Jigna Desai on Kate Millett
Jigna Desai, Ph.D. ’99, English, is the former chair (2013- 2016) and professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and is a founding member and former director of the Asian American Studies Program. She describes her work as an exploration of “brown skins and silver screens” — often through the lens of cinema, especially Bollywood. She holds a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from M.I.T.
I stumbled upon women’s studies in the late 1980s during my undergraduate years at MIT — it was an enchanting and often frustrating time. Though I did not know this then, our classes encapsulated many of the debates occurring within academic and non-academic feminism during this period. Grappling with the critiques of universal patriarchy and womanhood by women of color in the classroom, we searched for a way to articulate feminisms that could encompass the significance of race and nation, analyze global capitalism, and address the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Of the many books and essays that were assigned, there are five books — Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, and Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality — whose pages I remember breathlessly turning and whose spines still grace my bookshelves. These books, each in their own way, provided a new language and frame for understanding the world.
Regardless of due date, I always completed my women’s studies assignments first, often reading passages of these texts out loud to dorm-mates as they lived their daily lives in the lounges slurping ramen, reveling in Star Trek reruns, or playing poker. Just as my friends were discovering Henry Miller, I was discovering Millett, Walker, and Morrison.
Amidst our sexual awakenings, Sexual Politics introduced me to, and them to, a new feminist vocabulary of patriarchy and sexism and a new way of reading both Miller and Captain Kirk.
Our many discussions about male dominance, sexuality, and oppression were, I think, formative for them and for me. It is there I learned how to read the world as a feminist. It was a heady and transformative time, indeed.