The pioneering writer who upended feminism
Kate Millett 1934–2017
In the late 1960s, Kate Millett wrote her doctoral thesis at Columbia University on the subjugation of women. Charting a course through history, literature, and art, she challenged conventional assumptions about women’s temperament and status, arguing that the family was the patriarchy’s “chief institution” for socializing women into submission and fiercely condemning the misogyny of male writers such as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Norman Mailer. The thesis, radical at the time, became Sexual Politics, the 1970 best-seller that transformed Millett into a standard-bearer for the women’s liberation movement. “A second wave of the sexual revolution,” she wrote, “might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination—and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity.”
Born in St. Paul, Minn., Millett “was long haunted by her father, an alcoholic who beat his children,” said the Associated Press. After studying English literature at the University of Minnesota and at Oxford University, she worked as a sculptor and taught English. In 1968, she was fired by Barnard College over her support for student anti-war protests—giving her the “free time” she needed to complete Sexual Politics. An overnight sensation, Millett’s book “vaulted her to national renown,” said The Washington Post. She was on the cover of Time magazine and dubbed the “high priestess of the current feminist wave” by The New York Times. But not everyone was a fan—Mailer lampooned her as “the Battling Annie of some new prudery”— and the glare of the attention “proved burdensome.” In 1971, six years into her marriage to a Japanese sculptor, Millett revealed under pressure from fellow feminists that she was a lesbian.
As her profile declined, Millett continued teaching and wrote memoirs on topics including her sudden fame, her sexuality, and her struggles with mental health, said The New York Times. But she struggled to find work, and Sexual Politics “stayed out of print for years.” Nevertheless, Millett looked back on her feminist heyday with enormous pride. “The happiness of those times, the joy of participation, the excitement of being part of my own time” was a thrill, she recalled, after being inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013. “Then, in a moment of public recognition, the face of the individual becomes a woman’s face.”