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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 35, 22nd June 2021
Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett, Part 1
00:00:00 01:12:42

Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett, Part 1

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. I first encountered feminism when I was a Freshman in college. I was in an English class, and one of our main text books was on Critical Theory, which are different ways of approaching a work of literature. You can approach a work through a Historical lens, looking at what was going on the world to understand the story. You can look at the work through a Biographical lens, seeing the book as a reflection of the author’s personal point of view. You can analyze the work through a Marxist lens, looking at the role economics and class play in the story. And you can approach the work with a Feminist lens, looking at women and gendered power dynamics. I don’t recall doing any Feminist critique of any literature or History for the entire rest of my college education (which led me to be extremely frustrated later), but at least my introduction to the concept of Feminism was pretty positive - it was just one legitimate way of many legitimate ways of looking at literature and looking at the world, and because I hadn’t gotten any messages about Feminism in my family growing up, and because I was learning about it as a perfectly valid criticism at a very conservative university, I added it to my tool box of thought without any drama.

This bit of my personal history is relevant to our discussion today in a few different ways.

  1. I was shocked later in life when I discovered that Feminism was such a threatening, really bad word to some people. I often heard - and still hear - people refer to “radical feminism” and “militant” feminism” with fear and disgust, and lump all people who acknowledge the inequitable power balance between the sexes into that category of villainous “radical feminists”. But I hadn’t ever read any real radical feminism until this project, so when I saw that Sexual Politics was one of the defining texts of radical feminism, I wanted to read it so I would understand what people were talking about.
  1. I probably wouldn’t have been learning Feminist Literary Theory in college without the Sexual Politics.

  1. My reading partner today is Maxine Hanks, who is a renowned feminist theologian, historian, and writer in the Mormon world and beyond, and she is a seasoned expert on Feminisms and feminist approaches, as a student, a teacher, and a writer. So Maxine, I am so incredibly honored that you’re with us to share your wisdom about 60’s and 70’s feminism and Kate Millett’s work. Thank you so much for being here!


Hi Amy ! it’s great to be with you today to talk  about feminism and the ways it breaks down patriarchy. 

Amy: Maxine and I met just a few months ago - I had known who you were for many years, Maxine, and I have been so grateful for your friendship and interest in my work. I’m a huge fan and think of you like a

 Joan of Arc for Mormon women. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?


I’m a feminist historian and theologian, and author/editor. I studied Humanities, English, and Communication at BYU then transferred to the UU in the mid-80s  because it was the only place in Utah that had a women’s studies program and I was dying to study feminist history, theory, critique and language, to find tools that could unpack why I felt imprisoned within male perspective and discourse, unable to voice my own reality as a woman in Utah.  That program saved my sanity, taught me how and why women’s bodies, lives and perspectives were colonized within male perspective, language and social structures and how to break out of that.  I loved learning different feminist approaches, schools of thought, and how each emerged as a response to that very problem -- finding female voice to express female experience and perspective.  Gender studies gave me the answers and tools I desperately needed to find my own voice. So I did a bachelors degree in Gender Studies at the UU, and lectured there as a TA in women’s studies courses for ten years, 1988-98, while compiling my first book, on feminism in LDS history and co-teaching a course on women in Mormonism, with Dr. Vella Evans.  Given my English and Comm studies background and my vocation as a writer and editor I was obsessed with language and how writing or authoring can change our cultural discourses and society.  I saw feminsit authoring and deconstruction as the most powerful tools for altering patriarchal discourses and structures.  So I applied the theories I was learning to address women’s status in Mormon culture, and compiled a book of Mormon feminist writings for our UU course on Mormon women.

