Kate Millet and the Politicization of Sex and Gender

I just learned that Kate Millet passed away.  She was an absolutely pivotal voice in gender and feminist theory and politics in the “second wave” in the U.S.  She was educated in the humanities, but her influence has gone on to impact an interdisciplinary collection of fields.  Her most influential book was Sexual Politics, a book considered by some to have been a manifesta associated with the second wave of the Women’s Movement.  I remember reading Sexual Politics for the first time and looking up the author online.  The first image I came across Alice Neel’s portrait of Kate that ended up being used on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1970 for their issues on “The Politics of Sex.” That cover story started:

These are the times that try men’s souls, and they are likely to get much worse before they get better. It was not so long ago that the battle of the sexes was fought in gentle, rolling Thurber country. Now the din is in earnest, echoing from the streets where pickets gather, the bars where women once were barred, and even connubial beds, where ideology can intrude at the unconscious drop of a male chauvinist epithet. This week, marking the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, the diffuse, divided, but grimly determined Women’s Liberation movement plans a nationwide protest day against the second sex’s once and present oppression. (here)

In just three short years, we’ll witness the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. And this quote feels as appropriate today as it must have felt in 1970. And that is sad. Kate Millet played a critical role in politicizing sex and gender. Like many influential feminist women in the 60s and 70s, she was both popularly celebrated and vilified. And she remained a complicated figure in Women’s Liberation. She played a critical role in providing a language for studying the ways that everything surrounding sex and gender was political. Everything. And we’re still relying on it today.

At the beginning of her chapter outlining her theory of sexual politics in Sexual Politics, Millet defined “politics” as “power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another” (1969: 23). It’s a simple description. What made her thesis in Sexual Politics so outrageous to so many is that she applied this simple description to gender–to the relationship between women and men. This is what she meant when she said gender is political. She wasn’t trying to create a politics where one didn’t exist; she was shedding light on a world-historical politics, and suggesting we uproot it. These unequal gendered arrangements were tied to the structure of society in a way Millet found intolerable–and it is for these reasons and more that Millet and her work have come to be seen as among the foundations of the second wave of Women’s Liberation. Millet was among those queer voices Friedan labeled “the lavender menace” and part of the collection of queer feminists who reclaimed that label toward different ends.

When I learned Millet had died, I couldn’t help but think of how relevant her work published almost half a century ago is today. We daily rely on Millet’s insights as we discuss the politics of sex and gender today and organize to resist gender inequality in all its various forms. It’s an important piece of our activism and the politics embedded in the ways feminist sociologists of sex and gender study the world around them and, sometimes, endeavor to provide tools for those pushing to change it.

In her postscript in the original edition of Sexual Politics, Millet concluded with a healthy skepticism about what needed to be done to achieve gender justice.  She wrote:

It may be that a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination–and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity. It may be that we shall even be able to retire sex from the harsh realities of politics, but not until we have created a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.

We’re back in the desert today and there’s much work to be done. I’m starting by rereading Sexual Politics and celebrating a revolutionary who gave everything to a movement for social justice.

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