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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Nov 14, 2012 by Phyllis Chesler

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Praising Kate

This past summer, at the Judson Memorial Church, many feminists braved the sweltering heat and came to praise Kate Millett while she is still among us and able to enjoy the kind words and the cherished memories.

Here is what I said:

Ah, Katie, here we still are, still together, and still talking to each other.

Between us, we have so many loved ones who are no longer here and suddenly, they are too numerous to mention, but they remain in my heart and on my mind; I refuse to take them out of my phone book. If I call them, they just might answer.

Do you remember the last time we were at the Judson Memorial Church together? We came to hear two young representatives of RAWA (The Revolutionary Association for Afghan Women) but the line was too long, they were turning people away and as I turned to leave you stood your ground and forcefully said: "Do you know who she is, this is Phyllis Chesler and I am Kate Millett and we have to get in." I was mortified, but your audacity worked, the crowd parted for us—just like the Red Sea.

My first memory of you was in 1968. You addressed a meeting of NYC NOW. In a faintly British accent, and sporting a prim little bun, you talked about education. You were shy, serious, studious, and seemed very straight, in every sense of the word.

And then you went and published The Book. I stood reading it, unable to stop, in a bookstore in the Village, the one on Sheridan Square. Nothing was the same after that.

All wonderful hell broke loose, we were "dancing in the streets" of America, joyfully demanding our freedom; there were daily press conferences, marches, new organizations, organizational splits, demonstrations, sit-ins. We were Hot Stuff, rock stars, really "bad,' like guys. And you—you suddenly represented Sin, Sex, really Loose Women and Revolution divine.

Katie my love: Do you remember: I had many offers but I chose to follow you to your publishing house for my first book Women and Madness? When you turned in your next book, Flying, our mutual editor begged me to persuade you to take out the lesbian material. I flatly refused. How we laughed about that.

I love that book, its Joycean stream-of-consciousness intimacy and energy, and the fact that you "outed" the feminists who were demanding that you Come Out on national TV. You were a Star—and you were trashed because you were a Star. Stars are human sacrifices, destined to fall to earth; this was something that you always understood.

Your breathless prose captures for all time The Way It Was. You bring us back, you bring us in, to a moment of history that is happening still. (Here we are). It is such an American book, in its way, so Whitmanesque. It should be taught in American Studies and American Literature.

Katie: Do you remember how, in the very early 70s, you implored me to persuade our beloved Clarkie not to leave the Farm, to stay, to stay, and I tried, and failed, and off she went, your Golden Girl, long skirt dragging, off to the ashrams of India—but she returned to be the Mother and Cook and Guiding Ethicist of the impossible, incredible Feminist Artist Colony also known as The Farm.

Do you remember when I flew to you in California to ask you what to do about the Sudden Fame, how to use it, not be destroyed by it? We were in Flo Kennedy's apartment and then we traveled to Sacramento and "Sita," Maria Del Drago was with us?

Do you remember when you tried to teach my 5-year-old son, Ariel, how to saw wood at the Farm? How impressed he was by your tractor and grown-up guy stuff? He is here today. He is now 34 years old, a feminist, a married man, a father, and we—well, we, too, are a bit older now.

Do you remember when you taught me how to plant a Victory Garden, something I had never done before? I was on deadline for an article but you were very insistent that I do "something useful around here, goddam it!"

Do you remember that day at the United Nations when the French women had organized a press conference to condemn the imprisonment of Madame Mao? And how you used this moment as an opportunity to demand justice for Ireland? Well, why not…

Do you remember how shocked I was to find that you were on the Geraldo show with me, when I came to discuss a new edition of Women and Madness? This was probably in 1989. You were sitting with the "crazies," I was sitting with the other shrink. Afterwards, I chose to go out with you and the Mental Patient Liberation Project people and not with the somewhat sadistic Shrink Lady?

Do you remember all the New Year's Eve parties we co-hosted?

Kate, Katie: You have been important, not only to me, but to the world at large, not only as a feminist, gay rights activist, and icon, but also as a tremendous scholar, author and artist. I have always loved your written work, your brilliant work, and for your poignant and whimsical sculptures and paintings and prints.

Oh, was I impressed by The Basement: Mediations on a Human Sacrifice. That book should have been glorified as one of the greatest feminist works of our generation. It was not, which is more of a comment on our culture than on your feminist moral vision.

Poor sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens, slowly tortured to death in a basement in Indianapolis in 1965 by a pack of teenagers led by a woman, Gertrude Baniszewski. When you launched an art exhibit in which her murderers are all tried as if at a Nuremberg Trial—I was shocked, shaken, by the fact that you had dressed your sculpted figure of Sylvia in your own clothes. For a moment, I thought it was actually you lying there…and so it was, so it was.

Your book, Going to Iran—your actually going to Iran—and getting arrested caused me great agita. How the hell were we going to get you out? We had no Free Fighting Feminist Army to come and get you—and then, miracle of miracles, Khomeini let you go. We both worked with Reza Baraheni, the Iranian who got you into this glorious mess. Do you know he tried to persuade me to come there the following year? He said that I had lived among Muslims in Afghanistan and understood the Muslim soul and had to come. I turned him down flat.

He fled Iran too.

The Looney Bin Trip is such a moving book. Do you remember how I helped you prepare for your debates with the shrinks—even though we disagree profoundly about whether mental illness exists or not?

Your writing is so sophisticated, elegant, intellectual, and brave—are you sure you are not French?

To take on the subject of torture in The Politics of Cruelty, that was your only book that I found hard going, but I certainly got through it and I congratulate you on this sober obsession, this grave and shattering work.

We both troll the Dark Side, my sister, my friend.

I miss our little dinners, you would roast a chicken and potatoes, open a fine bottle of wine and we would talk and talk. The conversation was the real food, the soul-food.

Thank you, Katie. Thank you for your work, your perseverance, your determination, and for your belief that a woman needs far more than just a room of her own—she needs land, lots of it, and she needs a community of like-minded spirits, artists, thinkers, and dreamers.

I do love you.

*Eleanor Pam worked tirelessly on this "Retrospective" of Kate's work which was hosted by the Veteran Feminists of America. Joan Casamo, Alix Dobkin, and Sandy Rapp sang; Susan Brownmiller, myself, Linda Clarke, Sophie Kier, Barbara Love, NOW President, Terry O'Neill, Alix Kates Shulman, Gloria Steinem, Sheila Tobias, Eleanor Pam, spoke as did others. Food, films—footage of Kate and Sophie in Teheran where Khomeini arrested them both—were shown; prizes were given to Jacqui Ceballos and Jan Cleary; food was served; and a good time was had by all.

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