Sexual Politics

As a part of A-level politics, you might have been taught that Kate Millett is a prominent figure in Feminism. But you might be wondering why that is and who she is. You might also be curious about how and why her book Sexual Politics is important and what inspired it. We will also be examining the impact that the book has had on women, and gender equality as well. Lastly, we will also be delving into the theories being proposed by Millett, on the subject.

Sexual Politics Sexual Politics

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Contents
Table of contents

    Before we get started, let's consider exactly what we mean by sexual politics.

    Sexual politics

    A feminist concept that critically examines the distribution of power within sexual relationships.

    Author of Sexual Politics

    The author of Sexual politics Katherine (Kate) Millett was born in the United States in 1934. Throughout her lifetime, Millett was civically active, taking part in various civil rights, human rights, political and feminist movements. These movements would eventually inspire her to write books about them.

    Sexual Politics, Photograph of Kate Millet, StudySmarter

    Kate Millet, Howcheng, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

    After earning her BA in English Literature from the University of Minnesota in 1956, Millett would go on to study English Literature at St. Hilda's College at the University of Oxford. Whilst studying at the University of Oxford, she became the first American woman to achieve a first-class degree.

    Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Millet actively supported feminist politics. In 1966, she became a member of the committee in charge of the National Organisation for Women. In 1970 she obtained her Ph.D. in politics, and the following year she began forming a non-profit organisation called the Women's Art Colony/Tree Farm. In 2012, the centre changed its name to The Millett Center for the Arts.

    About Sexual Politics

    Sexual Politics by Kate Millet was based on her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University. In the book, Millett criticises the patriarchal structures and the heteronormativity of society, which she says is reflected in the works of western literature. She argues that men have established power over women, but that this power is based on a social construct rather than it having any innate or biological foundation. In the book, Millett also criticises the works of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and in particular, D.H. Lawrence, whose writings about sex, she argues, are both sexist and rooted in patriarchal views.

    Patriarchal structures

    A patriarchal system, typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, often to the detriment of women and gender variant individuals.

    Heteronormativity

    The belief or assumption that heterosexuality is the natural or default sexual orientation of human beings.

    Millet's Sexual Politics became an overnight sensation and is considered a formative piece in shaping the aims and motives of the second-wave feminist movement.

    The theory behind Sexual Politics

    The theory behind Sexual Politics was greatly influenced by the emergence of the second wave of feminism, even though it was still in its infancy when the book was written.

    Second-wave feminism

    Second-wave feminism is a movement that originated in the United States in the 1960s that focused on women's rights and women's equality. This movement, which sought to build upon the gains made by previous feminist activists, eventually spread throughout the West.

    The second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s and continued through the 1980s. This wave was a consequence of women being paid less than men for doing the same job. Many of these women held university degrees and, in the majority of cases, were the daughters of educated mothers. It was their frustration with such inequality that was one of the main catalysts of the second-wave movement.

    Second-wave feminism was a movement spurred on by a number of influential books. These include:

    • The Feminine Mystique. Authored by Betty Friedan. Friedan titled The Feminine Mystique. Friedan was known for opposing social norms and found motivation.

    • The Second Sex, authored by Simone de Beauvoir and published in France in 1949.

    Critics of second-wave feminism

    Critics of second-wave feminism observed that the majority of the participants in the second wave were white middle-class women. Those of other races and classes in society were largely absent from the movement at this time. Many African American women did not participate in the movement as they felt as though the white women were part of the group oppressing them. This view was largely reflected in the book The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), by Toni Cade Bambara.

    Kate Millett Sexual Politics

    In Sexual Politics, Kate Millett highlights a number of influential arguments which have gone on to shape feminist thought. These relate to:

    1. Sexual relationships and power

    2. The sexual revolution

    Sexual Politics, Cover of the book of Sexual Politics, StudySmarter

    Cover of Sexual Politics, Doubleday, via Wikimedia Commons

    Sexual relationships and power

    Millett opens Sexual Politics by providing a deep dive into the distribution of power within sexual relationships. Millett argues that the imbalanced distribution of power between the sexes stems from the patriarchal structures which afford men greater freedom, authority and power over their female partners. Therefore, Millett argues, that the oppression of women is culturally constructed and should be considered to be a political issue, rather than the result of "natural" biological male dominance.

    The term “politics” shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another."- Millett, 1970

    Gender roles and norms are examples of how power is socially constructed and distributed within sexual relationships. For instance, within patriarchal societies, reproductive roles, such as child care, are typically considered an innately "female role". Despite requiring arduous work, these reproductive roles are widely socially undervalued and economically unpaid, therefore representing a power imbalance.

