Amid Outpourings of Women’s Anger…

Remembering Kate Millett

By Mary Lou Greenberg

February 3, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


The strong and joyous Women’s Marches across the country made me think of Kate Millett, who died on September 6, 2017, a few days short of her 83rd birthday. 

Radical feminist writer, artist, and activist since the 1960s antiwar and women’s movements, Kate Millett called herself a “troublemaker.” She was, in the best sense of the word, daring to challenge and upend the status quo in many arenas, and most of all the crushing weight of patriarchy. She relished taking on the misogyny, the hatred and cruelty toward women of political patriarchs of various stripes and guises, and she challenged others to do it, as well. 

She is best known for her radical work of theory, history and cultural criticism, Sexual Politics, published in 1970. A product of her involvement with the growing women’s liberation movement, it attempted, in her words, “to formulate a systematic overview of patriarchy as a political institution.”

In Sexual Politics, Millett drew on the work of historians, anthropologists and political theorists, including Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, to critique the notion that patriarchy, including traditional marriage and the family, is the natural social order and that male dominance and female subservience are based in biology and, therefore, inevitable. Sexual Politics exposed Sigmund Freud’s “habitual masculine bias” in his theory of female psychology (a very bold thing to do then), and took on the misogyny in the writings of literary icons including D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, among other things.

Millett ended her book with a call for “freeing humanity from the tyranny of sexual-social category and conformity to sexual stereotype – as well as abolishing racial caste and economic class,” and liberating women from their “immemorial subordination.” 

Millett, however, never made the leap to grasping and applying a fully scientific method and understanding of society, and in different ways ran counter to it. This included the way that the mode of production, that is, the ways in which production is carried out in capitalist society determines and shapes social relations and values, and the need for revolution to bring into being new production and social relations and totally new values as leaps toward liberating women and emancipating humanity. She never broke free of working within and radically changing the current framework. Yet she made valuable contributions. For instance, her insistence that women’s oppression is neither biologically rooted nor inevitable helped open peoples’ minds to the possibility of real change and to refuse to accept male domination. 

Sexual Politics hit like an earthquake. Time magazine put her on its cover. Amid controversy and vitriolic attacks as well as considerable praise, Sexual Politics quickly became a bestseller.

Following her death, feminist author Carol Adams wrote in the New York Times:

[I]t was Ms. Millett’s book that made us feminists… In 1963, Betty Friedan had called the “feminine mystique” the problem with no name. It was Ms. Millett who gave it a name — sexual politics — and explained its cause: patriarchal society. By introducing the concept of “patriarchy as a political institution,” she equipped her readers to become their own theorists of culture … helping us perceive the power structures in what had previously been cast as apolitical terrain: the home; literature; romantic relationship. It felt so liberating to realize that we could follow her lead. We could take this fundamental insight to our jobs, our schools, our marriages — and to politics itself. Theory mattered. It was capable of propelling real change. (September 7, 2017)

A breadth of vision, knowledge, creativity and concern for humanity

Millett had a breadth of vision, knowledge, creativity and concern for humanity that could fill books, and she wrote many, including Flying (1974) and Sita (1977) about her sexuality and coming out as lesbian; The Loony-Bin Trip (1990), about being forcibly institutionalized for mental illness and a cry against all such treatment; and The Politics of Cruelty (1994), an exposure of state-sanctioned torture of prisoners.

There are a couple of examples I wanted to share.

Kate Millett was a visual artist as well as a writer. In 1970, Millett was denounced in the U.S. House of Representatives for her artwork of a wooden cage housing a porcelain toilet with a U.S. flag stuffed in it. Titled “The American Dream Goes to Pot,” it was created for “the People’s Flag Show” art exhibition in New York City.  

In 1979, Millett and her longtime partner and spouse Sophie Keir traveled to Iran soon after the U.S.-installed Shah had been forced out and the new reactionary Islamic regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini had taken power, an experience she wrote about in Going to Iran (1982). She’d been invited to speak at the March 8 International Women’s Day celebration in Tehran. Shortly after they arrived, Khomeini announced that all women must wear the veil (chador), and the planned celebration turned into a huge women’s protest march, braving not only the mullahs but groups of infuriated men bent on enforcing Khomeini’s orders. The two jumped in and participated fully. For that they were arrested and expelled from Iran. Years later, some revolutionary Iranian women who had been part of the march told me they were thrilled that Kate Millett had joined them.

Kate Millett—Troublemaking to the end

Kate Millett had a broadness of mind and an unquenchable radical spirit, and her important theoretical work continues to resound with truth, insight and relevance. She continued to speak out against cruelty and injustice throughout her life and worked with others, including revolutionary communists, in an open, non-sectarian way, with boldness and spirit. She was passionate about abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, and participated in the 2017 Women’s March in NYC in a wheelchair, proudly holding a sign with her name.

In the great endeavor to bring about a new world, I feel confident that the work of Kate Millett, along with her bold troublemaking spirit, breadth of vision and joyous heart that touched and influenced so many, will contribute to getting there.


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