“I wouldn’t have missed this revolution, not for love or money,” said Phyllis Chesler as she addressed the crowd of mourners. “I remain forever loyal to that moment in time, that collective awakening, which set me free from my former life as a girl.”
Chesler was speaking at a memorial service for Dr. Kate Millett last Thursday at the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York. The church’s Gothic sanctuary served as a place of remembrance and homecoming for Millett’s friends, family, and admirers. Millett died in early September at the age of 82.
The revolution Chesler was referring to was feminism’s second wave, and the “collective awakening” which set her free owes a great debt to Millett. Best known for her 1970 book Sexual Politics, Millett is widely credited with introducing some of the most fundamental theoretical underpinnings of the feminist movement, such as patriarchy as an institutionalized and oppressive system of power and gender as a social construct.
Gloria Steinem recounted the first time she encountered Millett’s work. She was given a few pages of Millett’s Columbia dissertation (which would later be published as Sexual Politics) and experienced a sort of revelation. “As I read them, I thought, is it possible that a female American human being could be a great global intellectual? It had never, ever entered my mind before that this was even a possibility.”
Indeed, Millett had a knack for inventing new possibilities. She essentially created the field of feminist literary criticism and went on to write pioneering works on mental illness, political torture, and prostitution.
Her memorial service featured a wide range of music, including bagpipes, Ave Maria and Holly Near leading a sing-along of her protest anthem “Singing For Our Lives.” Ten speakers offered reflections, including Veteran Feminists of America President Eleanor Pam, Yoko Ono and Kathleen Turner, who read remembrances from both Robin Morgan and, in a crowd-pleasing surprise, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Millett’s intellectual gifts and pioneering activism were a focus of the service. Steinem asked for help in her pledge to ensure Millett’s “global gift for changing our consciousness, and thus changing our reality, will never, never, never leave this earth.”
The speakers also created a rounded portrait of a woman who was not just a fiery intellectual and potent activist, but also a bold artist, a quirky friend, and a beloved family member.
“We knew her as an artist first,” said Lisa Millet Rau, Millett’s niece. “She would come for visits, and she would open her suitcase and pull out her art supplies and get down on the floor, cross-legged, with us: equal. Because we were equal.” This behavior, Rau recounted, was unusual in the 50’s and 60’s. “So, even in child psychology, she was ahead of her time.”
Millett’s friends recalled her as famously, almost willfully, bad with money. Pam, a close friend of Millett’s, talked about Millett’s embrace of “downward mobility,” and Chesler recalled that she “could easily pass for a homeless person.” Chesler’s eyes moved between the pages in her hand and the soaring ceiling as she addressed her lost friend. “Out on the Bowery in the blustery winter weather, trying to sell your farm-grown Christmas trees. Oh, how chapped your hands were. How red were your cheeks.”
The one big purchase of her life was her farm and artist colony, where she gave everything a name, including the closets. It was a place not only to grow Christmas trees, but to be surrounded by the power of other women. Millett’s farm was open to friends and friendly visitors, no appointment necessary. In a particularly poignant moment, those assembled were asked to raise their hands if they’d been among those who had found solace on the farm. Dozens of hands across the sanctuary went up, maybe even a hundred, and the humanity and warmth Millett brought to the world was made instantly tangible.
Her friend Linda Clarke recalled joining Millett and her long-time partner and wife Sophie Keir at the farm, where “Kate was finally president of her own university. She created a special curriculum for women artists and writers from all over the world.” The topics included “how to create and appreciate you,” “how to be radicals by going to the root of everything,” and “how to survive poison ivy, exhaustion”—and, she added, eliciting a laugh from the audience, “each other.”
The warmth grew and spread over the two-plus hours of music and memories. “I just felt like it was the good old days all over again,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms., said after the service. “Some of us are hiking mountains, some of us are sitting in wheelchairs. But we’re all agents of change. You don’t retire from that.”
I asked Steinem about Robin Morgan’s words, which had been read by Turner: “a feminist generation is marching again, this time into shadow. Another generation will march into the sun.” Did she feel that her generation was, indeed, marching into shadow?
“Oh, that wasn’t figurative. That was literal,” Steinem said with a laugh. “We’re gonna die.” But she is hopeful about the state of things. Today’s movement, she said, is “better than it’s ever been.” The current president, whom she declined to refer to as the president, “has awakened a movement like I’ve never seen in my long life.”
Millett was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1970, but she didn’t want to be. The movement was bigger than any one person, and she didn’t want a spotlight. She would have been glad, then, to know that her memorial service was expansive in scope. The focus was not just on her intellect, or on her humanity, but also on the movement.
Chesler ended her remarks with the following paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Henry V:
“She that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Then will she strip her sleeve and show her scars,
And say “These wounds I had.”
This story shall the good woman teach her children,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of sisters,
For she today that sheds her blood with me,
Shall be my sister; be she ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle her condition;
And gentlewomen everywhere now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their humanity cheap while any speak
That fought with us.”