14th Sep 2012
Bookish Birthday: Kate Millett
Born on the 14th September 1934, American novelist, activist and feminist Kate Millett was and remains to be one of the most important influences on feminism. Her most notable work comes in the form of Sexual Politics, written and published during the 70s third wave feminism movement.
Millett has more qualifications than you can shake an undergraduate degree at. From her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesote to her first class from Oxford (the first American woman to be awarded this degree, by the way), Millett’s professional career started as an academic.
Her academic stance resonates through her entire life, a refreshing change from the oh-so-common story of people appearing to fall in to success.
Moving to Japan in 1961, Millett worked as a teacher of English and embarked into a career as a sculpture for two years. Returning to America she brought with her Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura and the two wed in 1965. They divorced in 1985.
Shortly after her arrival back to America, Millett joined the National Organisation for Women, and thus began her long career as a feminist and activist.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s, Millett began her PhD at the University of Columbia, and her dissertation sparked her most popular work Sexual Politics. Her PhD’s basic structure offered a critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature.
More specifically, she compared the works of heterosexual writers D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, contrasting their work to the viewpoint of homosexual author Jean Genet. She used this work as the starting point for Sexual Politics, and so one of the most notable feminist works of the second wave was born.
The early 70s saw Millett begin to work endlessly towards the cause of equality for women, often specifically aiding lesbian artists. In 1971, Millett began buying and restoring fields and buildings in Poughkeepsie, New York, and they became the Women’s Colony/Tree Farm.
The project was a residence to lesbian artists and writers who earned their keep buy supporting the sale of Millett’s silk-screen prints, and by selling Christmas trees that had been cultivated by the residents.
1971 also saw Milltett’s 16mm document Three Lives being made with an all-woman crew. The film focused upon the lives of three women; Mallory Millett-Jones (the directors sister), Lillian Shreve (a chemist), and Robin Mide (an artist).
Throughout the 70s Millett also wrote and published a number of books to varying success. Flying (1974) depicted her marriage to Yoshimura and her affairs with women; Sita (1977) is a study of her doomed love affair with a female college administrator who was ten years her senior.
In 1979 Millett travelled to Iran to work for women’s rights, and shortly after her arrival she was deported. This experience became the subject matter of Going to Iran.
Millett’s personal journey as a feminist has been a regular subject matter for many of her books and essays, even featuring in her fiction. This reflective style of writing remains popular with feminist literature as it provides the sense of a united and open nature, perhaps encouraging the reader to feel they are participating in a discussion rather than being simply spoken to.
This style is also seen in the likes of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a deeply open piece of work studying Moran’s life and perspectives. It is hard to imagine such a popular feminist book could have happened without predecessors such as Millett.
Millett published several other works during the 90’s including The Loony-Bin Trip and The Politics of Cruelty to a mixed range of responses. There are many critics to Millett’s work, including humanities scholar Camille Paglia who declared that “American feminism’s nose dice began” when Millett achieved prominence.
Whatever the critics perspective of her life and work, it is impossible to ignore the work she has done for Western feminism. It has been no easy life for her, especially in her later years as she has written about the impossibility of finding work as an older woman and the prospect of poverty.
She has however stayed true to her cause and her convictions, making her one of the most passionate and important feminists of the 20th and 21st Century.
Happy Birthday Kate Millett. We hope it’s a good one.