The writer, artist, and activist Kate Millett died on
Wednesday, September 6th, in Paris. She would have turned eighty-three
this week. Millett is best known for the 1970 book “Sexual Politics,” a classic of second-wave feminism, which examined the “political aspect”
of sex. In it, Millett uncovers the violent misogyny in novels by some
of the most acclaimed champions of sexual freedom—Henry Miller, Norman
Mailer—and celebrates, by way of contrast, the work of the queer writer
For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working on a book about
Betty Friedan, the so-called mother of second-wave feminism, and I have
been interviewing those who knew her. “Sexual Politics” has been
described as the daughter of Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which
was published in 1963. But Millett’s study differs starkly from
Friedan’s polemic, which exposes the sexism of sociology, education, and
advertising before ending on a triumphant, self-actualizing note. During
their lives, Millett and Friedan came to represent two clashing
ideologies, duelling approaches to a movement that is still a work in
For a while, I gave up trying to reach Millett—I figured that, like a
lot of second-wave feminists, she would be reluctant to talk about
Friedan, because she probably didn’t have anything nice to say. (Many of
those who did agree to be interviewed started the conversation by saying
that they didn’t want to speak ill of the dead.) Then, in August, I
spoke with Eleanor Pam, the president of the Veteran Feminists of
America, an organization composed of second-wave-feminist alumni, and a
close friend of Millett’s. I asked her to put in a good word for me.
Shortly after that, I heard from Sophie Keir, Millett’s wife, and we set
up the interview for September 1st, because the women were leaving for
Paris the following day.
Millett’s apartment was on the fifth floor of a low-rise building near
Cooper Union. The large, light-filled front room was full of books and
art. Keir led me down a hall to the back room, where Millett was sitting
at a wooden farmer’s table. She had a kind, open smile. A walker stood
next to her chair, and a bandage was taped over part of her forehead. She
had printed out the list of questions that I had e-mailed Keir, and she
fingered the piece of paper from time to time, as if she wanted to make
sure that she answered everything.
Millett told me that she remembered reading “The Feminine Mystique”
alongside Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” when she was at St.
Hilda’s College, Oxford. This couldn’t be right, though: the book wasn’t
published until after she’d left Oxford and moved to the Lower East
Side. She had certainly read it, in any case, by the time she joined
Friedan’s activist group, the National Organization for Women, in 1967,
a year after it was founded. In 1968, she wrote a pamphlet for NOW’s
education committee called “Token Learning: A Study of Women’s Higher
Education in America,” which echoes Friedan’s argument in “The Feminine
Mystique” that women who attend the Seven Sisters schools are training
for the Mrs. degree.
Millett spoke sentimentally of that time. “We marched day after day,”
she said. She reminded me that in 1968, when she entered the Ph.D.
program at Columbia, no one was reading feminist books. “I was the only
one who read them,” she said.
Keir had left us a pitcher of water, and we drank several glasses as we
talked. In addition to working with NOW, Millett became involved with
more radical organizations that championed gay liberation. In 1969,
Friedan referred to lesbians in NOW who wanted to come out of the closet
as “the lavender menace.” The following May Day, at the Second Congress
to Unite Women, another writer and activist, Rita Mae Brown,
choreographed something called the “lavender-menace zap.” The zappers
cut the lights, then donned T-shirts with the phrase “lavender menace”
on them, and formed a line on the stage. When the lights came up, the
zappers, fists raised, began a conversation about gay women. Friedan
wasn’t in attendance; Millett, who was, urged those there to listen to
“Sexual Politics” was published in the summer of 1970, and it was an
immediate hit. In August, Millett and Friedan both walked in the Women’s
Strike for Equality, in New York, which some people say attracted as
many as fifty thousand people. Both spoke at the rally at Bryant Park.
Millett famously announced, “We’re a movement now.” I wondered whether she remembered Friedan’s speech.
“Wow, hot dog,” Millett said, a phrase she used several times during the
interview, seemingly surprised at the part she played in world-changing
events. “It was huge. You couldn’t see the end of it.” Friedan, she
said, “had a raspy voice. She wanted us to have a little bit of
togetherness. She was an amazing speaker.”
That November, Millett spoke at a forum at Columbia. A woman in the
audience who belonged to a group called the radicalesbians asked her why
she didn’t say she was a lesbian. Two weeks later, Time, which had
celebrated “Sexual Politics” as groundbreaking, outed Millett as
“bisexual,” suggesting that her sexual identity gave credence to Friedan
and others who worried that such alternative self-figurings would
fragment the movement. A rally was soon held in support of Millett.
There, Friedan was asked to wear a lavender armband as a show of
solidarity. In what remains an excruciating memory for many activists,
Friedan either dropped the armband or stomped on it, depending on whose
account you believe.
What did Millett think of this theatrical gesture now?
“You have to be loud and outspoken,” Millett began, in reply. Friedan,
she said, “hated the gay kids. They were messing up her program. We were
naughty little kids. She wanted us to behave properly. We didn’t want to
behave. She was ordering everyone around at all the demonstrations, and
she took off the armband and threw it onto the ground.” She added, “I
felt sorry for her.”
When I asked Millett why there was so much fighting in the women’s
movement in the sixties, she said that it was a “popularity contest.”
But she wanted to talk about the general aims of the movement, and how
much remained to be done. The point was “to get someplace,” she said.
“The point was for the impossible. The dream of getting along with
mother, the dream of getting along with daughter.” She continued, “It
was hard to be a feminist. We were told off by guys, ‘Don’t be a
feminist.’ That was what a lot of it was about in those days.”
Then she added, about Friedan, “She was such a fighter. She would fight
Throughout the interview, it struck me how generous Millett was to
Friedan. I expected there to be rancor, but there was none. Millett noted
that although she had the support of her family, “Betty did not.” Even
after saying that Friedan “wouldn’t go anywhere she wasn’t paid,”
she added, “She did so much. You’d be surprised.” And Friedan, Millett
insisted, “was never just being for herself. She was for the women’s
cause. We were split,” she continued, but still, Friedan “did a good
job.” And then: “I wish I had been more polite to her.”
As I gathered my things and got up to leave, Millett said that she was
looking forward to her upcoming trip to Paris, where she was scheduled
to talk to the French government about her 1971 film, “Three Lives,” in
which three women talk candidly about their experiences.
A large, thick-haired cat jumped on the table. It purred loudly. “People
have been fighting over who will get to take care of her while we’re
gone,” Millett told me. And she smiled.