I was from a working-class Mormon background that was anti-liberal, anti-feminist, anti-higher education, so I had to work to support myself and pay for school, and worked full-time as an editor & writer at BYU then at the UU so I could take classes. I lacked resources for grad school, so I worked for a variety of companies and clients doing writing and editing and took classes when I could afford it.  I took history and religious studies courses, and applied for a grad fellowship in theology at Harvard, which paid for a year at HDS, which was bliss.  I was invited to stay for the MTS and ThD but I ran out of funds, couldn’t make it work financially so came back to Utah, and continued working as an editor while taking classes in chaplaincy for a CPE degree and serving as a volunteer chaplain and researching feminist theology in Christianity.  Also I had been doing research on Mormon history since the 1970s, so I took online courses to get my masters in history, which gave me the historical methods and tools I’d long wanted.  I hope to finish aThD online, still working on that.  So I’ve mainly worked as an editor or writer, while lecturing part time..

2 takeaways from my bio are:   1) I value having 3 diff scholarly lenses from 3 diff fields when approaching women in religion -- since one needs to know history or how to do history,  and women’s studies/ feminist theory, and thelogy/ministry/rel. studies-- to unpack the situation of women in religion.   2) I noticed that my struggles, self-doubts, lack of privilege, and reliance on self-mentoring and pioneering -- is utterly typical of the feminists who became the leading voices in the 60s and 70s and 80s -- like Kate Millett, which she describes in her Introduction.  They pioneered women’s studies and feminist theory, discourse, critique and literatures ---before feminist programs were established; they were learning to speak a new language while inventing it by working their way out of being constructed by male discourses.   Like birthing yourself.  Kate says, “We were beginning to invent women’s studies, we were reinterpreting  knowledge.”   I lived thro that struggle and those years they wrote about, so I understand them.

Amy: I always like to ask my reading partners what interested them in doing an episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Maxine: I love this survey of feminism you’ve been doing.  It’s like a trip to my past -- in two ways -- you’re covering the same books we read in my women’s studies program in the 1980s, so its fun to see young feminists today engaging those texts that were so formative, foundational for us back then.  And I also personally experienced, lived through the 60s and 70s when feminists were writing these books  that addressed those times.  

Amy:  That’s great, your experience will help us approach Kate’s work which can be intimidating.  So first, I’ll introduce Kate as author and her text.

Katherine Murray Millett was born September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota. According to Millett, she was afraid of her father, an engineer, who beat her. He was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when she was 14, "consigning them to a life of genteel poverty”. The Milletts were Irish Catholic, and Kate attended parochial schools in Saint Paul throughout her childhood.

Millett earned a bachelor’s degree with honours in 1956 from the University of Minnesota, and two years later she was awarded a master’s degree with first-class honours from the University of Oxford. After teaching English briefly at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as an artist, and to support herself she taught kindergarten in Harlem. In 1961 she moved to Tokyo, where she taught English at Waseda University and also studied sculpting. She married Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura in 1965, and the couple moved to New York City, where Millett studied English and philosophy at Barnard College. (The couple divorced in 1985.) At the same time, she pursued a doctorate at Columbia University, and in 1970 she was awarded a Ph.D. with distinction. Her thesis was a work combining literary analysis with sociology and anthropology, and it was published that same year as Sexual Politics.

MAXINE: I want to mention here Kate’s personal struggles in academia --she exerted to fit in and find approval of male mentors, yet she had to drop out of her PhD program due to “living a double life” as an artist and an academic, and losing her university job due to her participation in campus protest activism.  She said her book “happened because I got fired.”  She needed money and couldn’t continue teaching in the PhD program so she published her thesis.  She was desperate and pragmatic, due to the realities of gender and economics.  And it birthed radical feminist discourse.

AMY:  Millett’s book, which defined the goals and strategies of the feminist movement, was an overnight success, transforming Millett into a public figure. 

This overnight fame was sometimes hard on Millett’s mental health - one example is that while whe was speaking about sexual liberation at Columbia University, a woman in the audience asked her, "Why don't you say you're a lesbian, here, openly. You've said you were a lesbian in the past." Millett hesitantly responded, "Yes, I am a lesbian". A couple of weeks later, Time magazine published an article called "Women's Lib: A Second Look", which reported that Millett admitted she was bisexual (which was true), and Time reported that that would likely discredit her as a spokesperson for the feminist movement because it "reinforce[d] the views of those skeptics who routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians.” And that was true - listeners will remember that Betty Friedan famously referred to lesbian feminists as “the lavendar menace,” so there was a lot of pressure on queer women to stay in the closet so that they wouldn’t discredit the movement with the mainstream establishment. 

