Conversations with Kate Millett

Discussing feminism, art, Spanish, and Harvard.

Interview by WILLIAM SIMMONS

Kate Millett, the author of Sexual Politics, graciously agreed to speak to me by phone from her farm in Poughkeepsie. Considered by many to be one of the most important figures of the Second Wave Feminism movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Millett changed the way people thought about patriarchy and the arts. Sexual Politics, a foundation of feminist art criticism, began originally as Ms. Millett’s Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University. Beginning with the historical construction of the patriarchy as we know it today, Ms. Millett goes on to indentify the traces of patriarchal and heteronormative thinking in literature. When her book hit the shelves in 1970, it drew both praise and controversy. For instance, Norman Mailer, whose work Ms. Millett criticizes for its sexual violence and hyper-masculinity, wrote a rebuttal to Sexual Politics entitled The Prisoner of Sex. In any case, Sexual Politics opened the eyes of a nation to the discriminatory structures that organize society, a phenomenon that is not relegated to literature. Indeed, Ms. Millett exposes an entire cultural sensibility that subjugates women through language and imagery. By utilizing the tools of the discipline she hopes to revise, Ms. Millett has created an effective study of the patriarchy’s nefarious influence. Soon after the publishing of Sexual Politics, she appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Additionally, Ms. Millett works tirelessly in support of LGBTQ issues, even in the face of opposition from prominent members of the women’s liberation movement. She famously confronted Betty Friedan about the reluctance to include gay liberation in the rhetoric of Second Wave Feminism. In doing so, she played an integral role in building a more inclusive movement that draws from a multitude of voices.

Moreover, Ms. Millett’s activism has been manifest in her dedication to the visual arts. Through art, Ms. Millett has critiqued the status quo, most notably with her controversial sculpture, “The American Dream Goes to Pot,” a piece that features a toilet containing an American flag.

In an effort to help others express themselves through the arts, Ms. Millett runs an artist colony on her farm. Women from all over the world are invited to spend a summer with Ms. Millett and hone their skills alongside other passionate artists.

She continues to write prolifically, and has authored many celebrated works, such as Sita, Flying, Mother Millett, The Prostitution Papers, and A.D.: A Memoir.

 

Feminism and Gender Activism at Harvard

 

WS: So, I’m going to go ahead and start with a couple questions that pertain specifically to Harvard and higher education. My first one is, what role do Harvard and other universities play in keeping what you fought for alive?

KM: Well, what role do they play? Well, it’s a very exclusive club, Harvard.

WS: Do you believe that Harvard students can take, take a good role in social justice issues, for instance?

KM: Sure they can, but do they?

WS: [Laughter] Well, that’s a, that’s a good question. We have a lot of active student groups on campus, but you’re right, universities like Harvard are exclusive.

KM: Any role in women’s rights at all?

WS: Well, um, [laughter] I don’t know exactly. A friend of mine —

KM: Kind of important, women’s rights. You know, women are 53% of the population. We should have some rights.

WS: You’re…correct. I don’t, I don’t know exactly. I know that we have a lot of –

KM: What about gay rights?

WS: I know that we have a lot of female fraternal organizations, and our, our –

KM: I said, do you have gay rights at Harvard?

WS: Well, our Queer Students Association is very active on campus, and we actually just had a, um –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: I’m sorry?

KM: For men, not for women.

WS: [Laughter] I don’t, I, the last I heard their board is fairly mixed in terms of sexual orientations and genders. But –

KM: That’s nice.

WS: Well, um, let me move –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: I’m sorry?

KM: Radcliffe?

WS: Um, well, the Institute still has the fellows every year who do work in women’s –

KM: They do? They still have fellows? That’s very interesting.

WS: And they, and they still focus on women’s issues and issues of sexuality. And there are a lot of really interesting ones this term, like Whitney Chadwick, who wrote Women, Art, and Society. I talked to her a little bit. She’s a very great woman, who is doing a lot of wonderful work. Why don’t – let me ask you this question: Do you, do you see the same patriarchal discourse in academia that you –

KM: Sure. Of course. The patriarchy, everything revolves around the rights of the father.

WS: And, are you, are you still teaching?

KM: Every time I can.

WS: Great, great. So do you see, you see higher education as playing what role in feminism today?

KM: No role at all.

WS: No role at all? And what do you think could change that, especially at Harvard?

KM: Well, how many years have you had Republican rule?

WS: Well, [laughter] a lot of people would say that we’ve been changing over the years, especially with our new president.

