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NY Times, Sept. 7 2017
Kate Millett, Ground-Breaking Feminist Writer, Is Dead at 82
By PARUL SEHGAL and NEIL GENZLINGER
Kate Millett’s first and most famous book, “Sexual Politics” (1970), is
credited with inciting a Copernican revolution in the understanding of
gender roles, but it began life somewhat unobtrusively, as a doctoral
thesis. And its author was a somewhat reluctant standard-bearer for the
Ms. Millett, who died on Wednesday in Paris at 82, was freshly out of a
job, fired from her teaching position at Barnard College for her role in
organizing student protests in 1968, and she worked furiously to develop
her arguments into a book. She passed with distinction (although one
adviser complained that reading her work was like “sitting with your
testicles in a nutcracker”), and the book, published by Doubleday,
became a sensation.
“Sexual Politics” sold 10,000 copies in a fortnight. Time magazine
called Ms. Millett “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation” and featured
her on the cover, with a portrait by Alice Neel. Along with Ti-Grace
Atkinson and Shulamith Firestone, she became a defining architect of
“Sexual Politics” combined literary criticism, historical analysis and
passionate polemic. In close readings of writers like D. H. Lawrence and
Henry Miller — the so-called champions of sexual liberation — Ms.
Millett traced contempt and outright hatred of women.
Freud’s theory of “penis envy” came in for withering critique; so too
did Norman Mailer and his anxious regard for masculinity. (“Precarious
spiritual capital in need of endless replenishment and threatened on
every side,” Ms. Millett called it.)
Some of her targets fired back. Mailer lampooned her in “The Prisoner of
Sex” as “the Battling Annie of some new prudery.”
The “Sexual Politics” project, Ms. Millett told Time, “got bigger and
bigger until I was almost making a political philosophy.” From
depictions of the sexes in literature, she examined how women were
socialized to accept, even defend, their lower status in society, a
process she called “interior colonization.”
“It is interesting,” she wrote in “Sexual Politics,” “that many women do
not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could
be found of the totality of their conditioning.”
She examined how patriarchy had been developed and then defended, by
law, medicine, science, schools.
“Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family,” she wrote. “It is both a
mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit
within a patriarchal whole.”
She added: “As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of
patriarchal society, the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving
as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its
own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government
of the patriarchal state, which rules its citizens through its family
The New York Times called the book “the Bible of Women’s Liberation” and
“a remarkable document because it analyzes the need and nature of sexual
liberation while itself displaying the virtues of intellectual and
emotional openness and lovingness.”
But it was also met with fierce criticism, notably by Irving Howe, who,
in Harper’s Magazine, described it as “a figment of the Zeitgeist,
bearing the rough and careless marks of what is called higher education
and exhibiting a talent for the delivery of gross simplicities in tones
of leaden complexity.”
The book displayed such scant interest in children, he wrote, that
“there are times when one feels the book was written by a female
Ms. Millett died while on vacation with her spouse, Sophie Keir, with
whom she had had a relationship of many years; they recently married.
Ms. Keir said by email that the cause was cardiac arrest. The two had
been going to Paris annually to celebrate their birthdays, she said,
adding that Ms. Millett had had long ties to the women’s movement in France.
Ms. Millett was an artist as well as a writer and had established an art
colony at a farm in LaGrange, N.Y., splitting time between that home and
an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Besides Ms. Keir, she is survived by two sisters, Sally Millett Rau and
Mallory Millett Danaher.
Ms. Millett was born on Sept. 14, 1934, in St. Paul. Her mother, the
former Helen Feely, sold insurance to support the family after her
father, James, had left.
Ms. Millett graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1956 and then
went to Oxford. She pursued her art career in Japan and New York, and
married the Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura in 1965. (They divorced in
The attention that came with “Sexual Politics” was not something she
adjusted to easily.
“Kate achieved great fame and celebrity, but she was never comfortable
as a public figure,” Eleanor Pam, another leading feminist, said by
email. “She was preternaturally shy. Still, she inspired generations of
girls and women who read her words, heard her words and understood her
The success of the book provoked a backlash among feminists that Ms.
Millett found devastating. She came out as a lesbian the year the book
was published, but lesbians in the feminist movement denounced her for
not coming out sooner.
The personal stayed political for Ms. Millett, who in later years would
write memoirs about her career and sudden fame (“Flying”, 1974), her
sexuality (“Sita,” 1977), her mental health (“The Loony Bin Trip,” 1990)
and her relationship with her mother (“Mother Millett,” 2001).
But her reputation and footing in the world were never secure. “Sexual
Politics” stayed out of print for years. In 1998, she wrote an essay in
The Guardian titled “The Feminist Time Forgot.” She described her
difficulty finding work and the suicides of other prominent feminists of
the time. We “haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created
community or safety,” she wrote.
Since the publication of a new edition of “Sexual Politics” last year,
there has been renewed appreciation for Ms. Millett and how her work has
shaped cultural studies and criticism.
“Her book exploded the tidy conceit in which I had been schooled: that
literary criticism and social politics were things apart from one
another,” Rebecca Mead wrote in an afterword to the new edition.
Writers like Rebecca Solnit and Maggie Doherty have shown how debates
about the sexist depictions of characters owe much to Ms. Millett’s
“‘Sexual Politics’ may have its intellectual and political flaws, like
any text that documents a way of thinking proper to the past,” Ms.
Doherty wrote in The New Republic last year. “But what Millett’s work
showed were the ways that political action and cultural expression
interpenetrate. Both sites of struggle were necessary to bringing about
the ‘altered consciousness’ that, for Millett, would mark a sexual
revolution and bring ‘a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.’
“We’re not out of this desert yet; in some ways we are more lost than
ever,” Ms. Doherty continued. “But culture, Millett taught us, may help
us find our way to a better land.”
Gloria Steinem said that Ms. Millett and “Sexual Politics” had sounded a
“Kate was brilliant, deep, and uncompromising,” she said in an email.
“She wrote about the politics of male dominance, of owning women’s
bodies as the means of reproduction, and made readers see this as basic
to hierarchies of race and class. She was not just talking about unequal
pay, but about woman-hatred in the highest places and among the most
admired intellectuals. As Andrea Dworkin said, ‘The world was asleep,
but Kate Millett woke it up.’ ”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
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