MAXINE:  Yes-- 2nd wave feminism arising in the 1960s and 1970s was largely led by white, privileged academic women, many of them straight -- so lesbians often found themselves at the margins of the movement or behind the scenes supporting straight feminists at the forefront who gave feminism legitimacy to straight audiences, even though lesbians helped establish the female perspective or woman-centric views that birthed  radical feminism and countered male-centric discourse.  Lesbian writer Adrienne Rich was a major voice in 2nd Wave feminism who deconstructed straight privilege by exposing heterosexuality as “compulsory” and hostile to gay lives. Also, working- class women lacked support and access to colleges where 2nd wave feminism was forming, so they had a hard time adding their voice in the movement, as Gloria Anzaldua shared with me personally. And women of color had already been working to make a living, so their needs were different.  So as with first wave feminism, the major voices were white women of privilege, who shaped the movement by their needs and perspectives -- yet it was a vital shift in discourse and consciousness -- just to put women’s bodies, views, voices central, primary, rather than marginalized as the Other to male experience and written upon by male perspective. 

AMY: Millett became a spokesperson for radical feminism following the success of Sexual Politics, but struggled with conflicting perceptions of her as arrogant and elitist, and the expectations of others to speak for them, which she covered in her 1974 book, Flying. Remember in Gloria Steinem’s speech, “Living the Revolution,” where she says that a lot of feminist writing is too academic and inaccessible, which makes it useless to real people. I found Sexual Politics to be extremely academic - I follow and it makes sense because I’ve been back in academia for several years, but some might find it quite dense and too highbrow. And in the New Yorker article, Rebecca Mead (who wrote the foreword to the latest edition of Sexual Politics)  notes that Millett takes on intellectually elite male novelists, and that in our time no one even knows who the elite intellectual male novelists are. We expect feminist critique to address politicians and pop culture.

MAXINE:  Yes, that’s b/c the medium for deep cultural discussion the 1960s was publications -- books and articles -- before mass media engaged those topics and long before cable TV and internet.   Kate’s focus on male writers will make more sense when I share some context of the times.

AMY:  Millett was one of the first writers to describe the modern concept of patriarchy as the society-wide subjugation of women. Biographer Gayle Graham Yates said that "Millett articulated a theory of patriarchy and conceptualized the gender and sexual oppression of women in terms that demanded a sex role revolution with radical changes of personal and family lifestyles". Betty Friedan's focus, by comparison, was to work within the existing system but improve leadership opportunities and economic independence for women.


Amy: So Maxine can you give us some larger context of this, in the 1960s and 70s for understanding Kate’s contribution and book?


Maxine:  Yes and you set that up nicely, b/c there are crucial  diffs & shifts between 1960s & 1970s feminism --- and between First Wave and 2nd Wave feminism.

CONTEXT – 1960s  birth of 2nd wave fem -- needed new wave since 1920s

First wave -- Am. 1848-1920  (England 1792)

      Liberal & Cult Fem --gain inclusion, equal status in existing systems

      Cultural/Soc Fem –advance women’s concerns, spheres, issues

      Both address male privilege,  political equality,  male/fem equal value

      Liberal -- focus equality with men -suffrage,  politics

      Cultural -- focus female view- women’s societies, social reforms, female spirituality

Second wave – Am. 1960-1990

    Undo roots of inequality in existing systems  (sex, marr, family)

    Radical Fem = Roots of sexism embedded in systems, name it, tear apart

    See systemic sexism ingrained & reinforced in society --- Undo it

      New freedom outside, new lang, constructs

      End social limits on female body

     address sex distinctions, social equality, Lib/Rad fem,  male/fem equal power

1960s –  birth 2nd wave -  middle-class white privilege-centric

  Time of radicalization, breaking out of 50s --  Exert to formulate, launch it

      Limited scope, emerging on campuses, among educated, movement

1970s -- Exert to use it to start undoing systems of sexism --

     Pivotal time for Wider realization of 60s feminism in society

      Middle decade of 2nd wave, Momentum, precedent, clear goals, tools

     More available in media, to absorb, access (Twiggy, Gloria, Billie)