KM: Who’s your new president?

WS: Drew Gilpin Faust.

KM: Who?

WS: Drew, Drew Faust? She’s a historian who did a lot of work on the civil war. And she’s been doing a lot of work to expand the arts on campus.

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: I’m sorry?

KM: Remember your old president?

WS: [Laughter] Larry Summers?

KM: He’s an idiot, wherever he’s gone.

WS: [Laughter] A lot of people on campus would, would agree heartily! He’s actually, he’s back, and he’s teaching currently at the Kennedy School.

KM: The Kennedy School. That’s a good enough job for him, I guess.

 

Women in the Arts

 

WS: [Laughter] So why don’t we move on to some questions about the arts, because that’s really the focus of what I want to talk to you about today, considering that Sexual Politics was among the first, if not the first, piece of feminist literary criticism.

KM: Well, Simone de Beauvoir wrote the first piece. Simone de Beauvoir, remember her?

WS: What was that called?

KM: The Second Sex, it was called.

WS: Oh! [Laughter] That’s right, that’s right. But in either case, what you did was quite extraordinary, in literature, and more generally, the arts. So, the first question that I want to ask you is: Is there still a reflection of this patriarchy that you unearthed in the arts?

KM: Of course there’s still a reflection.

WS: Where do you see it most manifest –

KM: At the land-grant colleges, you see, which were formed by Abraham Lincoln. Like the University of Minnesota, where I went to school.

WS: Can you expand on that a bit?

KM: I studied a lot of French. Because in the Mississippi Valley, we value French.

WS: Right, right.

KM: It’s the language of diplomacy now. I wonder what is the language of diplomacy, probably Spanish.

WS: And did you encounter patriarchy in the arts while you were there?

KM: Do you read Spanish?

WS: Do I read Spanish?

KM: Yeah.

WS: Um, not well [laughter]. But I, I have taken a lot of Spanish. But I wouldn’t call myself good at it.

KM: That’s too bad.

WS: Maybe I’ll, maybe I’ll take some more courses. I’ve been thinking of trying to learn French, since I do art history. I thought it would be a good thing to try.

KM: Well, you have to know German too for art history.

WS: That’s very true [laughter]. I’m a little too scared, though. Let me see –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: I’m sorry?

KM: Take a catch-up class. In Spanish, German, and French. Then you’d be all ready to be an art historian.

WS: [Laughter] That’s a great idea! Maybe I’ll, maybe I’ll try that. And going off –

KM: What are you studying now, sir?

WS: I, right now I’m working on modern and contemporary art, and this term, I’m focusing on, I’m focusing on photography a lot this term. I’m going to do my final projects, I’m very interested in the intersection between gender issues and photography, especially in the 1970s with the rise of Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, and all those figures.

KM: That’s a good idea. That’s what we do over here (at Millett farm).

WS: Yeah, I think there are a lot of really wonderful, a lot of really wonderful things that can be garnered from the arts when looked at through the lenses of sexuality or gender, and that’s what I’m very interested in this term. So, going off of my previous question, how can art break down structures such as patriarchy or heteronormativity?

KM: Well, Cindy Sherman’s a good example.

WS: Yeah, she’s done a lot of great things. Although people might say that her art has become a lot more commercial of late.

KM: Of course it has. That’s what happens when you succeed.

WS: [Laughter] Yeah. She’s done some fantastic things. I really like Laurie Simmons too, with all her domestic scenes. I think they’re, they’re very interesting. So, what, what – how can the arts be utilized in an effort to form a collective identity or to empower the disenfranchised?

KM: We can subvert. We can subvert the enfranchised by being the disenfranchised. If you understand that, you understand everything. But you’re so enfranchised by Harvard, you don’t even understand [Speaks softly].

WS: Well, um, I think that Harvard, I think Harvard only changes you if you let it. And I, I didn’t come from a privileged background, so I like to, I like to think of myself as someone that Harvard didn’t change, so to speak. [Laughter]  So I, I, that’s very interesting. So -

KM: You’re a scholarship man?

WS: [Laughter] Quite a bit! Quite a bit! I am. Yes, I am. And I’m, I’m working to support myself. And…yeah. [Laughter] I am by no means one of those Harvard students.

KM: Dead white men, you mean?

WS: [Laughter] And I believe, I believe there’s a lot of room for Harvard students to really utilize the arts to make a difference in social justice –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: What was that?

KM: You have any vacations from Harvard?

