Millett, Katherine Murray

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Millett, Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray Millett is a writer and sculptor who is best known for her groundbreaking work of feminist literary criticism, Sexual Politics (1969). Although she abandoned criticism after writing that book, turning to works of fiction and autobiography, Sexual Politics became a starting point for scholars working in Feminist Jurisprudence.

Millett was born on September 14, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was educated at the University of Minnesota, Oxford University, and Columbia University. As a graduate student and part-time instructor in English at Columbia during the 1960s, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Millett soon focused her attention on sexual discrimination against women. Her dissertation shifted from traditional literary criticism to an analysis of the sexual subordination of women in the works of novelists D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer. She was granted a Ph.D. degree in 1970, on the heels of the publication of Sexual Politics, a revised version of her dissertation.

The book became a national best-seller overnight, attracting both strong support and vitriolic opposition. Millett argued that in the twentieth century, social and technological change had helped women in the United States to begin redefining gender roles. In the face of change, the male-dominated society had sought to preserve a patriarchal social structure and the patriarchal family through an ideology of sexual domination and violence. This ideology was most fully expressed in novels written by men and acclaimed by male intellectuals and critics.

Millett charged D.H. Lawrence with glorifying masculinity, Henry Miller with exalting the sexual degradation of women, and Norman Mailer with promoting a cult of virility. She believed that writers served as a mirror on U.S. culture and helped to explain why women have been sexually subordinated. Sexual subordination, in Millett's view, is tied to the economic and political subordination of women.

Sexual Politics was published before the field of feminist Jurisprudence had been started. Millett's analysis of sexual subordination in literature inspired feminist legal scholars to examine U.S. law for patriarchal influences. In their attacks on Pornography, law professor catharine a. mackinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin derived many of their ideas from Millett's work.

After writing Sexual Politics Millett wrote Flying, an autobiography (1974), and a novel, Sita (1976). Her personal life has been marked by periods of mental illness and institutionalization. She wrote about this part of her life in The Loony Bin Trip (1990). She published The Politics of Cruelty in 1994, which explored the use of torture in the modern world, and another memoir, A.D., in 1995.

"Itis interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning."
—Katherine Murray Millett

In the later 1990s, Millett had difficulty finding work, and most of her books went out of print. In the new millennium, the University of Illinois has republished Sexual Politics and several other of her works. In 2000, Millett became an adjunct professor at New York University. In 2001, she published Mother Millett, her story of caring for her dying mother.

Further readings

Bullock, Alan, and R.B. Woodings, eds. 1983. 20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion. New York: Harper & Row.

Davis, Flora. 1999. Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America Since 1960. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Evans, Sara. 1980. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Random House.

Rose, Phyllis, ed. 1993. Women's Lives. New York: Norton.

Cross-references

Sex Discrimination; Women's Rights.