January 21, 2020 at 2:19 pm EST | by Kathi Wolfe
Celebrating Kate Millett’s feminist literary criticism
Kate Millett, gay news, Washington Blade
Kate Millet (Photo by Linda Wolf via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: This column is the first in a series highlighting queer women feminists.

As I write this, The New York Times editorial board has just endorsed Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, two female Democratic presidential candidates.

Last week, I cheered when Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment! (The ERA faces legal challenges.)

Until 1920, women in our country (except in a few states) didn’t have the right to vote. The 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. It was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

Since the 1900s, women have fought for the right to vote and for equality for women.

Women’s rights matter to LGBTQ women. Today, many women still earn less than men. Then there’s sexual harassment and #MeToo. Misogyny lurks in the queer and hetero community.

Historically, queer women have been part of the feminist movement. Yet, many second-wave feminists, out of homophobia and transphobia, disavowed or downplayed queer feminists. Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking “Feminine Mystique” called lesbians the “lavender menace.” (Years later, she apologized for the slur.)

This series will highlight queer women who have been part of the struggle for women’s equality. I’ll begin with Kate Millett, author of the trailblazing 1970 book “Sexual Politics.” The work was such a cultural phenomenon, that in the era when magazines ruled pop culture, Millett was on the cover of Time.

Why am I starting with Millett? Because feminism isn’t just political – it’s personal.

When I was young and struggling to come out, I was in a bookstore with my grandmother. We noticed a book called “Flying” by Kate Millett.

My grandmother thought it was a memoir by a woman pilot. Scanning the back cover, I saw that it was a memoir – but not about aviation. It was Millett’s story of what it was like to come out as queer while famous.

I wrote Millett a fan letter full of my sexual confusion and angst. Most authors would have ignored such an intrusive missive. But Millett wrote back. “Keep on truckin,’” she said to me on a postcard.

Millett, who died at age 82 on Sept. 6, 2017 while vacationing in Paris with her spouse Sophie Keir, energized and inspired generations of hetero and queer women. Not only people like me, but our teachers, older sisters – our moms. Her work encouraged us to “keep truckin’” when we didn’t know how to even talk about, let alone fight against, sexism or the patriarchy.
Most doctoral dissertations never make it out of academia. Even if they’re published as a book, they rarely attract much attention. Yet, as The New York Times has noted, Millett’s “Sexual Politics,” originally, her doctoral thesis, has been credited with starting a “Copernican revolution in the understanding of gender roles.”

Sometimes literary criticism is as dull as dishwater and political analysis, a mind-numbing rant. But that wasn’t the case with “Sexual Politics.”

In this groundbreaking work, Millett exposed the misogyny of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and other literary titans. Norman Mailer’s obsession with masculinity, she said, was “precarious spiritual capital in need of endless replenishment and threatened on every side.”

In her literary criticism, Millett used literature to show how women had internalized sexist assumptions about themselves. “Many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against,” she wrote in “Sexual Politics.”

Some lesbian feminists said she didn’t come out soon enough. Yet, she spoke openly about being a lesbian — writing about her sexuality and fame in “Flying” (1974) and in another memoir “Sita*(1977).”

Millett was a sculptor as well as a writer. In “The Loony Bin Trip,” she wrote about her struggles with psychiatric abuse.

Yet, Millett’s greatest legacy is her feminist literary criticism. Her investigation into the gender dynamics of novels was revolutionary. It changed hearts and minds.

If you have ideas for this series, Tweet me @UppityBlindGirl.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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