WS: I go for Christmas. [Laughter] And the summer, of course.

KM: How about the summer?

WS: Well, this past summer, I’m only a sophomore. So this past summer, I was in New York City doing curriculum development for the Points of Light Institute, and so I did a lot of work in schools in the Bronx with our curriculum, and some of the things that I wrote were published, so it was pretty exciting.

KM: Got any time to come up to Poughkeepsie? By the train, it’s about an hour and a half.

WS: Oh! Um, yeah. [Laughter] That would be wonderful.

KM: I can show you pictures of some sculptures that I’ve made.

WS: That would be, that would be really fantastic. I secretly, I secretly wanted to see your farm because I grew up on a farm. And I saw some of the pictures of it once your website, and it looks gorgeous [Laughter].

KM: Well, I’ll be home all next summer. Be sure to call before you come.

WS: Oh, well, thank you so much! That is, that is fantastic! I would absolutely love to do that. I would absolutely love to do that. I’ve heard such great things about the work that you’ve been doing there, and the artists that you’ve been helping. So, that’s really quite amazing. Now, how do you think your artists’ colony functions in a feminist mindset? How, how are the arts empowering the women that you work with?

KM: Quite a lot. But we could use a few boys around here!

WS: [Laughter] Do, do women come out changed, and invigorated and –

KM: They sure do.

 

Ms. Millet’s Work

 

WS: That’s wonderful. That’s really wonderful. Um, so why don’t I move on to my next question? What drove you to take on the subjugation of women in the arts, especially literature?

KM: Well, I write a book every couple of years, you know. Sometimes I write a book that takes 14 years to discover. It’s called The Politics of Cruelty. Have you ever heard of it?

WS: Yes, yes I have.

KM: Have you read it?

WS: I, I haven’t read it yet. But I’d like to. It’s on my list. So what was that process like, of discovering the way women are treated in literature and deciding that it was time to bring it to light?

KM: Well, why don’t you read my book, The Politics of Cruelty? Have you got an old copy of Sexual Politics lying around?

WS: Yes! Yes, I do, right here. [Laughter]

KM: How much did you pay for it?

WS: How much did I pay for it? I think I got it, I think I got it at Amazon for twelve dollars-ish.

KM: Oh, my God. I’d hold onto it.

WS: [Laughter] Oh, I definitely will! It’s all covered in highlights and earmarks and all that.

KM: Good.

WS: Um, let’s see. So, how does your artistic –

KM: Have you ever read Mother Millett?

WS: I, I didn’t.

KM: That’s a good book about how to save an old lady.

WS: Now that’s about, that’s about your mother, correct?

KM: Mhm.

WS: I, um –

KM: We called her General Motors. GM, for fun.

WS: [Laughter] Where did that nickname come from?

KM: She’s say, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the rest of the country!” And we always quoted that when we addressed her. GM for Grandmother, but actually for General Motors.

WS: [Laughter] That’s wonderful. Now, that makes me think, what was the, how did utilizing, how did utilizing the arts through writing, what was that – what was that like?

KM: She encouraged me very much to finish the book I’d been paid for. Which was The Politics of Cruelty. I tried to finish it while she was alive. I didn’t finish it when she was alive. But I ran home and wrote about my Aunt Dorothy. Which was my happy life in St. Paul, Minnesota.

WS: And –

KM: I called it A.D. – A Memoir. Have you read that yet?

WS: I, I – [Laughter]. All of your books are on my list! I looked through Sita and I looked through Flying. Both of which look incredible.

KM: Flying is about the recovery of a child. From, he had water in his head. So we patterned him. With everyone we’d find who was gay, or bisexual, or something, or – other. You have to pattern a child. Before it can walk, he has to crawl. Got that idea? So we patterned him day and night. I got everyone in England to pattern this kid. His father had given up on him. His mother knew we were patterning him. She just let us pattern him. And finally he could walk. He could crawl, even. And then he could walk. And then he confronted his father. His father wouldn’t have anything to do with him, so he died.

WS: Hm. And, and, how, how –

KM: By the way, he had divorced his mother by that time.

WS: Oh. And, how –

KM: She found a lot of work in America. She was also American, even though she was Irish. She was what’s known as an Irish-American. I am too.

WS: Oh, you are? I didn’t know that.

KM: My name sounds French, doesn’t it?

WS: Mhm. [Laughter]

KM: Well, we were the Normans.

WS: Hm, hm, do you see that, does that Irish-American identity turn up in your expressions of art?

