Toni McNaron on Kate Millett
Toni McNaron, CLA professor emerita, was the U of M’s first director of women’s studies. In her 37 years at the University she taught English and women’s studies “encased in silence” — as she put it in her prize-winning book, Poisoned Ivy: Lesbian and Gay Academics Confronting Homophobia. She also wrote I Dwell in Possibility: A Memoir.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1950s, Kate Millett majored in English, so she learned the beauty and power of words. As an iconic feminist writer, she made excellent use of that training. Along with giants like Friedan, Greer, Daly, deBeauvoir, Lorde, Griffin, Firestone, Brownmiller, and hooks, Millet permanently reshaped the academic and theoretical landscape in North America.
As one of those teaching in a research university, I devoured the writings of these women scholars and activists. Millett in particular influenced my own thinking directly because she used literature as her frame of reference.
I began not only to introduce women writers of all persuasions into my courses, but crucially, I began asking new and unsettling questions of the classic texts written by dead white men.
One instance in particular remains clear in my memory. My department chair had “allowed” me, not having any genuine objection, to offer courses in Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and even lesbian writers. When, however, I proposed teaching a seminar on John Milton, read from a lesbian feminist perspective, that same chair balked, giving permission only after I had expended much energy to justify such an idea. Millett’s writings urged me to confront the classics, because she understood firsthand how limiting and debilitating it can be to an aspiring female undergraduate to keep studying ideas and works from theoretical positions that ignored characters and experiences like her own.
Millett was invited to give an endowed lecture, sponsored by the English department, which several hundred people attended, many of whom came from the larger community outside the gates of the University campus. As I remember, she focused on ways in which Chaucer was forward-looking in his 14th-century depictions of relationships between women and men. While the enthusiastic young feminist activists were often unfamiliar with Chaucer, the few professors from the department were thrown off-center by the approach taken by the speaker. But people like me were excited to see such a powerful figure in “our” movement working deftly with literature from a very early moment in the development of English culture.
My sharpest personal recollection of Kate Millett goes back to a beautiful Sunday afternoon when her lawyer, a wonderful justice attorney in the Twin Cities at the time, asked me to accompany him and his wife as they took Kate on their pontoon boat down the St. Croix River. Kate was confined at the time to a psych ward at University Hospitals, put there by her family who did not want her first autobiography to see the light of day, since it was not complimentary to them.
Her determined lawyer had gotten her a pass into his custody for the day and he thought I might be someone who could talk with Kate about literature. So I agreed and Millett and I exchanged lively conversation as we drifted down that scenic waterway.
Though Millett published two autobiographical works — Flying and Sita — she is primarily remembered for the wildly popular and influential Sexual Politics (1970). Everyone who wanted to be taken seriously as a feminist scholar in the 1970s and 1980s read and absorbed that book. So Millett’s place is secure forever in any historical accounting of the second wave of feminist thought and action.