Kate Millett, Pioneering Feminist Author, Has Died at 82

Her book ‘Sexual Politics’ was a defining text of second-wave feminism

Katherine "Kate" Murray Millett in Milan, Italy, in 1975. Dino Fracchia / Alamy Stock Photo

Katherine "Kate" Millett, the artist, activist and author who penned one of the seminal texts of the second-wave feminist movement, has died at the age of 82.

According to Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times, Millett suffered a cardiac arrest while vacationing in Paris with her spouse, the photojournalist Sophie Keir. They visited the city annually to celebrate their birthdays.

Born September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Millett began her academic career at the University of Minnesota. She went on to study at Oxford, and then Columbia University. In 1970, Doubleday and Co. published Sexual Politics, the doctoral dissertation Millett wrote at Columbia. She was working as a relatively unknown sculptor at the time, but her book proved a surprise hit. Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards reports that Sexual Politics sold 80,000 copies in its first year alone. 

The book explores the subjugation of women in literature and art, using works by Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet to illustrate its central argument: that the relationship between men and women is political, and as such is defined by the control of one group over another.

“Kate initiated the analysis that the sexualisation of power is the basis of oppression,” feminist scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon writes in the foreword to a 2016 edition of Sexual Politics. “Social roles, gender-based temperaments, and sexual scripts produce and reproduce the sexual domination of men over women and other men.”

At the time of the book’s publication, this theory was radical, and Sexual Politics became a manifesto of the so-called “second-wave” feminist movement. In a 1970 New York Times profile, journalist Frank J. Prial proclaimed Millett as “something of a high priestess of the current feminist wave.” He also opined that feminism was “a movement long on gimmickry but short on philosophy until Miss Millett appeared on the scene.”

But Millett had an uneasy relationship with her newfound fame, an internal tussle she described in her 1974 memoir, Flying. “Soon [fame] grew tedious, an indignity,” she wrote, according to Hillel Italie and Angela Charlton of the Associated Press.

Throughout her career, Millett penned a number of other autobiographical works. Sita (1977) explores her love for another woman. The Loony Bin Trip (1990) describes her struggles with manic depression. Mother Millett (2001) recounts the author’s relationship with her aging mother.

According to Claire Armitstead of the Guardian, in 1978, Millett used the proceeds from her early works to purchase a 10-acre farm in New York state. There, she founded a colony for women artists, which she financed by selling Christmas trees. The following year, Millett traveled with Keir to the first International Women’s Day celebration in Iran, but they were arrested and expelled from the country. The couple later established a support group that helped obtain political asylum for Iranian women fleeing the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 2012, Millett was presented with the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts. In 2013, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and during her acceptance speech, she recalled the thrilling years of her early activism.

“The happiness of those times, the joy of participation, the excitement of being part of my own time, of living on the edge, of being so close to events you can almost intuit them,” she said, according to Italie and Charlton of the AP. “Then, in a moment of public recognition, the face of the individual becomes a woman’s face.”

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