In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of the recently deceased author Kate Millett’s impact on second wave feminism with her popular book, Sexual Politics (1970), Millett popularized the concept of patriarchy by using a personal understanding of everyday gender relations and literary representation.
On September 6, 2017, feminist author Kate Millett passed away at age 82 while on a celebratory birthday trip in Paris, away from their New York City home, with her wife, Sophie Keir. Millett was most-known for her PhD dissertation, which was later published as the popular book Sexual Politics. This book became a center-stone for the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s. In it, she critiqued the patriarchal representations in the literary works of authors such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, as well as the imbalance of power in everyday mixed-gender interactions.
Her book popularized the concept of patriarchy, which is a system of institutional and social power that is passed down through men, systems where men or their interests routinely hold power, or a social order based on male lines of family descent. Millett argued that interactions between men and women, especially those around family relations, were inherently patriarchal, and benefitted men’s power in the household over women. Such inequalities are present in a couple’s interactions, from men earning more money, to women burdened with the majority of the child and house care. More equal relationships could be found if women were partners with each other, as lovers and comrades.
Sexuality represented another division in the feminist movement, popularized by the slogan “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Millett published her book Sita in 1977, which was a personal memoir about a female lover and her exploration of her own sexuality. Her writing also explored her own mental health issues, such as her book The Loony-Bin Trip in 1990, which dealt with her bipolar diagnosis. This book also shows how institutional discrimination has historically been used in labeling women mentally ill, especially those who fought for their independence and equality.
The Personal is Political
Notably for sociology, Millett was using the methodologies of literary content analysis to examine representations of women and their impact on real women. The second wave of feminism used the slogan “the personal is political” to make the connection between individual women’s experiences and systematic gender oppression. The movement fought for such issues as reproductive rights, protecting victims of domestic violence, enacting the Equal Rights Amendment, and equality under the law. In contrast, the first wave of the feminist movement in the first part of the twentieth century in the U.S., focused on voting and property rights, for mainly white, middle-class women. The third wave of the feminist movement commenced in the early 1990s and focused on the diversity of women’s experiences based on such characteristics as race, sexuality, class, disability, and nationality.
From this second wave of the feminist movement came an institutionalization of its own: the grassroots establishment of women’s studies courses, and then programs, in colleges across the U.S.. Second wave authors’ texts became the central cannon of the newly developing field. Such authors include:
- Simone de Beauvoir, best-known for her book The Second Sex (1949), which examined closely the ways in which women were systematically oppressed.
- Betty Friedan, the first president of the National Organization for Women in 1970 and the author of the book The Feminine Mystique (1963), which examined the ways in which the homemaker role for women was deemed as stifling and depression-inducing.
- Shulamith Firestone, an activist and author, involved in such organizations as New York Radical Women and Redstockings, as well as the author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), brought the tactic of social movements and revolution to the literature.
- Germaine Greer, an Australian feminist author, is best known for her book The Female Eunuch (1970), which argued that women are forced to assume a submissive role in relation to men and the social construction of womanhood and femininity.
Authors such as these, and many others, provided the foundation for the development of the new interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, established originally through on-campus activism. This field has brought to the forefront the importance of examining gender relations in all fields of the college experience. Kate Millett was a founding member and contributor to this social movement and interdisciplinary field.
- How did the second wave feminists conceptualize patriarchy? Provide three examples from 1970s gender relationships that the feminists critiqued in the name of patriarchal abuse towards women.
- How would symbolic interactionists describe everyday interactions between men and women as daily sexism? How are these relationships institutionalized? Provide examples of daily behaviors between men and women that demonstrate an imbalance of social power and how institutions solidify these practices.
- How does Millett and feminist theory understand the institutional role of health care in constructing particular gender expectations and enforcing them?
- How did second wave feminists conceptualize gender relationships? Why did they focus on certain issues, but not others? What other topics were they overlooking? And what is the different perspective that third wave feminism brought to the movement?
- Millett, Kate. 1970. Sexual Politics. Garden City; New York: Doubleday.