Kate Millett

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Kate Millett Kate Millett

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    They say that in an insane world, insanity is the only sane reaction.

    This article will explore Kate Millett’s life and struggles with mental health. Her honest and deep critiques of patriarchy and oppression offer liberating insights not just for women but also for members of the LGBTQ+ community, prisoners, and people suffering from mental health problems.

    Kate Millett Biography

    Kate Millett was born on the 14th of September 1934 in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was an American feminist, artist, author, and one of the earliest and most influential figures in the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. and the world.

    Kate Millett Kate Millett StudySmarterFig. 1 Kate Millett

    She gained a bachelor’s degree with honours from the University of Minnesota at 22. She was the first woman to earn a first-class honours master’s degree from the University of Oxford. She moved back to Greensboro, NC, where she taught English at the University of North Carolina. Then, she moved to New York City to focus on her career as an artist – something she had always wanted to pursue. To support herself while pursuing this career, she taught kindergarten in Harlem.

    In 1961, she moved to Tokyo, where she taught English at Waseda University whilst studying sculpture at a nearby college. In 1965, she moved back to New York City to teach English and Philosophy at Barnard College and married Fumio Yoshimura, a Japanese sculptor. They divorced in 1985. Whilst she was teaching at Barnard College, she studied towards a doctorate at Columbia University and in 1970, she gained a PhD with distinction. In 1970, she also published her most famous book, Sexual Politics1 and came out as lesbian and shortly after as bisexual.

    In 1978, with her long-term partner Sophie Keir, she founded the Women’s Art Colony with the proceeds from sales of Sexual Politics. The Women’s Art Colony funded itself by being a Christmas tree farm and also offered a safe space for women to discuss feminist issues. In 2012, the Women’s Art Colony became a not-for-profit organisation and was renamed the Millett’s Centre for the Arts.

    Millet died in 2017 in Paris, France, while on holiday with Keir.

    Kate Millett Theory

    Kate Millet formulated the theory that women’s subjugation to men was socially, rather than biologically, constructed. It challenged the idea that the inequality between women and men was natural. She was one of the first writers to discuss women’s subjugation to patriarchy as institutionalised in every aspect of life, including personal roles within the family. This theory is the basis of radical feminism and can be summarised as “the personal is political”. Millett’s definition differed from perspectives that focused on the subjugation dynamics being played out only outside the home, in the social, political and economic realms.

    Through her rejection of the biological inferiority of women, Millett is also a person who distinguishes between sex and gender. Sex refers to biological characteristics, while gender is defined as an expression of culture.

    Patriarchy is a system where men hold power, while women are excluded from it.

    Millet argued that women had been socialised into accepting patriarchal subjugation. The behaviours they learn through socialisation make them complicit in maintaining this dynamic. Only through radically changing one's personal understanding of womanhood, and therefore changing the dynamics of gender relations, can women free themselves from patriarchal oppression.

    Second-wave feminism is the period of feminist thought and activity between the 1960s and the 1980s. While first-wave feminism focused mainly on women’s suffrage, second-wave feminism widened the focus to include family dynamics, reproductive rights, the workplace, and sexuality. Crucially, second-wave feminism sees the female experience as “universal”. This is the central split with third-wave feminism, which broadens the discourse further to include all aspects of one’s identity (for example, ethnicity, class, and gender expression) to understand oppression better.

    Radical feminism is a branch of second-wave feminism. It holds that all expressions of patriarchy must be eliminated to re-order society.

    Kate Millett Symbol of Feminism, combines the astronomical symbol for Venus and the clenched fist symbol of the 1960s "power" movements StudySmarterFig. 2 Symbol of Feminism, combines the astronomical symbol for Venus and the clenched fist symbol of the 1960s "power" movements

    Kate Millett Radical Feminism

    Let’s look at some of the books Kate Millet wrote that exemplify her stance as a radical feminist.

    Millett’s book, The Basement2 was a factual account of a young woman’s abuse, torture, and murder. The abuse happened at the hands of a small group of teenagers led by an older woman. This woman was supposed to be protecting the young woman, but instead allowed for the horror to occur to teach the young woman the “truth” about womanhood. With this account, Millet intended to illustrate how women had internalised and accepted oppression.

    During a 1979 trip to Iran where she and Sophie Keir participated in a Women’s day march, they witnessed first-hand the political oppression of women after the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While many Iranian women who participated in the march were beaten, Millet and Keir were detained and deported to Paris. This experience reinforced in Millett the necessity for international sisterhood, a key concept in second-wave feminism. She also wrote a book - Going to Iran 3- giving an account of what she saw and sharing her reflections on the experience.

