Remembering Kate Millett

Dr. Kate Millett, a groundbreaking feminist writer, artist and activist, died this week in Paris at 82.

Millet with Ti-Grace Atkinson, Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem in 1977. (Harvard University: Schlesinger Library)

Millett’s 1970 book Sexual Politics became a cornerstone of the women’s liberation movement. In that text, originally prepared as a doctoral thesis, she exposed how patriarchy was woven into the fiber of society and its institutions—including philosophy and religion, medicine and science and even the notion of family. “Every avenue of power within the society,” she wrote, “including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands.” She also explored how the socialization of women impacted their entire lives, coining the term “interior colonization” to describe the “totality of their conditioning” to accept and defend their own subjugation.

Millett had been identified and had identified herself as bisexual and a lesbian, and she was a driving force in the push to create a more inclusive women’s liberation movement that allied itself with LGBT liberation. After the release of Sexual Politics, she came out while married to a male sculptor when she was pressed by an audience member at a speaking engagement about her sexuality. “Yes I said yes I am a lesbian,” she wrote later, reflecting on the experience. “It was the last strength I had.” That same year, Millett read a statement of feminist solidarity with lesbians at a historic gathering of feminist leaders. The last years of her life were spent with her longtime partner and spouse Sophie Keir.

Sexual Politics turned Millett into an overnight celebrity, leading her to be crowned the “Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation” by TIME magazine for writing what the New York Times called “the Bible of Women’s Liberation.” Millett, however, shied away from the spotlight—opting instead to continue writing and working in academia. She taught at Barnard, Bryn Mawr and the University of California in Berkley; she wrote books centered on her own institutionalization and her relationship with her mother that were ripe with social commentary on mental health and the mistreatment of elderly women; she sculpted and opened a women’s art colony; she filmed a documentary with an all-female team; she traveled to Iran on “a mission to and for my sisters” and shined a light on violence against women in the Soviet Union, Nazi Europe, Ireland and South Africa.

“Kate was brilliant, deep and uncompromising,” Steinem told The New York Times in an email after her death. “She wrote about the politics of male dominance, of owning women’s bodies as the means of reproduction, and made readers see this as basic to hierarchies of race and class. She was not just talking about unequal pay, but about woman-hatred in the highest places and among the most admired intellectuals. As Andrea Dworkin said, ‘The world was asleep, but Kate Millett woke it up.'”

 

 

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.