Thoughts: Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett

Firstly, it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to dive into the work of a mid-century feminist, because the world has changed so much and you never know where they’ll end up having settled. Luckily, the Big Ones are avoided here. It feels weird and disrespectful to talk about someone in this way, but at the same time, you know.

Anyway. Sexual Politics is Kate Millett’s best known work, published in 1970, and it is a beast. I was sort of expecting one of those classic-style works of early feminism, or rather, my impression of them, which are rousing and rallying and quite polemical. But Sexual Politics is ferociously academic. Meticulously sourced, hugely ambitious in scope, and containing some quite difficult to parse sentences that I needed to go over a few times before they sank in (though this could be partly due to the usual baby sleep deprivation and the fact that I often read now to force myself to stay awake in the middle of the night).

I had thought that reading a feminist work from the 70s would be almost redundant in a way, that it would be irrelevant to modern life and out of date. It sounds so foolish to admit. But I felt like I knew how it must have been then – you know all the big gains women have made since then, so you think you can reverse engineer the past from that, by taking those hard-won rights away one by one, by recreating an image of the culture as it was by adding murky layers to what we have today. But reading something that was written in the thick of it, something that aimed to clarify and name a system that has existed for all of recorded human history, was actually surprisingly powerful.

It takes a roughly chronological view, and the beginning does feel a little more conventional (to a modern reader familiar with the concept of patriarchy), and it travels through the Victorian age, to fascist and authoritarian usages of patriarchal systems, through Freud and all that nonsense, and ends with some very deep analyses on a selection of more contemporary fiction writers to illustrate various male attitudes towards patriarchy and women, and more especially counterrevolutionary tactics by men to undermine the gains that women had made up to that time. I really liked the way she did it – from time to time I was a bit like “eh, this feels like a pretty specific assumption”, but she backs up her theories and has obviously done a hell of a lot of in-depth reading, both of the entire bibliographies of the authors in question and of the scholarship around them.

I haven’t read any of the books or authors she analyses, which is my own sin, but she provides a lot of quotes so I never felt left behind or out of the loop. We do have a few on the shelves and I’ve resolved to read those ones, so I guess I’ll see how much I agree with her when I read them myself from beginning to end.

What surprised me about the whole experience, and the literary analysis method in particular, was the strength of feeling in the authors’ own words concerning women, both individuals and the whole gender. For the most part, it was… not pleasant. And I know we live in the future now and the 70s were fifty years ago (!) but that’s still well within living memory, and of course we can still see the cycle of revolution and counterrevolution that Millett outlines in the book – gains followed by pushback. Another big surprise was how much I could see applied almost without any recontextualising to current misogynist movements, all the Greek letter male people and whatnot, among others. Thinking they’re inventing the wheel, when actually they’re repeating the same old fallacious talking points that have always been used against progress. Interesting to have some historical context to it – heartening to see how far we’ve come since the last time such ideas had broad currency.

There are of course limitations to such a broad work that’s so deeply rooted in its time. Millett is upfront about the fact that Sexual Politics, by virtue of being such an early comprehensive work on the subject, necessarily lacks nuance. Race and sexuality are mentioned, but only briefly (and only male homosexuality and drag, in the narrow, specific context of the writings of Jean Genet, which, incidentally, I am very tempted to add to the creaking TBR list). This is also where the other major issue comes in – the language.

Acceptable language surrounding race and sexuality has evolved in a way that language around the sexes has not really. Some of this, maybe most of it, is purely due to the fact that Sexual Politics was written in the 70s, but still, as white writer to white reader, it was a bit uncomfortable for me to read at times. There was one bit on “men’s house” culture in Polynesia (I think) that just had the very strong sense of something that may have been accepted at the time but would be thoroughly debunked in the future. That kind of faintly embarrassing anthropological study that either misrepresents or purely invents the cultures of remote, non-Western, non-white people.

And similarly with the sexuality tangents – I don’t know much about Jean Genet’s life or work, and I was taking Millett’s word for it. Still, there were moments when I wasn’t quite sure whether what she was saying was… okay. A tricky subject, given how transgressive Genet’s work seems to be in itself.

Millett talks a lot about what sexist arguments and different forms of patriarchy mean for men as well, which I found really interesting. I wasn’t expecting it. And yeah, part of me kind of enjoyed the revenge of it, after all of these men defining and analysing and speaking for women. Why shouldn’t a woman get to have a generalised opinion about men? We’re all as objective (or not) as each other. I also got to see a lot of really bizarre stuff that men at one time either believed or wanted to be true, both generally (Freud, why? Why???) and individually (Miller’s genital holy trinity was a particular low/high point).

All in all, I learned a lot from this book, and it was definitely worth my while to read, both for its historical value and the added perspective it gave me on some aspects of current society. Sorry, I feel like I should have a better ending than a school essay conclusion, but it’s such a huge book it’s hard to know how to tie it all up. I’m glad I read it, and I can see myself referencing it in future.

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