Feminist Theorist Thursdays: Kate Millett
Image design by Shannon Boland
Kate Millett (1934-2017) was an American feminist theorist, activist, writer, educator and filmmaker. Her main areas of interest were mental health reform, human rights advocacy and sexual liberation. She is remembered as a key figure of the second wave of feminism. Her best-known work is “Sexual Politics”, published in 1970 as a continuation of her doctoral thesis for Columbia University.
The success of “Sexual Politics” put Millett in the spotlight. The book ties together aspects of sociology, anthropology and politics using literary analysis and social commentary. Millett thoroughly criticized male authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, all of whom were regarded as ‘sexual revolutionaries’ of their day. She claimed that the portrayal of women in these authors’ works were extremely misogynistic and condemned their frequent depictions of rape. Millet also sought to describe how sexism becomes internalized and institutionalized. In particular, Millett defined “interior colonisation” as a way in which women internalize their own inferiority and subordinate status.
“Sexual Politics” was an incredibly ambitious work. It attempted to describe patriarchy, in all of its many forms, as a political institution. Millett wrote about class, education, psychology, philosophy, relationships and mythology in the chapter titled “The Theory of Sexual Politics.” Her revolutionary and influential writing earned her a place among feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem, Florynce Kennedy, Angela Davis and Shulamith Firestone.
Amidst her newfound popularity and importance in the feminist movement, Millett struggled with her mental health and lack of desire for fame. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was involuntarily committed to mental institutions several times. Her 1990 book “The Loony-Bin Trip” recounts her experiences with hospitalization and manic depression. “Madness,” she said in an interview, “is manufactured when psychiatry intervenes.” Millet believed that diagnoses and hospitalization were methods of controlling those who think and behave differently. Throughout her life, she denounced psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals despite extreme criticism from other reporters and writers.
Millett was also incredibly influential in her views on sexuality. Her contemporary Betty Freidan, while arguably the most influential figure of second-wave feminism, was notorious for refusing to include LGBT individuals in the feminist movement. Millett, on the other hand, chose to embrace her sexuality and explore it through her writing. Despite facing criticism from both feminists and anti-feminists alike, she self-identified as bisexual. Much of Millett’s writing is centered around love and its many forms. In “Sita” (1977), she gives an emotional and brutally honest account of the end of her relationship with another woman: “To love is simply to allow another to be, live, grow, expand, become. An appreciation that demands and expects nothing in return.” She was married to Japanese artist Fumio Yoshimuda from 1965-1985 and later married Sophie Keir until Millett’s death in 2017.
Beyond her writing, Millett communicated her feminist beliefs through other forms of art and activism. Her film “Three Lives,” filmed in 1971, was the first U.S. feature-length film to have a cast and crew made up entirely of women. This documentary-style movie delves into the very different lives of three women: Mallory Millet-Jones (Kate’s sister), Lillian Shreve, and Robin Mide. Their stories communicate the notion that the personal is political, an idea which was central to Millett’s work and is still extremely relevant to feminism.
In 1978, Millett founded the Women’s Art Colony in New York as a hub for women’s art and activism, and it remains an inspiring example of a feminist space dedicated to creative expression. Art was a crucial outlet for Millett especially after studying sculpture during her time as a teacher in Tokyo from 1961-63. About her continued passion for sculpture, she said in 2011: “[it] was all about entrapment, impotence, and incarceration. They are about people and things in cages. It is how I view Capital, our treatment of the aged and the poor. I’ve lived on the old New York Bowery—skid row—all my adult life. In other countries, that in itself speaks volumes. I am trying to get out of cages now and into happier things like ‘Bureaucracy’.” She was also an advocate for prison reform, Iranian women’s rights in the late 1970s, the rights of the elderly, and more.
While Millett may not be very well-remembered today, her ideas and her art remain influential. As her fellow feminist Andrea Dworkin famously said, “The world was asleep, but Kate Millett woke it up.”