KM: All the time.

WS: How so?

KM: I write poetry when I’m in Ireland.

WS: Oh, did you?

KM: All the time.

WS: Oh, did you publish any of that poetry?

KM: No.

WS: Oh. And what, how does expressing yourself through the arts, what does that mean to you?

KM: Everything. Except I don’t sing.

WS: [Laughter]

KM: At least not in public.

WS: Me neither, me neither. [Laughter] So, um, let me -

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: What was that?

KM: Do you have a bathtub, or a shower?

WS: Do I have a bathtub? [Laughter]

KM: Mhm.

WS: Oh, yeah. I sing in the shower, all the time. [Laughter] When my roommate’s not home. So, let me ask you this next question: Are there any artists today, or were there, during the time of second wave feminism, who inspired your activism?

KM: Inspired my what?

WS: Your activism.

KM: Oh, Ono Yoko did.

WS: Who?

KM: Ono Yoko.

WS: Oh! Wonderful.

KM: Yoko Ono, or however you want to say it.

WS: Did you, did you know her personally?

KM: Yeah.

WS: That’s very interesting.

KM: I knew John Lennon personally too.

WS: Wow! Tell me, tell me more about that. [Laughter]

KM: That was a time when you could make money off records.

WS: That’s true, that’s true. Wow, that’s so interesting that you knew them. What were, what were they like?

KM: Quite a couple!

WS: [Laughter] Wow!

KM: He was shot by a fan when he came home. Shot in the back by a fan.

WS: And how about artists today? Are there any who, who really speak to you?

KM: Everybody speaks to me, in music at least.

WS: And, what kind of music do you listen to?

KM: Every kind there is, including classical.

WS: Great, great.

KM: Folk, rock, and all the rest of it.

WS: Are there, are there any visual artists that you particularly like?

KM: I love Calder. And Joseph Cornell. Kandinsky.

WS: Oh, Kandinsky. Very interesting. Kandinsky is one of my favorites too. I’m doing some work on him this term because I’m in a class about the emergence of the avant-garde in the early 20th century. So, we’re learning a lot about him. So, let me see, here’s my final question on the arts specifically: What makes something a feminist work of art? And does a work by a woman inherently make it a feminist piece of art?

KM: Well, have you every heard of the dipping of the American flag in the toilet?

WS: Yes, yes I have heard of that.

KM: That got everyone excited, including Newt Gingrich. He was gonna destroy me, he said.

WS: Oh. [Laughter] When, when was that?

KM: Oh, a long time ago.

WS: A long time ago?

KM: Part of the protests against the war in Vietnam.

WS: That’s right, that’s right. So, so, how is feminism, specifically, manifest in the arts, in your view?

KM: In what?

WS: In the arts.

KM: Well, we aren’t very representational, you know. Ever heard of the Gorilla Girls?

WS: Yes, yes. I, I saw one of their posters in the MoMA, I think, this summer.

KM: They’ve got quite collection there. You should look at the books in the MoMA. They’ve got a big display of books in the MoMA.

WS: So, so by representation, do you mean as opposed to abstraction? Or do you mean representational, as in there aren’t many women artists represented in major galleries?

KM: Well, that’s one point.

WS: Do you still see that problem?

KM: Oh, yeah.

WS: How do you think women artists can change that?

KM: Well we keep trying, but with a Republican government every time we turn around, we can’t make much progress.

WS: Right, are there any –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: What was that?

KM: We’re representative all over the world, but not in America.

WS: And where do you see that –

KM: Now it’s just a bar in the road.

WS: Interesting.

KM: Mhm.

WS: And where do you see that problem most manifest in American society?

KM: From the top on down.

 

The State of Feminism in America

 

WS: Now, now going off of this discussion, I just have a few questions about Second Wave Feminism and the status of feminism. So I guess my first question is: Do you, you were such a prominent figure throughout this time period and today, and um, I’m wondering, do you believe that Second Wave Feminism, or Third Wave Feminism, if you believe there is or was one, do you believe that those movements have succeeded, or, at least in some way, made a difference?

KM:  Well, we make progress slowly. We’ve got to shift the whole society’s lights and brights and beacons another way. We could end war in a minute. Ono Yoko spent millions preventing war. The war is over if you want it to be, and all that stuff.

WS: So, looking back –

KM: [Speaks softly] was part of that movement.

WS: Who?

KM: Joan Baez.

WS: The musician, right?

