Friday, June 17, 2011

Kate Millett

"The feminist time forgot?" 

Earlier this week, someone suggested to me that Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique should be read by ALL women. And I hedged on this. (to see my comments & more see the AWU post originally from Tuesday @ 12:06) Then let me be clear here. It’s a fine book that indisputably changed Americans lives as a New York Times bestseller and beyond. But now that I have “a room of one’s own” (at least I’m renting it on Fridays) I want to emphasize that my equivocation on that blanket proclamation stems not from the fact that I think its content is “crappy” as was charged, but with my persistent discomfort with how and why some ideas, people and products become more popular than others and the ways in which our discourses reinscribe this hegemonic order. Of particular concern to me and many feminists is how the media has contributed to the cultural conversation about feminism at different historical moments over the past twenty-five years.

Surely you have heard of Freidan even if you haven’t read her study. Perhaps you are even more familiar with the face of Gloria Steinem. The images and ideas of both these second-wave feminists have seeped into our popular cultural psyche for the past half century or so for better or worse (and mostly it’s good). But honestly, how many people in the world, women (or men) have ever heard of Kate Millet or studied her book Sexual Politics? As an academic who works between the borders of mass communications and gender studies, my interest lies at the role the media – now including social networking - play in the re-presentation of the women’s rights movements. So my concern here is the way that some through discourse and media systems some Why did liberal feminism (a la Freidan and Steinem) eclipse radical feminism, which was just as strong of a branch in the late 1960s and early 70s? (There’s a great book on this by Alice Echols called Daring to Be Bad). I wish to echo the argument of some others before me that it is due, at least in part to the fact that the ideology of liberal feminism resonates much more with capitalism, and that Steinem’s politics and persona – she came of age with the TV generation, fit much more within the beauty myth parameters of attractiveness and acceptability. Remember the famous poll that showed viewers who watched the 1960 presidential debate on TV said Kennedy won, while listeners in radioland said Nixon bested him? Same deal. 

Sexual Politics was one of the great cornerstones of Radical Feminist literature. (Briefly, radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (as in liberal feminism) Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy, even as it exists in liberal-patriarchalism of the U.S. political economy. They believe that the way to deal with patriarchy and oppression of all kinds is to address the underlying causes of these problems through revolution not reform. It is known that Betty Friedan and other liberal feminists often see precisely the radicalism of radical feminism as potentially undermining the gains of the women's movement with polarizing rhetoric that invites backlash and hold that they overemphasize sexual politics at the expense of political reform. So which one do you think a corporate media monopoly would prefer?

A brief biography: In 1970, Kate Millett wrote Sexual Politics, a groundbreaking, bestselling analysis of female oppression. When "Sexual Politics" was published, Millett was 34, an unknown sculptor and activist living the life of an impoverished bohemian in New York's Bowery district. Born Katherine Murray Millett in St. Paul, Minn., Millett led a far different life than her strict Catholic parents had envisioned. Married to Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, to whom she dedicated "Sexual Politics," she maintained open relationships with a series of women. Upon the publication of her dissertation, Millett achieved instant fame and, compared with her formerly dire straits, a modest fortune of $30,000. The majority of this she spent to buy property in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., establishing the Women's Art Colony Farm for writers and visual artists.
Whether she liked it or not -- and for Millett, this seems to be forever an ambivalent question -- she became an overnight celebrity, lauded as the movement's perfect figurehead. She was brilliant, articulate, passionate in her activism, generous with her time and surprisingly gracious in interviews. The media swallowed her whole and spit out a simplified spokeswoman for the masses. Time magazine hailed her as "the Mao Tse-tung of Women's Liberation."

But Millett's public persona started to tarnish. The women's movement turned on her when she was outed as a lesbian. "The disclosure," said an article in Time, "is bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause." Indeed it did. And the gay movement lashed out at her for not coming out sooner. Millett wasn't easily defined -- and seemed continually misunderstood. There's Friedan, the stately matriarch; Steinem, the brassy babe; and Millett, the manic-depressive, married, bisexual, women's reformer, gay liberationist, reclusive sculptor, in-your-face activist, retiring Midwesterner, brassy New Yorker. There were too many mixed messages; she was far too conflicted and complicated a figure.

How is it that the great Kate Millett has nearly vanished from the collective consciousness? Certainly, she's overlooked by the media that once scrutinized her every move, and is barely a footnote in the minds of the very women who have profited from her labors. For whatever reason, my generation seems to be more familiar with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, Millett's onetime peers. These feminist hall-of-famers -- who respectively authored "The Feminine Mystique" and founded the National Organization for Women; wrote "The Female Eunuch"; and co-founded Ms. magazine -- remain in the Zeitgeist. Biographies of Friedan and Greer were published this past year, as were books penned by both women; and Steinem remains the biggest women's lib celeb of them all.

In 1999, Millett surfaced in the most disconcerting manner, when an article she wrote for the London Guardian was excerpted and circulated on the Internet. In the article, titled "The Feminist Time Forgot," Millett comes across as desperate and destitute, fearful of future "bag-lady horrors." Despite her credentials, she can't get a decent teaching job, not even at an extension night school. No one returns her calls. She can't even get hired as a temp. "I don't type well enough," Millett writes ruefully. She's offered $1,000 to republish "Sexual Politics," an embarrassing sum she refuses. (Ironically, notes Millett, Doubleday is putting out an anthology of the 10 most important books it's published in the past century -- an excerpt from "Sexual Politics" is included.) Most astonishing is the news that she earns a living selling Christmas trees from her farm. "I begin to wonder what is wrong with me," she writes. "Am I 'too far out' or too old? Is it age? I'm 63. Or am I 'old hat' in the view of the 'new feminist scholarship'?".

Yes, Virginia, in a perfect world, we all would read all the books and all the books would be perfect. Let me leave you with an even more fantastical scenario. If you’re going to be stranded on a desert island, and you can only bring one book and the library has only either The Feminine Mystique or Sexual Politics, I recommend you take the latter.

So what are your thoughts on how the media convergence of the publishing industry, social networking sites, advertising, and other forms of corporate power has crafted how we discuss feminism and/or other grass-roots social movements?

Thank you for a lot of the valuable info herein.

AWU post & comments at