    Ayatollah Khomeini's government (1979-1989) abolished mixed schools, revoked the law that allowed women to divorce their husbands and imposed wearing the veil on working women.

    Millett was involved in campaigns against torture and prison reform. In The Politics of Cruelty4, published in 1994, she analysed the worldwide use of state-sanctioned torture as a conscious policy. Here, Millett deepens her analysis of the “personal is political” from the perspective of the power that the state claims over prisoners when they use torture.

    Kate Millett Sexual Politics

    Millet's first and most famous book, Sexual Politics, started her exploration of the power dynamics in the relationship between men and women, which are ultimately rooted in patriarchy and which she, therefore, defines as political.

    Sexual Politics was based on the study of these dynamics through an analysis of works of art and literature.

    Millet analysed the sex scenes from three key male writers (Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and DH Lawrence). She challenged the perspective inherent in their writing that female sexual subjugation to male domination is “sexy”.

    Kate Millett Cover of Kate Millett's Sexual Politics StudySmarterCover of Kate Millett's Sexual Politics

    This book helped to verbalise the struggle and to define the goals of the second-wave feminist movement.

    She argued that patriarchy was a political institution that could only survive through women’s subordination to it. Millett also claimed that all Western social institutions reinforce this dynamic.

    Because of the overnight success of her book, she found herself a reluctant spokesperson for the feminist movement. This role was one of the causes of her mental health troubles, which she explored in other major publications.

    Kate Millett Famous Work

    Millett's two main autobiographical books are Flying5 and Sita6. Flying is an honest exploration of her life following the success of Sexual Politics and the emotions and struggles of going from being a sculptor no one knew to a famous feminist writer. She also focused on the experience of making her sexuality public at a time when there were still many taboos around sexuality and gender expression.

    Flying was a commercial success and contributed toward raising awareness for feminist work and views around sexuality.

    In Sita, Millett offers a candid tribute to her relationship with Sita, a woman who is older than her and has older children from three previous marriages. Here she explores being a lesbian and being in a lesbian relationship, her mental health and political struggles.

    Her mental health issues led to several suicide attempts and hospitalisation against her will. Millett opened up about these experiences in her book, The Loony Bin Trip7. Here she criticises the psychiatric system for manufacturing “madness” through medicalisation and detention and describes her struggle to shake off the stigma of mental illness. Crucially, with the support of her lawyer, Millett changed the law on being involuntarily committed in the State of Minnesota8. She made it so that a trial was necessary before removing liberties could happen.

    Her final work, published in 2001, titled Mother Millet, looked at the infantilisation of the ill and the ageing as seen through her mother's struggles in a nursing home. This book also highlighted the issues that came with motherhood and the pressure women experienced to conform to the role of housewife.

    Kate Millett - Key takeaways

      • Kate Millet was an American feminist, artist, author, and one of the earliest and most influential figures in the women’s liberation movement.

      • Her best-known work was Sexuality and Politics, which revolutionised the feminist movement and verbalised its struggle.

      • Millett's theory was that women's subjugation to men was socially, rather than biologically, constructed.

      • Millett was also one of the first writers to distinguish between sex and gender.

      • Her later books looked at issues such as the oppression of women, motherhood, gender expression and mental health issues.

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    1. Kate MIllet, Sexual Politics, 1970
    2. Kate Millet, The Basement, 1979
    3. Kate Millet, Going to Iran, 1981
    4. Kate Millet, The Politics of Cruelty, 1994
    5. Kate Millet, Flying, 1974
    6. Kate Millet, Sita, 1976
    7. Kate MIllet, The Loony Bin Trip, 1990
    8. Marcia Cohen, The Sisterhood: The Inside Story of the Women's Movement and the Leaders who Made it Happen, 2009
    9. Kate Millet, Morther Millet, 2001
    10. Fig. 1 Kate Millet (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kate_millet_1.jpg) by Linda Wolf (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Wolf) licenced by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kate Millett

    What did Kate Millett argue?

    Kate Millet argued personal relationships are political because they are informed by societal patriarchal principles.

    What type of feminist is Kate Millett?

    Kate Millett is a second-wave radical feminist.

    Who is Kate Millett

    She was an American feminist, artist, author, and one of the earliest and most influential figures in the women’s liberation movement. 

    What is the contribution of Kate Millett to feminism?

    Kate Millett described how women's subjugation could be found in all realms of life. Not just in the social, political and economic aspects, but also in personal, and family relationships.

    What is Kate Millett theory

    Kate Millet argued that women's subjugation to men isn't natural or biological, but socially constructed.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    This statement summarises Kate Millett's philosophy: "The personal is political"

    Other than writing, which art form did Kate Millet pursue?

    In 1979, Kate Millett attended a women's day march in ____for which she was deported and which inspired one of her books.


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