Mil­lett, fem­i­nist pi­o­neers re­mem­bered

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - JAMAKAYA

Kate Mil­lett, the au­thor of Sex­ual Pol­i­tics — one of the foun­da­tional texts of the Sec­ond Wave of Amer­i­can fem­i­nism — died Sept. 6. She was 82.

Mil­lett’s death fol­lows those of fem­i­nist writ­ers and ac­tivists Betty Friedan in 2006, Mary Daly in 2010 and Shu­lamith Fire­stone in 2012. With these pi­o­neers pass­ing on, it’s worth re­call­ing their con­tri­bu­tions.

Betty Frei­dan pub­lished The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique in 1963. In it, she doc­u­mented the frus­tra­tion felt by mid­dle-class women iso­lated in sub­ur­bia and their des­per­a­tion for some­thing be­yond “happy home­mak­ing” and new ap­pli­ances.

Frei­dan be­came a founder of the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women in 1966. She was fa­mously cranky and lesbo-pho­bic. She cam­paigned for pas­sage of the Equal Rights Amend­ment and spoke fre­quently to the me­dia on women’s is­sues. Frei­dan rep­re­sented what’s come to be known as lib­eral fem­i­nism, whose goals in­clude equal pay and equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion for women in pol­i­tics and the law.

Friedan’s mid­dle-class re­form­ers were joined by an­other group of women — those an­gered by their sec­ond-class treat­ment in the civil rights and anti-war move­ments. These women gath­ered in con­scious­ness-rais­ing groups and ar­tic­u­lated their own griev­ances. Kate Mil­lett’s Sex­ual Pol­i­tics was pub­lished in 1970 just as this “women’s lib­er­a­tion” move­ment swept the coun­try.

In Sex­ual Pol­i­tics, Mil­lett combed his­tory and lit­er­ary texts to ex­am­ine the root of women’s op­pres­sion. Along the way, she hailed First Wave fem­i­nists, who helped to de­stroy slav­ery, pro­moted birth con­trol and won the vote. She dis­cussed Freudi­an­ism and the rise of fas­cism as fac­tors in the fem­i­nist counter-rev­o­lu­tion of the 1920s and ’30s. She shred­ded writ­ers like Henry Miller and Nor­man Mailer for val­oriz­ing male power through sex­ual vi­o­lence.

Mil­lett con­cluded that male supremacy “tends to be stur­dier than any form of seg­re­ga­tion, more rig­or­ous than class strat­i­fi­ca­tion, more uni­form, cer­tainly more en­dur­ing. How­ever muted its ap­pear­ance may be, sex­ual do­min­ion ob­tains as per­haps the most per­va­sive ide­ol­ogy of our cul­ture and pro­vides its most fun­da­men­tal con­cept of power.”

Mil­lett’s con­clu­sion sug­gested that fully achiev­ing women’s lib­er­a­tion re­quired, not just lib­eral re­forms, but a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of power re­la­tions between men and women.

Shu­lamith Fire­stone shared Friedan’s and Mil­lett’s con­cern about women’s in­equal­ity, but her rem­edy was so­cial­ist and utopian. In The Dialec­tic of Sex: The Case for Fem­i­nist Rev­o­lu­tion (1972), Fire­stone ar­gued that male dom­i­na­tion and class di­vi­sion sprang from the pri­mal dilemma of fe­male bondage to re­pro­duc­tion.

Fire­stone imag­ined a post-gen­der world where tech­nol­ogy would trans­form re­pro­duc­tion (it has); women would no longer be solely re­spon­si­ble for re­pro­duc­tion and chil­drea­r­ing; and the bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily would be re­placed by a larger col­lec­tive.

The­olo­gian Mary Daly pub­lished The Church and the Sec­ond Sex (1968) and Be­yond God the Fa­ther (1973). They crit­i­cize the doc­trine and struc­ture of the Catholic Church and its his­toric role in women’s sub­or­di­na­tion. Daly later wrote Gyn/Ecol­ogy (1978), a con­dem­na­tion of sadis­tic prac­tices im­posed on women — gen­i­tal cut­ting, widow burn­ing, foot bind­ing — and the twisted ra­tio­nales for these so-called “cus­toms.”

Daly em­braced sep­a­ratism. She be­lieved that pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety was so dam­ag­ing that women needed to build their own com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures. There was no place for trans peo­ple in her world.

Among Kate Mil­lett’s gen­er­a­tion of fem­i­nist thinkers, An­gela Davis, Glo­ria Steinem, Su­san Griffin, Mary Frances Berry and Ger­maine Greer re­main provoca­tive to­day.

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