KM: Mhm. Singer.

WS: My parents used to make me watch those folk music specials on PBS [Laughter]. So, I –

KM: What’s wrong with that?

WS: [Laughter] When I was a kid, I would always complain, but looking back, you know, the music back then was, quite a bit more, quite a bit better, I’d say.

KM: Mhm. Joan, leading the cry, was quite a bit better. But Bob Dylan had his moment of fame, you know? Do you like Bob Dylan?

WS: I do!

KM: He’s from the university I went to – The University of Minnesota. He’s the one who taught them to sing on key!

WS: Wow, wow that’s interesting. I’ve been into Peter, Paul and Mary. [Laughter]

KM: Pardon me?

WS: I’ve been really into Peter, Paul and Mary lately.

KM: Oh! Peter, Paul, and Mary. They were a good group.

WS: Did you know them too? [Laughter]

KM: No. [Laughter]

WS: They were, they were pretty fantastic. I don’t think that music really has the same social relevance and engagement anymore that there used to be.

KM: You don’t think so? Go out and listen to something.

WS: Hm, um –

KM: Joan Baez is still singing, you know.

WS: Is she? I, I didn’t know that. I’ll check out some of her stuff.

KM: Yeah! She sings about Bob Dylan.

WS: Really?

KM: And Jane Fonda.

WS: Hm. So looking back, where do you think the successes and failures of Second Wave Feminism were?

KM: If you’re an actress or a singer, they’re pretty good. If you’re a sculptor or a drawer, they’re pretty bad.

WS: What do you mean by that?

KM: We’re underrepresented in these mediums. We’re underrepresented everywhere in the fine arts.

WS: Right, right, right.

KM: But if you’re an actress or a singer, you’ve got a long life ahead of you.

 

LGBTQ Rights

 

WS: That’s, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way. And, do you have time for maybe two, two more questions?

KM: Sure.

WS: How do you think the arts have factored into the growth of the gay rights movement?

KM: [Laughter] Pretty good, I think.

WS: And, what would you say, there’s been a lot of talk about the status of LGBTQ youth in America. What, what would you say to that problem?

KM: Pardon me?

WS: What would you say to the, the growing realization that LGBTQ youth face a difficult way forward in America? There’s been a lot of discussion about it lately.

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: I’m sorry? I can’t quite hear you.

KM: Wait until the Supreme Court decides about it.

WS: And what do you think it will take for that to happen?

KM: [Laughter] Someone ought to retire. Get Clarence Thomas out of here. What I can’t stand about him – he should retire.

WS: [Laughter] Alrighty, so let me, going off of that, I read in Flying about how you talked to Betty Friedan about incorporating Gay Liberation into the grander feminist narrative.

KM: Finally, she gave in.

WS: And what gave you the courage to do that? What, what inspired you to take that step?

KM: [Laughter] Well, when everyone else gave in, she gave in!

WS: That was a very interesting passage. It was, uh –

KM: [Speaks softly]

WS: And, so, I think, oh, we’re almost out of time. Let me ask you my final question, which is just something that I’ve been wondering about personally. I’m in Postwar Feminist Thought with Professor Alice Jardine, which I think I told you, and we’re reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French.

KM: Oh, that’s a good book.

WS: [Laughter] It was not exactly, um, uplifting.

KM: Oh, really? Too bad.

WS: Certainly a good book. So what I’m wondering is –

KM: Marilyn French [Speaks softly]. Now she’s dead.

WS: What I’m wondering.

KM: But I have to go to New York now.

WS: OK, OK, well thank you so much for talking to me. I’ll send you the article as soon as it’s published.

KM: Good.

WS: Thank you very much, and have a wonderful trip.

KM: You too.

WS: Alrighty, goodbye.

KM: Goodbye until next year.

Ms. Millett’s call to action is clear. No tradition is safe from the influence of patriarchy; even the arts face a difficult way forward. This being the case, it is the responsibility of Harvard students to utilize their talents to open up their disciplines to analysis and revision. In the arts specifically, we must challenge structures of power with innovative, controversial, personal, and fearless discussion. We must follow Ms. Millett’s example and use the arts and artistic discourse as tools for liberation. It is clear that the arts have immense power, and, in this time of uncertainty, it is imperative that we amplify the cry for justice, equality, and compassion with the help of our creativity.

Will Simmons ’14 (wsimmons@college) appreciates Ms. Millett’s time and hopes her example will inspire our generation of feminist artists, and the generations after that.