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Millett, Kate (b. 1934)  

Bisexual feminist literary and social critic Kate Millett is best known for her pioneering critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature, Sexual Politics, which appeared in 1970.

Born Katherine Murray Millet in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1934, Millett attended the University of Minnesota, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1956. She studied at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, from 1956 to 1958, becoming the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honors by that college.

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Millett moved to New York City in 1959; in 1961, she moved to Japan, where she taught English and pursued a career as an artist. Two years later, Millett returned to the United States with sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, whom she married in 1965. The two divorced in 1985.

In March 1970, Millet received a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. Doubleday published her doctoral dissertation, under the title Sexual Politics, in July of that year. The book offered a comprehensive critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature. In particular, Millett indicted the sexism and heterosexism of renowned novelists D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer, contrasting their perspectives with the dissenting viewpoint of homosexual author Jean Genet.

Sexual Politics caused a sensation and made Millett an instant, if reluctant, celebrity. Notably, Time magazine featured her on the cover of its August 31, 1970, issue. The accompanying article on "Women's Lib" labeled Millett the "Mao Tse-Tung of Women's Liberation." Her tenure as a media icon was brief, however. In 1970, while appearing on a panel at a conference on sexual liberation at Columbia University, a woman in the audience confronted Millett: "Why don't you say you're a lesbian, here, openly. You've said you were a lesbian in the past." In response, Millett stated that she was bisexual.

Unknown to the participants, a reporter from Time taped the conference. The magazine's December 8, 1970, issue included a follow-up to its earlier cover story. The article's author concluded by stating that Millett's disclosure would "reinforce the views of those skeptics who routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians."

Among feminists, the response to Millett's announcement was decidedly mixed. Gloria Steinem and other members of the National Organization for Women held a press conference in defense of Millett. However, members of NOW's New York chapter only barely voted down a proposal declaring that anyone who spoke publicly about lesbian concerns could not identify herself as a member of the organization. Late in 1971, NOW put out a statement acknowledging lesbian rights as a feminist issue. Nevertheless, the controversy caused many lesbian feminists to grow wary when considering their heterosexual allies' possible allegiances.

In 1971, Millett started buying and restoring fields and buildings near Poughkeepsie, New York. The project eventually became the Women's Art Colony Farm, a community of female artists and writers. Although continuing to create as a visual artist, Millett has steadily published books that focus on women's issues and other social concerns, especially about the abuses of psychiatry and the mental health system.

Included among her major works, Flying (1974) chronicles Millett's life after the publication of Sexual Politics and describes her coming-out process. Like all her subsequent writings, Flying combines deeply felt personal revelation with trenchant political analysis. Sita (1977) is a meditation on Millett's doomed love affair with a female college administrator. A.D: A Memoir (1995) describes Millett's Aunt Dorothy's unfavorable response to her niece's lesbianism and the resulting alienation of the two women.

Perhaps because of her reluctance to become a spokesperson for the women's movement, Millett and her work failed to achieve the lasting popular recognition enjoyed by other second-wave feminists such as Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer. However, Sexual Politics and several other books by Millett were reissued in 2000, an event that may lead to renewed appreciation of the groundbreaking nature of her writing, art, and activism.

Charles Krinsky

     

 
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Kate Millet in 1970. Photograph by Linda Wolf.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Abbott, Sidney and Barbara Love. Sappho Was a Right-on Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Juhasz, Suzanne. "Towards a Theory of Women's Autobiography: Kate Millett's Flying and Sita; Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior." Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Estelle Jelinek, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 221-237.

Keating, Anne B. "Kate Millett." Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Denise C. Knight and Sandra Pollack, eds. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. 361-369.

Kolodny, Annette. "This Lady's Not for Spurning: Kate Millett and the Critics." Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Estelle Jelinek, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 238-259.

Lawson, Kate. "Imagining Eve: Charlotte Brontë, Kate Millett, Hélène Cixous." Women's Studies 24:5 (1995): 411-416.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Krinsky, Charles  
    Entry Title: Millett, Kate  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 23, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/millett_k.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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