Millett, feminist pioneers remembered
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.