Earlier this week, the feminist writer, artist, and activist Kate Millett passed away at the age of 82. Her book Sexual Politics, published in 1970, was a landmark text of second-wave American feminism. “Can the relationship between the sexes be viewed in a political light at all?” she wrote. ”The answer depends on how one defines politics.” It is thanks to thinkers like Millett that politics in the broad sense—not “that relatively narrow and exclusive world of meetings, chairmen, and parties” but the “arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another”—remains a subject of serious inquiry. In 2012, Millett contributed the following text to a symposium on Shulamith Firestone, published in Issue 15. We share it again so that she may be remembered in her own words. —Editors
I remember Shulie. We all do. Even people who never met her — only read her. Probably they remember her best. We always put the best part of ourselves in our books. The rest is gossip and trash. Opinions, even disdain.
There was a lot to object to in her books. After all, Shulie was making the case for Marxism and for sexual freedom. Reshaped entirely, with the kibbutzim writ large; even group infant care by both sexes so the female would not be weighed down by the “barbarity” of pregnancy and child care. It was, of course, just “poppycock” and “dream vision.” It was also a huge paradigm shift, to imagine liberating human sexuality from millennia of patriarchy.
We all had notions like that once. We had all been driven by the cruelty of sexual abuse and predation, and cried out that it stop. At once. We hadn’t yet entered upon rape and genital mutilation, the enslavement of women as property. We didn’t even have a good idea of what we were up against. It seems Shulie did.
Which was odd. She was one of the youngest among us when The Dialectic of Sex hit print. Way too young for the onslaught.
I was ten years older than Shulie when Sexual Politics came into print, teaching English up at Barnard and married to Fumio, a Japanese sculptor who had been through the War and was even a feminist.
Still, I went a little crazy too, endlessly having to repeat myself. The real problem with patriarchy: it’s an entire social system of status, temperament, and role — centuries old. We regard it as “nature.” The Movement, but also Fumio, cheered me on; we all had a hilarious time laughing at the conceit of Mailer and Miller. It was outrageous fun even to say these things aloud. The wind blew hard at times: my family tried to control me with psychiatry but finally gave up. Eventually, I went off to England to make a movie.
But imagine what Shulie went through in America. She took on the whole show of capitalist society. How was it for her with the malice of the critics, the talk-show hosts, anti-Semitism, the residual mess of anticommunism? Shulie had lived inside the Movement; she had no idea yet of the “real world.” It destroyed her, overwhelmed her. Burned her alive.
We tried to get together once to help, with the American Civil Liberties Union — even just to get them to leave her in peace, to leave her alone. We lost. It’s hard to argue against family power, against doctors, against a whole society, crying this person is mad and has no rights.
Finally a text did emerge, an experimental thing pretending to be fiction. Airless Spaces. Unheralded, unadvertised. It was her account of the useless days on the ward, without any rights or voice or purpose. It is a terribly sad and harrowing account of a fine mind, wasted. It tells more than any other book what we do to “people with a few ideas.”
In other places you get lined up and shot. In America you get drowned out, locked away, made even less authentic. Shulie looks back at us, the beautiful long hair she seemed to hide behind, her owl-like glasses she used to take off when everyone talked at once and wouldn’t listen to her speak. She was beautiful and somehow inscrutable, with something fragile and youthful about her — a mystery. I remember her from so many meetings; then she disappeared.
Other feminists dominated the scene; other voices, other books, other fads and figures; secondary sources. The New York Times predicted feminism’s death very solemnly. Twice already. So far.
Strange how much of it has come true without our even noticing it. How maliciously it has been applied: babies are purchased by blue-eyed Americans at a price in order to avoid the “trouble” of pregnancy; male medicine rules the world, charging more and more for its services. If you’re rich, you can buy any organ. Not what Shulie had in mind at all.
Maybe we could reconsider how we have turned her utopian vision into our own nightmare, as we converted her bright promise at 25 into the voices in her head that made her life hideous.
I recently read of a young man who kept “beating up his refrigerator,” pummeling it with cobblestones, calling it “St. Frigid.” A silly thing to do. Of course, he’s an artist and now famous. Good thing Shulie never tried that; she’d have been carted off in a moment. Consider what a refrigerator means to a man versus what it means to a woman. Women were not rolling much steel in Shulie’s time; few of us had even heard of Kelvin or had any notion of how the damn thing ran.
Shulie went on writing and painting. The world continued to call her crazy. All authorities agreed: she was a “paranoid schizophrenic.” By that time she was mostly on “meds” and resigned to her fate; silenced effectively. In the enormous despair of your last days, Shulie, what of that solitude? You wrote other things: what were they? Whom, what, did you choose to paint? What were your paintings like? What will happen to your work?