to speak for them. Later that autumn, she was challenged to publicly confirm her lesbianism, which she did to a crowded auditorium at Columbia University. As the movement was already showing signs of the coming power struggle between various factions, one of which was the so-called "radical lesbians" that critics loved to use as a punching bag and a bogeyman for the entire movement, Millett's affirmation of her sexuality caused a public uproar replete with newspapers' and magazines' predictions of what damage it would do to her cause. She found it extremely difficult to deal with her abrupt transition from "obscure teacher" to public figure, and her struggles during this time were chronicled in her 1974 autobiographical book, Flying. Later autobiographical works include Sita (1977), an intimate analysis of the breakup of a three-year relationship with a lover, and A.D.: A Memoir (1995).

During the 1970s, Millett was actively involved in feminist politics, particularly in demonstrations for the Equal Rights Amendment, and also focused her energies on numerous social ills. In 1979, she visited Iran to examine women's rights in the newly instituted Islamic republic, but was expelled by Ayatollah Khomeini's government, experiences recounted in Going to Iran (1981). The year 1979 also saw the publication of The Basement: Meditations on a Case of Human Sacrifice (republished in a revised edition in 1991), considered by some critics to be her strongest work since Sexual Politics. A chilling examination of the brutal 1965 torture-death of an Indianapolis teenager, Sylvia Likens , which had haunted Millett for years, The Basement detailed the psychological effects of torture on the perpetrators, victim, and witnesses. (A wider consideration of this theme would follow in her 1994 work, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment.)

Millett's attempts to retain control over her life during the 1970s gradually took a toll. Her productivity as a writer and artist suffered, and her struggle to deal with manic depression became critical. In 1980, after removing herself from lithium, a drug with multiple debilitating side-effects which she had used to control her illness, her behavior became erratic and her family had her institutionalized. Between 1982 and 1985, Millett chronicled her experiences with the mental health industry in a series of journals, which five years later were published as The Loony-Bin Trip. With the help of friends, she obtained her release and returned to her farm in New York, where she slowly and successfully withdrew from lithium in 1989.

Still active in civil-rights issues and as an artist and writer, Kate Millett divides her time between her loft in New York City and her Christmas tree farm in Poughkeepsie, New York, which in summertime serves as a retreat for women artists.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 53. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

suggested reading:

Art in America. December 1995, p. 92.

Life. September 4, 1970.

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.

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

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

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

The New Yorker. August 9, 1974.

The 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.

The 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.

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

People. April 2, 1979.

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

Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 4, 1973.

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). June 3, 1990, p. 5.

Washington Post Book World. January 8, 1978; May 13, 1990, p. 7.

Women's Review of Books. October 1990, pp. 7–8; June 1994, pp. 1, 3–4.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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Millett, Kate (1934—)

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