Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feminist Icon Kate Millett

Katharine Murray Millett, 1970 by Alice Neel, ...Image by cliff1066™ via FlickrBy Jacqui Ceballos

Kate was born in 1934 in St Paul, MN, the middle of three daughters. Her parents separated when she was very young, and Kate remembers her mother struggling to earn enough to support her daughters. She received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1956 and in 1958 obtained a first-class degree with honors from St Hilda's College, Oxford.

In 1961 Kate moved to Japan to study sculpture. Two years later she returned to the United States with fellow sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, whom she married in 1965, and lived in a three-story loft in New York's famous Bowery. Fumio's art gallery on the top floor was filled with his kites and flying sculptures, Kate's was on the second floor where her works were as down-to-earth as his were ethereal. I especially remember her toilet sculpture of a woman's legs in high heels straddling the bowl. What a statement!

In 1968 the toilet graced the Park Avenue building, home of Colgate-Palmolive, where NOW members announced to the world that this company, which sold its products to women, was discriminatory against its female employees financially and professionally. As Anselma dell'Olio poured Ajax down the toilet, we all shouted, "This is where you throw AJAX, women!" In one week C-P changed it's policy.

Kate also led the week-long demonstration against the New York Times to protest that newspaper's refusal to follow Title VII guidelines and desegregate its Help Wanted ads. At the crack of dawn Kate was in front of the Times building urging us on.

Others spent hours in Kate's loft typing "Token Learning," Kate's work accusing the Seven Sisters colleges of betraying their trust by not providing education for women equal to that of men while boasting that their mission was "to educate women to become good wives and mothers."

Besides her work with NOW and radical groups, Kate helped organize and run Barnard Women's Liberation. It is a mystery how she had time to write her Ph.D dissertation which, when published as SEXUAL POLITICS in 1970, made her famous and changed her life. The book was said to be "the first book of academic feminist literary criticism" and "one of the first feminist books of this decade to raise nationwide male ire." It was dedicated to her husband, Fumio Yoshimura, who was also a feminist.

For a while she was a media darling. But Kate was never comfortable with her fame. She didn't want to be a "spokesperson" for the Movement, which the media expected of her, and she hated the loss of her privacy. Then, at a talk she was giving at Barnard in 1970 someone shouted out that Kate should come out as bisexual and all hell broke loose. TIME magazine, which had featured her on its cover and had raved about her book, now discredited her. It was a shock to Kate and to everyone who knew and loved her.

Sales of her book fell, speaking engagements dried up, and it seemed her own country didn't appreciate her. But she was greatly admired by feminists around the world and she traveled to many countries speaking and inspiring women. She continued writing, though her other books weren't as well received as Sexual Politics. made films and spent more time at her art.

In 1971 her marriage to Yoshimura ended, but they remained good friends. She'd bought fields and buildings near Poughkeepsie, N.Y, and, after her divorce she created a Women's Art Colony, a community of female artists and writers paid for by the sale of her silk-screen prints and the Christmas trees hand-sheared by the artists in residence. In 2004, she sold most of the fields, but retained a home there where she spends the summers and most weekends.

A few years ago Kate was diagnosed, like many of her generation, as "bipolar". She did something unusual: she won her own sanity trial in St. Paul. On a dare with her lawyer, together they changed the State of Minnesota's commitment law. She has since become an advocate for all those who labor under the stigma of mental health - as a representative of MindFreedom International at the United Nations regarding the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, recently signed by President Obama.

Today she divides her time between her New York apartment and the farm in Poughkeepsie, writing, sculpting, and painting.

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