Learning from ‘Sexual Politics’ after losing Kate Millett

As a feminist (read: human being), I was saddened to learn last night of the death of Kate Millett. There is still so much we can — and must — learn from her.

It is 2017, but ‘the patriarchy’ continues to represent, metonymically, a societal system in which men enjoy power. Just as descent continues to follow the male line, so, too, do males continue to hold The Power, and to the exclusion and detriment of Woman. In Sexual Politics (1970), Millett declared of the patriarchy,

So perfect is its system of socialization, so complete the general assent to its values, so long and so universally has it prevailed in human society,” that it “scarcely seems to require violent implementation.”

But why did the patriarchy manage to survive? How could this happen on our watch? Once again, we need to take a page out of Kate Millett’s book.

Despite our supposed leaps and bounds vis-à-vis sexual equality over the last half-century, the patriarchy has endured with seemingly no concerted efforts dedicated to its maintenance. In this patriarchal society (emphasis on ‘patriarchal’), women learn from day one to covet maleness, especially in comparison to femaleness — in terms both of sex and of gender. Millett observed,

Patriarchal circumstances and beliefs seem to have the effect of poisoning the female’s own sense of physical self until it often truly becomes the burden it is said to be.” Thus, “The female is continually obliged to seek survival or advancement through the approval of males as those who hold power.”

The upshot, unfortunately, is divisive competitiveness, which is one of the most powerful tools in the patriarchy’s arsenal.

Not only is divisiveness an instrument of the patriarchy, but also, in fact, patriarchy is actually to blame for that selfsame tendency of mainstream feminism toward divisiveness. We have all been conditioned to believe that, as women, we are ill equipped to handle complexities; after all, Millett professes,

A large factor in their subordinate position is the fairly systematic ignorance patriarchy imposes upon women.”

That being the case, the Third Wave’s unprecedented awareness of and attention to the multivalent nature of the feminist movement has manifested in schismatic individualism. For example, one of the principal issues for cisfemale feminists who have sex with men is ongoing access to safe, affordable birth control; however, self-identified lesbians insist that this has no relevance to them; obviously, this is technically correct. Like so, we operate under the notion that it would simply be impossible for lesbians to fight for reproductive justice for straight women while still fighting for equality for themselves, let alone that straight women should advocate for gay women’s equality, specifically, despite it offering no direct benefit to them. On a similar but broader scale, there is a well documented generational disconnect between young and old feminists, as well.

Ignorance, whether imagined or real, is not the only reason that the fight to overthrow the patriarchy has been so prolonged. Even the most awakened, card-carrying feminists have not yet healed from the pernicious effects of patriarchal upbringing entirely. Some of us do it unconsciously, with good intentions; others do it proudly, invoking the singularity of lived experience and situated knowledge. The salient point is, we are doing it: continuing to live according to the dictate of ‘every man for himself.’ The patriarchy has us right where it wants us. Whether or not we care to admit it, this is still very much a man’s, man’s, man’s world; it is so because we have allowed it to be.

Referring to society at the time, Millett observed,

Just as every minority member must either apologize for the excesses of a fellow or condemn him with a strident enthusiasm, women are characteristically harsh, ruthless and frightened in their censure of aberration among their numbers.”

This continues to be painfully accurate. Amid the divisiveness, feminists have managed to unite on one front; irrespective of race, sexuality, or class, there already is a shared tendency among many feminist activists to obstruct women with disabilities from joining their ranks.

An oft-invoked criticism of Sexual Politics is that it lacks sufficient acknowledgment of the genuine differences in the typical lived experience of members of individual communities on the grounds of class and especially race. Accordingly, Millett herself is accused of failing to take into account the historicity and the very existence of different groups of feminist activists belonging to each respective community, which comprised the larger so-called women’s movement at the time and still do today. For example, black feminism, aka womanism, has existed for as long as mainstream (read: white) feminism, yet always had a distinct political agenda; while the suffragists were fighting for their right to vote, black women were living in a world in which even their husbands were still waiting for enfranchisement. However, one need only sit down and carefully read the second chapter of Sexual Politics to realize that Millett had no intention of contributing to the erasure of the Black-feminist experience, or of downplaying its distinctness from her white feminism. Rather, she was making the case that in scope and endurance, sexism superseded racism: When Millett wrote her doctoral-thesis-cum-magnum opus, in the late-1960s, she noted,

The priorities of maintaining male supremacy might outweigh even those of white supremacy; sexism may be more endemic … than racism.”

Is this true now, as we approach the end of the second decade of the new millennium? Well, the United States had its first black, male president eight years before the majority of the country voted for a white, female one; moreover, despite winning the popular vote, she was still beat to the Oval Office by an uber-conservative, white man. Racism and sexism both still exist, but it would appear that sexism is more comprehensive, more pervasive, and yet more insidious.

In the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that aired on Hulu earlier this year, people of different ethnicities comprised the cast, yet there was no discussion of race, and racism was never discernible. All women were equally enslaved by the patriarchy — which, it bears mentioning, an exclusively white-male government facilitated and preserved.

Almost 50 years after the original publication of Sexual Politics, Millett reminds us that we are more alike than we are different, and so we must not allow ourselves to succumb to self-doubt or divisiveness. We all want, and need, the same thing: an end to the patriarchy. That day will only come when we have learned to trust ourselves and realize that we can, and should, fight for the rights of our sisters while still advocating for our own.