Posted in: Feminism
Published on Sep 07, 2017 by Carol J. Adams
The Book That Made Us Feminists
I was 19 years old when I bought a first edition of “Sexual Politics” in 1970. Kate Millett’s first book, published the year before, was that unlikeliest phenomenon — a dissertation heard around the world. What I remember most about that year was the dizzying experience of reading Ms. Millett, who died on Wednesday, and the new theories of her sister feminists that came in its wake. Like one of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms,” my consciousness, and that of the women I knew, gained new dimensions.
In my library today, that volume of “Sexual Politics” sits next to the feminist classics that soon followed. Both “The Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” Robin Morgan’s ambitious anthology, appeared in 1970. The following year, Germaine Greer published “The Female Eunuch” in the United States. Each year thereafter brought a major new work: Phyllis Chesler’s “Women and Madness” (1972); Mary Daly’s “Beyond God the Father” (1973); Andrea Dworkin’s “Woman Hating” (1974); and Susan Brownmiller’s “Against Our Will” (1975).
These women and many others, including Adrienne Rich and Angela Davis, offered new insights, shaking foundation after foundation for me and my peers. But it was Ms. Millett’s book that made us feminists.
I remember staring at Alice Neel’s image of a confident-looking Ms. Millett on a Time magazine cover in August 1970. It made me feel a little indomitable, too. That fall, I started to offer feminist analyses in my literature classes. Maybe I wasn’t ready to take on the world, but I could take on John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
In 1963, Betty Friedan had called the “feminine mystique” the problem with no name. It was Ms. Millett who gave it a name — sexual politics — and explained its cause: patriarchal society. By introducing the concept of “patriarchy as a political institution,” she equipped her readers to become their own theorists of culture. Ms. Millett revolutionized our thought by helping us to perceive the power structures in what had previously been cast as apolitical terrain: the home; literature; romantic relationships.
It felt so liberating to realize that we could follow her lead. We could take this fundamental insight to our jobs, our schools, our marriages — and to politics itself. Theory mattered. It was capable of propelling real change.
It’s been 47 years since that white cover with the stark black capital letters appeared. The challenge for us in thinking about “Sexual Politics” now is the weariness of knowing Ms. Millett’s analysis isn’t yet outdated. President Trump has made second-wave feminism relevant again. Sexual bragging? Discussing women’s bodies as objects? Fascination and repulsion by women’s bleeding and other bodily functions? Check, check, check.
For Ms. Millett, misogynist literature — exemplified by the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet — was the primary vehicle of masculine hostility. The tools for disseminating such hostility — @realdonaldtrump — have increased exponentially.
When Ms. Millett talks about the “politically expedient character of patriarchal convictions about women,” I think about the health care debates of the past year, the reference by one state legislator to pregnant women as “hosts” and of the fact that not a single female senator was invited to help write the health bill this past spring.
Ms. Millett challenged the gender conditioning of early childhood that “runs in a circle of self-perpetuation and self-fulfilling prophecy.” How else to think about “reveal” parties, where expectant parents announce the sex of their baby?
And her discussion of the family as “patriarchy’s chief institution” feels suddenly acute when one considers our current first family. Patriarchy, literally "the rule of the father,” has found new meaning in the Trump White House.
Ms. Millett’s work wasn’t exhaustive. Later feminist theory pursued other important ideas about equality and inequality, about intersectionality and colonialism. But I love Ms. Millett for her ambition. She wanted us to take it all in: from the gas station that stood in the 1960s where the Seneca Falls women’s rights meeting was held in 1848 to the anatomical discussion of the female orgasm. She would consume it all; she had consumed it all, devoured the wealth of material from anthropology, theology, history, philosophy, economics and literature, and showed us how to recognize the sexual politics that undergirded everything.
Kate Millett ended her book on a hopeful note, of how “the new women’s movement” would “ally itself on an equal basis with blacks and students in a growing radical coalition.” At a time, “poised between progress or political repression,” Ms. Millett hoped that women might swing the national mood toward social revolution. “For to actually change the quality of life is to transform personality, and this cannot be done without freeing humanity from the tyranny of sexual-social category and conformity to sexual stereotype — as well as abolishing racial caste and economic class.” The next Women’s March could adopt this as their motto.
On Wednesday night, after hearing of her death in Paris earlier that day, I went to my bookshelf. There they all sat: the volumes that changed how we saw the world. I pulled out Ms. Millett’s book and opened it to the Postscript. Perhaps, after all these years, it wasn’t just Ms. Millett’s élan, or confidence, or ambition, or erudition. It was that she ended with a visionary hope for us all, that we might create “a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.”
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