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Homage to an American Icon: Kate Millett

September 19, 2017
Alumna Kate Millett (BA '56, English) passed away on September 6, 2017. She was a pioneering feminist writer, educator, artist, and activist. The University of Minnesota awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2014.

In 2012, CLA published a profile of Millett in its former alumni magazine, Reach, as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. We are republishing that article to remember this remarkable woman.

The governor was signing the Minnesota bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and I arrived for the occasion in a polyester two-piece pantsuit — daring for the time. My hair was de rigeur feminist: straight, long, parted down the middle and pulled sternly behind my neck. Since I couldn’t find a sitter, I brought along my four-year-old daughter.

The notion of the amendment — that my daughter and I and all females should have rights equal to men’s under the U.S. Constitution — was considered radical in 1972. And radical it was, at least in the original sense of the word, which is derived from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” Since equality under the law did, indeed, go straight to the root of our societal arrangement, it was profoundly upsetting to some people. For example, one state senator publicly accused us supporters of the amendment, ranged in the gallery above the senate chamber, of keeping “dirty houses” and hiding illegitimate (he used a different word) children under our beds. Ouch.

Across the nation, America’s “second-wave” feminists — so called because we succeeded the suffragists of the 1920s — were moving into gear.

It was a time when help-wanted ads ran in either the male or the female section of the classifieds; when all TV anchors and reporters were male, as were virtually all attorneys, orchestra members, physicians, politicians, and heads of practically any organization you could name; when female grad school applicants —  including me — hid their engagement rings; when married women had trouble getting their own credit cards. Even Joan Mondale and Muriel Humphrey were required to enter the Minneapolis Club by the back door.

In this environment, one of CLA’s own, Kate Millett (English ’56), rose to national prominence with her book, Sexual Politics, proposing that the situation was both oppressive and political. She argued that the power differential between the sexes was the prototype for all political oppression, and called for a cultural revolution, a movement “toward freedom from rank or prescriptive role, sexual or otherwise.”

Sexual Politics, published in 1970, contributed theoretical firepower to the incipient women’s movement. It’s hard to exaggerate the book’s importance — Doubleday cited it as one of the ten most important books it published in the century. Millett’s portrait appeared on the cover of Time.

Just two years after Sexual Politics appeared, the discipline of women’s studies was established at the University of Minnesota, Kate Millett’s alma mater.

Accordingly, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, CLA honors its daughter, Kate Millett.  

 

Jigna Desai

Jigna Desai, professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies reflects on the impact Millet had on her academic career.

 

Toni McNaron

Toni McNaron, the CLA's first director of women's studies, talks about the impact of Millet's work on second wave feminism.

 

Arvonne Fraser

Arvonne Fraser, senior fellow emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, talks Millet's lasting impact on women's studies. 

 

Pat Schroeder

Pat Schroeder, first congresswoman of Colorado, reflects on Millet's Sexual Politics and its awakening among women that they would have to fight for a seat at the political table.