    The Sexual Revolution

    Millett also provides an analysis of a period described as the "sexual revolution" and how the advancements made link directly to the feminist movement.

    Sexual revolution

    This describes a period of liberalisation of sexual norms and values. As an ongoing revolution, the sexual revolution is often considered in phases. Millett refers to the "first phase" of the sexual revolution, which occurred between the 1830s and 1930s.

    Millett argues that radical change took place between the 1830s and 1930s which empowered and created more sexual choices for women. For instance, the increase in widespread female education allowed women to gain greater power, by ensuring individuals could make informed choices regarding their sexual health, identities and experiences.

    If knowledge is power, power is also knowledge, and a large factor in their subordinate position is the fairly systematic ignorance patriarchy imposes upon women"- Millett, 1970

    Impact of Sexual Politics

    The impact of Sexual Politics was significant in propelling the second-wave feminist movement forward, which aimed to end the societal oppression of women while also recognizing women's sexual needs. To summarise, the second-wave feminist movement was conducted in order to achieve gender equality.

    You might be wondering how Millett managed to accelerate the second-wave feminist movement and put forward female sexual needs. An instance of this had been when Millett drew attention to the fact that the institutionalised power of men over women has been enforced through patriarchal structures. In doing so, Millett also highlighted specific injustices such as an imbalance in sexual power in heterosexual relationships. This was known as the popularisation of Patriarchy. Millett reached the conclusion that in order to create equal relationships and put an end to patriarchy, it was essential for women to support and empower each other. This might be through either friendship, romantic or sexual relationships, as indicated in the slogan below:

    Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”1

    This slogan formed the basis for the book Sita, which was written by Millett and published in 1977, that explores the sexuality of a woman and is the reflection of Kate Millett's experiences.

    Another aspect of second-wave feminism would be:

    This had been a slogan which was used to bridge the experiences of individual women with the concept of gender oppression is systematic.

    Activists brought the following issues to light:

    1. Providing protection to the women who became victims of domestic abuse and violence

    2. Providing equality in a legal manner, a way in which this would have been done would be through the enforcing of the Equal Rights Amendment

    3. Increasing the reproductive rights of women i.e. allowing them access to contraception and abortion

    Sexual Politics was also seen as a prominent piece of literature. In fact, Time Magazine stated that Kate Millett was revolutionary in the area of women's liberation, comparing her to China's Mao Zedong. Millett's book also successfully highlighted the political aspects of sex and brought attention to the problem of misogyny, which in turn led to several anti-pornography campaigns.

    Sexual Politics - Key takeaways

    • Kate Millett was a feminist writer, activist, educator, and artist.
    • She wrote the book Sexual Politics which helped trigger the second-wave feminist movement, which was seeking to abolish sexism wherever found.
    • Millett highlights a number of influential arguments which have gone on to shape feminist thought. These relate to:
      1. Sexual relationships and power
      2. The sexual revolution
    • Those who participated in the Second Wave Feminist movement were mostly white women. Women of other races and ethnicities were largely absent from the movement due to ongoing segregation policies in the United States.
    • However, laws attempting to increase reproductive rights were not effective and women still faced difficulties obtaining access to contraceptives. To this day, anti-abortion protests still take place.

    References

    1. Thompson, B., Thompson, B., Núñez, D. and Fehlbaum, A., 2022. Kate Millett and Second Wave Feminism - Sociology In Focus. [online]
    2. Sociology In Focus – A Sociology Micro Reader – Introduction to Sociology, Sociology 101, Resources for Sociology Teachers.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sexual Politics

    What is the theory of Sexual Politics?

    The second wave of Feminism!

    What are sexual politics?

    Sexual Politics is a book which was published in 1970, written by Kate Millett. This was based on the dissertation written in her PhD at Columbia University. It criticises the patriarchal structures and heteronormativity of society, that is also reflected in the literature of the west.

    What is an example of Sexual Politics?

    A feminist concept that critically examines the distribution of power within sexual relationships. Gender roles and norms are examples of how power is socially constructed and distributed within sexual relationships.

    What are the features sexual politics?

    There are two main features of sexual politics:

    1) The centre of all the problems is the traditional family unit and that it should be demolished.


    2) The concepts of gender and sex should be differentiated and not used interchangeably as sex has roots in biology whereas gender does not.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who wrote the book Sexual Politics?

    In what area of politics did Kate Millett conduct research?

    When was Sexual Politics published?

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