Kate Millett - Sexual Politics
Moving to 1969 and Kate Millett’s book.
Millett was the first to define and bring focus to the term “sexual politics”. Her work is seen in three parts: sexual politics, its historical background, and the literary reflection of such politics.
Millett’s book paved the way for the 70s’ feminism. She opposed the prevailing critics, and insisted that social and cultural contexts must be studied if literature were to be properly understood. The critics up to then had maintained that the Author was the Authority. (aren’t those two words interesting! their roots are nicely twined) Until Millett’s bold assertion, the author was not questioned or even disagreed with! Doesn’t that really make you sit up and gawp?! The liberty, which we so automatically claim now, was actually only that recently granted.
According to Millett, this conflict between the reader and the author exposes the premises of the author’s work. The prevailing image of the reader until then was of being primarily passive/feminine, since the reader was basically the unquestioning recipient of authoritarian discourse.
She says sexual dominion is the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concepts of power. She asserts “The essence of politics is power”. The ruling sex maintains and extends its power over subordinate sex. This process is pervasive throughout cultural life.
She also speaks about love, saying “Both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants”, which the male concedes out of his total power. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended up by confirming them in a narrow and often conscribing sphere of behaviour.”
Millett’s work was certainly a significant milestone in feminist literature, and did much to bridge the gap between the academic struggle and the actual fight in the trenches for women’s rights, but her work was also criticised on several counts.
Later feminists like Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose supported the Freudian theory, saying that sexual identity is not an in-born, biological essence. Freud’s psychoanalysis sees sexual identity as being culturally and socially constructed. (Does that remind you of Ru Paul? “We are all born naked. The rest is just drag”!)
Millett had rejected this premise completely, and ignored the fundamental Freudian insight that unconscious desire has an influence on conscious action.
Some of the important issues raised by Kate Millett and discussed by several later feminists were:
- her assumption that women merely have to see through the false ideology of the ruling patriarchy in order to cast it off and be free. She didn’t realise that women may internalise the standards of the oppressors, and may identify gradually with their own persecuters. (this is why it’s so confusing and difficult even now to decondition ourselves: we even think like our oppressors in so many things)
- she expected feminism to be fully conscious, morally and politically correct – it must know what it wanted. Feminism was however, a fledgling movement. What women wanted was full of contradictions and confusion, and entangled with what patriarchy wanted them to be or wanted for them.
- She pointed out male sexual violence against women as displayed in modern literature, and the male degradation of female sexuality. This was something that everyone agreed on.
- Millett rejected the romantic discourse in “Villette” (by Bronte) as being a purely conventional device. Later feminist critics (like Mary Jacobus) question such a stern rejection saying that only that allows for some scope in increasing sexuality and femininity of characters.
- In upsetting the author-text-reader hierarchy, Millett only recognised the male author! That left a huge unexplored issue as to how to treat women writers. Were readers to listen submissively to women writers, or were women to oppose even women writing? It was very confusing.
Millett ignored the female writer almost totally: by contrast, the feminist critics of the 70s and 80s focussed almost exclusively on women authors. (Which also shows how there was suddenly a profusion of women writers in that era!)