Kate Millett (1934– )

Family – undoing the traditional family was the key to true sexual revolution.

• Portrayal of women in art and literature – she showed how patriarchal culture had produced writers and literary works that were degrading to women.

The family is the key tool of patriarchy.

• Socialisation gives men power, and denies women power.

Kate Millett wrote Sexual Politics, the book that gave birth to radical feminism. It caused a storm when it was published in 1970.

Millett argued that female oppression was both political and cultural, and suggested that undoing the traditional family was the key to true sexual revolution. She argued that the family was ‘patriarchy’s key institution’; it was a mirror of the larger society, a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. It was where very young girls were taught ‘their place’ in relation to their brothers, and where they learned about the role of women by observing the hierarchical relationship between their mother and father.

‘Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different.’

Millett’s perception of patriarchy is a dual one. She sees the dominance of men in terms of both sexism — an entrenched belief in male superiority — and heterosexualism — the idea that heterosexual relationships are superior to gay relationships. She herself is bisexual (though predominantly lesbian), which has placed her in a good position to be able to view sexism in a more complete way.

Her main contention in Sexual Politics was that it is necessary for women to find sexual liberation first if they are to achieve liberation in general life. All heterosexual relationships are effectively political in a patriarchal society because they involve men exercising power over women. It follows from this that women who are able to accept their lesbianism or are able to convert to that form of sexuality place themselves on the road to personal liberation. Needless to say, these were highly controversial views, which attracted a huge following but also a cascade of criticism.

It would be wrong, however, to characterise Millett as nothing more than a ‘lesbian feminist’. She also analysed women’s place in the society and in the economy. For her, as for many radical thinkers of the time, the word ‘politics’ had acquired a new, broader connotation. This was the idea that wherever one group oppresses another, the result is political in nature and the solution must be the liberation of the oppressed group (hence the wider term ‘liberation politics’). So it is with men oppressing women, Millett argued. Patriarchy is therefore intensely political in nature.

Millett is not normally classed as a socialist feminist, but some of her ideas chime with socialist ideas. In particular, she described the plight of working-class women.

‘The toil of working class women is more readily accepted as “need”, if not always by the working class itself, at least by the middle class. And, to be sure, it serves the purpose of making cheap labour in factory and low grade service and clerical positions. Its wages and tasks are so unremunerative that, unlike more prestigious employment for women, it fails to threaten patriarchy financially or psychologically.’ (Sexual Politics, 1969)

It is also implied in the above quotations that Millett criticised parts of the feminist movement for being concerned largely with problems relating to middle-class women.

• Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over his wife and children. Her status as his property continued in her loss of name and the legal assumption that marriage involved an exchange of women’s domestic service and sexual consent in return for financial support.

• The chief contribution of the family to patriarchy was the socialisation of the young into patriarchal attitudes. Although there were slight cultural variations, this was achieved and reinforced through friends, schools, media and other aspects of society. This culture supported masculine authority in all areas of life, and permitted the female none at all.

• Millett also explored the treatment of women in art and literature. She showed how patriarchal culture had produced writers and literary works that were degrading to women. Millett demonstrated how the language used in describing sex demonstrated the subjugation of women. Millett suggested that in literature, women were never their own agents; they were commodities silenced by the freedom of men to sexually possess them.

• Millett also attacked romantic love and called for an end to monogamous marriage and the family, which she referred to as patriarchy’s chief institution. She proposed a sexual revolution that would bring the institution of patriarchy to an end.