ME-child of 60s, grade school, Jr. Hi,  protests, assassinations, war

    1960 Pill  access to birth control ’60s and ’70s   1966  NOW

    “A Bunny's Tale, Part I", Part II", by Gloria (1963)  The Bell Jar  Plath (1963)

    1963 Friedan “Feminine Mystique”  Equal Pay Act of 1963

    “the problem that has no name”  sexism systemic, embedded all areas

    The Church and the Second Sex, Daly (1968) "Women & Power"  Gloria (1968)    

New Left = Liberal/radical grass roots reform movement of writers, academics, activists, students -- revise/synthesize liberalism, humanism, democracy, Marxism, socialism, psychology, activism, cultural studies, Soc. Justice, free speech, discourse, protest to tackle roots/ structures of class, politics, race, civil rights, authority, systems, establishment, economics, environment,  sex, love, identity, black power, AIM, anti-war, anarchist, countercultural, hippie.

Kate- “a whole new way to see history, literature, economics, psychology, political events. “ 

White Male-centric, Sexist, misogynist, still the NORM, women as sex objects, Other

Feminists unable to thrive in 60s world they helped create – confront sexism male colleagues  

      lack of progressive gender politics with their own social intellectual movement, time   

      women left off agenda; few feminists on the radical edge of Liberal movements

Unwilling to be the “ladies auxiliaries of the New Left”  2ndary status

Radical fems of 60s & 70s --- critique, reinterpret  male-centric views

“The emancipation of women is... the long, difficult, winding down of oppressive systems.”

“Second wave” radical feminism alongw/ Liberal/moderate,  others

  2 diff views in feminism generally – equality vs. difference

  2 diff Rad approach to undo limits define fem body -- soc construct & essential, biology

  1. Erase sex/gendifferences as constructed vs. 2. Give equal value, status to sex difference

    Example-- Our Bodies Ourselves  (take female body seriously, as central and equal)

    VS.  de Beauvoir  “one is not born but becomes a woman” = female identity constructed

    Women oppressed by hist/social constructs as “Other” defined related to men

Constructed social identity vs. Essential biological identity    Gender (identity) vs Sex (biology)

        Tensions btw  equality vs. difference –  result in “trashing”

1990s QT go further both constructed, fluid-- Gender Trouble Butler (sex/gender performative)

        There is no binary,  if biological sex can change, who defines woman? Genetic? trans?

Radical fem used both-- reconceive lang, society, undo sexual constructs, systems

  AND assert femaleness, woman-centric view as equal 

The context of Feminisms = important for understanding Millett’s work

    Her book launches 70s radical fem -- as do-able, real, accessible, far wider 

Pivotal Shift – 1970-75   (60s learning) 70s women Become feminist, not a given before

1970-- year I entered high school -- faced these issue and struggle for identity

    Deconstruct trad roles, identity --  marriage 1st, Self/edu/career 2nd  - who to marry?

    1975-- Not to marry but what to do?  feminism, right to find self first --a given

Sisterhood is Powerful: Anthology of Writings from Wom’s Lib Move, Robin Morgan (1970)

        Diversity of feminists, feminisms, approaches  & common bond, need, focus as women

The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone (1970)

  reinterpret “sexual class system” deeper than economics =>gender/sex/family

  relations-- core of women’s oppression, exploited;  question organization of culture & nature

Millett also -- pursues same premise

2 major radical feminist voices of 2nd wave -- Firestone and Millett

Kate Millett/Sexual Politics —Pivotal event 

      took on male chauvinists of New Left –  DH Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer,

Cited violent sexual imagery, views of women in writings as harmful, perpetuate oppression

      Freud, Geo Meredith, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill

“As the book took shape, so did events. By the time Sexual Politics was published, our actions and demonstrations, meetings, issues were...mobilizing women. By the summer of 1970, the moment this text was released, there was a great wave of feminist building.”