Writer and ac­tivist at van­guard of rad­i­cal fem­i­nism

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Kate Mil­lett

Kate Mil­lett, au­thor of the ground­break­ing best­seller Sex­ual Pol­i­tics, was the fem­i­nist who launched the sec­ond wave of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment. Mil­lett, who has died aged 82, de­vel­oped the the­ory that for women the per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal.

The ba­sis of Sex­ual Pol­i­tics (1970) was an anal­y­sis of pa­tri­ar­chal power. Mil­lett de­vel­oped the no­tion that men have in­sti­tu­tion­alised power over women, and that this power is so­cially con­structed as op­posed to bi­o­log­i­cal or in­nate. This the­ory was the foun­da­tion for a new ap­proach to fem­i­nist think­ing that be­came known as rad­i­cal fem­i­nism.

Sex­ual Pol­i­tics was pub­lished at the time of an emerg­ing women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment, and an emerg­ing pol­i­tics that be­gan to de­fine male dom­i­nance as a po­lit­i­cal and in­sti­tu­tional form of op­pres­sion. Mil­lett’s work ar­tic­u­lated this the­ory to the wider world, and in par­tic­u­lar to the in­tel­lec­tual lib­eral es­tab­lish­ment, thereby launch­ing rad­i­cal fem­i­nism as a sig­nif­i­cant new po­lit­i­cal the­ory and move­ment.

In her book Mil­lett ex­plained women’s com­plic­ity in male dom­i­na­tion by analysing the way in which fe­males are so­cialised into ac­cept­ing pa­tri­ar­chal val­ues and norms, which chal­lenged the no­tion that fe­male sub­servience is some­how nat­u­ral.

It was never the in­ten­tion of Mil­lett to be­come a ca­reer fem­i­nist, be­ing much more in­ter­ested in her art as a sculp­tor. But af­ter be­ing fea­tured on the cover of Time mag­a­zine in Au­gust 1970, she was cat­a­pulted into fame, which led to a back­lash from some fem­i­nists who ac­cused Mil­lett of styling her­self as a move­ment “leader” – an ac­cu­sa­tion she re­futed.

Catholic par­ents

Born in St Paul, Min­nesota, Mil­lett was raised by strict Catholic par­ents. Her mother, He­len (nee Feely), worked as a teacher and an in­sur­ance sales­woman to sup­port her three daugh­ters af­ter her al­co­holic hus­band James, an en­gi­neer, aban­doned the fam­ily when Kate was 14.

Mil­lett went to the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, grad­u­at­ing in English lit­er­a­ture in 1956, and then to St Hilda’s Col­lege, Ox­ford. She taught briefly at the Univer­sity of North Carolina, be­fore fo­cus­ing on sculp­ture in Ja­pan and then New York. In 1965 she mar­ried the Ja­panese sculp­tor Fu­mio Yoshimura. Dur­ing their open re­la­tion­ship Mil­lett had sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with a num­ber of women.

She went to Columbia Univer­sity in 1968, and Sex­ual Pol­i­tics, based on her doc­tor­ate, was pub­lished in 1970. At the time Mil­lett was liv­ing as an im­pov­er­ished hippy in the Bow­ery district. She wrote about the im­pact of her new­found fame in Fly­ing (1974) and fol­lowed this up with Sita (1976), about her re­la­tion­ship with an older woman.

In 1979 she trav­elled to Iran’s first In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day with her then part­ner So­phie Keir, a pho­to­jour­nal­ist. They were ar­rested and ex­pelled, an ex­pe­ri­ence they doc­u­mented in their book Go­ing to Iran (1981).


Mil­lett had been com­mit­ted to men­tal health in­sti­tu­tions by her fam­ily on var­i­ous oc­ca­sions, and she be­came an ac­tivist in the anti-psy­chi­a­try move­ment. She wrote about th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences in The Loony-Bin Trip (1990) which in­cluded her com­mit­tal to a hos­pi­tal in Ire­land. She also wrote The Pol­i­tics of Cru­elty (1994), in which she railed against the use of tor­ture, and Mother Mil­lett (2001), about her re­la­tion­ship with her mother.

In 1998 Mil­lett wrote a piece for the Guardian news­pa­per, The Fem­i­nist Time For­got ,in which she said: “I have no saleable skill, for all my sup­posed ac­com­plish­ments. I am un­em­ploy­able. Fright­en­ing, this fu­ture. What poverty ahead, what mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, what dis­tant bag-lady hor­rors, when my sav­ings are gone?”

Mil­lett was pre­oc­cu­pied, how­ever, with what she per­ceived to be the wealth held by other fem­i­nists, in par­tic­u­lar those who had not con­trib­uted to the move­ment in any orig­i­nal way.

In her later years Mil­lett and Keir lived on a farm in Pough­keep­sie, New York state, where at first they sold Christ­mas trees, and later es­tab­lished a women’s art colony. In 2012 she re­ceived the Yoko Ono Len­non Courage award for the arts, and in 2013 she was in­ducted into the Na­tional Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.

Mil­lett’s mar­riage to Yoshimura ended in 1985. She is sur­vived by Keir, whom she mar­ried in later life.

Guardian Ser­vice

Kate Mil­lett: the au­thor of Sex­ual Pol­i­tics was more in­tent on work­ing as a sculp­tor than be­com­ing a ca­reer fem­i­nist

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