Kate Millet - Return of the troublemaker
Return of the troublemaker
Her Sexual Politics took the world by storm in 1970 and now
Kate Millett is making the personal political again.
Maureen Freely meets her
Tuesday June 19, 2001
"I began writing about my mother, little sketches for myself, and
largely about myself, in 1985 when my elder sister, Sally - a lifetime
sibling rival and always a critic of considerable acumen - forced me to
pay attention and understand that our mother, Helen Millett, could
actually die, and perhaps soon."
So begins Kate Millett's extraordinary memoir of her mother's last
years. To understand the full significance of what happens next, you
will need a little background. Kate Millett is the author of Sexual
Politics, the book that gave birth to radical feminism. It caused a
storm when it was published in 1970. With its grand and overarching
theory of patriarchy, it spoke to women who had already been radicalised
by civil rights and Vietnam. It attacked the very people credited as
authors of sexual liberation - Freud, DH Lawrence, Henry Miller, Jean
Genet - and gave emerging 70s feminists the sexual metaphor that went on
to define their politics for years to come. It was Millett more than
anyone else who made the personal political.
As for her own political-personal, she was born and raised in St Paul,
Minnesota. Most of her relatives are still there, many with
pillar-of-the-community status. Politically, they are liberal.
Socially, they are enlightened.
Helen Millett was a feminist before Kate really knew what the word meant
and she went on to become a respected business leader in later life. She
worked for civil rights, supported gay rights and took to the streets to
protest the war in Vietnam. But she was also a strict and formidable
matriarch. And Kate had always been "the outlaw of the tribe, the
artist, the queer, even the crazy, since in certain ill-advised moments,
my sisters and even my mother have seen fit to deliver me over to state
Kate has a history of being diagnosed as manic-depressive. Her family
did use trickery to lock her up and in 1985 they were still coming to
terms with The Loony Bin Trip, her stunning account of what it is like
to be on the receiving end of psychiatric care. So this is the state of
play when Kate's older sister Sally calls and asks her to start coming
home more often.
Kate gets on a plane and is shocked to see how fragile her mother has
become. She is still as sharp and alert as ever, but she can hardly walk
and no one knows why. Much, much later it emerges that her doctor has
failed to diagnose a benign brain tumour. She is operated on and for a
while it looks as if she is recovering, but then she is struck down by
another potentially fatal condition, hypocalcemia.
Now she needs round-the-clock care and so Sally, who has power of
attorney, does what all the experts tell her is best. She puts her
mother into a home. It is a nice home. It comes highly recommended and
at a very high price. But when Kate arrives, she finds a "bizarre, dark,
awful place" in the habit of doping its residents and pinning them in
Her mother is no longer her mother. Instead she is a "small, injured
animal wrapped in white". But she recognises Kate immediately, tells her
how glad she is to see her and says:
"Now that you're here, we can leave."
Just think how Kate must have felt. Here was her mother, asking her mad,
bad wild-child to drop everything to look after her. Not so long ago,
that mother had helped try to get Kate committed. Now she was the one
who had been robbed of her liberty. And Kate was the only one in the
family who knew how she felt. What choice did Kate have but to sneak
Imagine what it was like for Sally, the sensible one, when she got the
news. Actually, you don't have to imagine. Kate Millett is not one to
underplay the sturm and drang. In this story, as in all her other
autobiographical works, she marches centre stage and stays there. But
through the smoke of her grand emotions, you can see the other players
and know exactly why they are gritting their teeth. No, this is not a
woman I'd ever want as an enemy.
That was my first thought when she strode into the lobby of Hazlitt's
Hotel in Soho on Sunday afternoon and offered me her hand. My second
thought - and this surprised me, because of her penchant for dark
thoughts about the darkest evils of society - was that I was looking at
a happy woman. By happy, I do not mean manic. I mean that she seems
accustomed to enjoying life and enjoys it because she knows she is in
charge. She likes to laugh at herself, takes pleasure in seeing herself
Millett is quick to admit that she was not thinking clearly when she set
her mother free. "I was flying by the seat of my pants." She knew her
family would be appalled, but "on the other hand, I had to do as she
In retrospect, she thinks her mother had it all worked out: "She knew
which kid to pick." She knew, among other things, that the incarceration
of people deemed "unfit" by their families had been Kate's first cause
and that she was now active in the anti-psychiatric movement. The
injustice that fires her more than any other is "confinement, anything
that threatens liberty of person".
The family were less enthusiastic but Millett now concedes that they
were more supportive than she realised. She found this out the hard way,
when she and her mother tried to rescue her Aunt Mig from a similar
quandary in 1993. This time they lost. Two weeks after her aunt was
judged incompetent, she was dead. Three weeks later, Helen Millett
It took Kate eight years to write about this, her greatest ever failure,
and it is "not a happy book. The rights of the aged are being abridged,"
she says. "The pharmaceutical industry is making one more fortune from
this." And the scandal is that no one seems to mind. Did I know that
commitment proceedings in the US take on average three to five seconds?
Underlying all this is Millett's anxiety about her own long-term
prospects. Her only steady income comes from her Christmas tree business
at her farm in upstate New York. She has no children, so if she ever
finds herself in her mother's situation, she will have to depend on
That may be all the insurance she needs, as she seems to have thousands.
For a start, there is the artists' colony she runs on her farm. Then
there are her co-conspirators in the anti-psychiatry movement and the
prison reform movement and the campaign against torture. The best thing
about being a freewheeler is that she can say what she pleases because
"nobody's giving me a chair in anything. I'm too old, mean and ornery.
Everything depends on how well you argue."
This is why, if she were starting out today, she would train as a
lawyer. Her biggest regret when she thinks back to the women's movement
in the 70s is that "we got nothing on paper". Think about the first
generation of feminists in the 20s, she says. They got the vote,
property rights, education rights and more. "And what did we get? We got
gay rights, which was as much thanks to gay men as women. And we got
abortion, but we lose it every afternoon."
Still, you have to take the long view. "You see, there are two sides of
feminism. There are women's rights and there is social feminism." Social
feminism is all the other social issues you notice once you begin to
think about women's rights. Not because you are intrinsically more
caring but because "the very mechanisms of powerlessness" become
visible. "Feminism is a very transformative thing, whether intended or
not. And that is when society loses its patience."
Which is sort of where we are now, in Millett's opinion. Society has
lost its patience. So why isn't she more downhearted? She smiles and
says it's because she is having too much fun. "I love making trouble.
It's a wonderful job. You don't get paid but you have a lot of
o Mother Millett is published today by Verso.
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