Kate Millett, the much-garlanded writer, who died in September 2017, was also a highly regarded artist and a well-known activist in the second-wave feminist agitation of the 1960s and 1970s. Here is the substance of an interview that I did with her in 1987.
THE EARLY INFLUENCES
Kate Millet: I grew up in a small Irish town which was originally French, St Paul, on the Mississippi. There was a left-over French tradition which mixed with a strong Irish nationalism, and a sense of exile from Ireland which my family encouraged and kept up. They also kept up with Irish politics: the struggle for the freedom of Ireland from England. I grew up also with catholicism. So those together were the larger social features of my upbringing. My mother, my aunt, my sisters and my father were the biggest influences in my life. I’ve written a book about my aunt, which is not yet published. It will be called A.D, which is a pun on Anno Domini; her name was Dorothy, so we called her A.D. for Aunt Dorothy. She was very rich, very beautiful, very intelligent, probably very spoiled, very domineering and absolutely fascinating. My father was her brother. He was an engineer who worked hard and finally succeeded in breaking away from working for the Highway Department and founded his own company. For a while he lived in glory, and then he went bankrupt. He was supposed to be also an alcoholic, which I think is probably my mother’s opinion. She was a different class and type from the Millets. She was what we call Irish Irish, peasant Irish from Galway, very strong and very determined. The Millets were Norman Irish, very ancient, very difficult, very obscure people, but wonderful, fascinating, extremely delightful, very brilliant, always sophisticated. They had an endless sense of gentry which could be irritating and which was also very captivating to a child. I ended up growing up with my mother, who had majored in English at the university and therefore pushed me full of literature. My aunt did as well. I had two great teachers in my aunt and my mother, but my mother somehow made much a deeper impression, and I guess that I ended up throwing in my lot with my mother and her people and with their point of view. But it was always very ambivalent, because I also very much identified with the Millets. It was a kind of schizophrenic childhood in a sense, always very divided loyalties, at any rate. I had two wonderful, brilliant sisters. One is an actress and one an attorney and also a banker, and my mother gave all three of us a great deal of encouragement and strength. We were, in many senses, her surrogates: we did all the things she was never permitted to do because she was raising three children and her life to some extent stopped when ours began.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
Kate Millet: It was very much a turning-point for me that, in my own country, I couldn’t make a living, although I had a very wonderful education and gained an Oxford Master’s degree. It was about that time I began to hear about the women’s movement, so I joined it, but it was a call that I had been waiting for all my life. From the time I was a child, I was aware of how unfair things were between men and women and how entirely masculine control of society was- the Pope, the President, the whole business; the family structure which I saw doing so much to suffocate my mother.
Woman artists are not even represented in museums. We have to fight back this absurd misrepresentation of women through art history. Much as we were discriminated against, we did actually paint pictures and make sculptures, but I never heard of it when I was a young artist. We have virtually no sense of our past in the visual arts at all. The work of our predecessors is not exhibited; we ourselves, in my generation, do not really have access to the museums. Of course, it’s all a stacked deck, all of it, everywhere. Publishing is the same. I’m always paid less than men. I’m always treated like a child, I have to be a good little girl. Agents think so, publishers think so, editors think so. I’m infantilized, even in my own profession, but it’s typical. Popular literature is often written by women, and some of it makes a lot of money, not only in these times but in the nineteenth century as well. I think, however, when you are talking about serious writing and fine arts, you really are up against an enormous wall of prejudice and discrimination, and it is spelled out in reality in the number of exhibitions, the number if museum entries, the collections, the way dealers and collectors feel about you, the way editors, publishers and agents feel about you. It’s not only a matter of money, it’s a matter of prestige, encouragement, sense of identity, all of it, and this is someone speaking who has probably had a lot of privilege and a lot of good luck. About 80 percent of people who go to art school in this country are women. About 10 percent of people who exhibit in the museums are women. This is a man’s world. And what we’re trying to do is make it a different one, one of people.
If we started from the base of equality, I think people would be startled to see how unequal things are in America. Start with the Congress. We have virtually no representation at all, and certainly less than any other country. It’s not because women don’t want to go into politics, it’s because this is a patriarchy and it hasn’t changed much. It had two big waves of organized feminist political agitation, but it hasn’t changed. It didn’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and we are now in a very dreadful period of reaction to Reagan’s regime. All progressive forces in this country are virtually at a standstill. The women’s movement is holding its own, but it’s not making any great progress. Blacks aren’t making any progress and we don’t have a left. These are really bad times.
There has been a remarkable and wonderful little bit of progress on the part of gay people in view of the fact that you couldn’t even say lesbian or homosexual fifteen years ago. The fact the gay people can identify themselves as gay, organize as gay, run for office, demand their rights, it’s fantastic. Historically speaking, it is an amazing amount of progress in a short span. But you still have enormous prejudice as well, enormous contempt and hatred. And its gotten much worse in this country under the present reactionary climate of the Reagan regime and the right-wing screaming about Aids being the scourge of God and so on. It’s a dreadful, dreadful disease, but it is not the scourge of God.
Kate Millet: You don’t have any oppressive system without its continuance being assured by members of the oppressed group. That’s true of all oppressed people. Therefore, if the feminist movement is to succeed, it must start at home with women and with the conditioning of children: to decondition them, in fact, so that they have a fuller sense of themselves as little people, and not little males, little females, horrid little stereotypes that they have to live out. I taught kindergarten once, and at about five years old my kindergarteners were already so stereotyped that it was almost funny, but tremendously sad. They had so accepted the silly sex roles of their culture, they were like little caricatures of masculine and feminine behaviour in some respects. It was interesting to try to talk to them out of some of that rigidity. And not easy.
A little token woman here or there doesn’t really change anything that much. It doesn’t approximate equality; it’s the index of some change, but the change has not been accomplished. The process is long and torturous, slow and tedious and silly. It consumes years of many women’s lives, just burned up in trying to achieve an equalization between the sexes. And all unnecessary, a great waste of human spirit, a great waste of lives. I mean, they accomplish something wonderful – all people who work for liberation do – but we didn’t need to have the oppression situation at the beginning.
Mrs Thatcher is a bad excuse for a woman in power. She is a deplorable reactionary, and the fact that she is in power is hardly an example of women’s progress. Throughout history, there have been cases of these dreadful reactionaries who happen to be females being given a break. It is not an example of female equality any more than Elizabeth I was.
I see patriarchy increasing its colonial oppression of other peoples. I’m an American. I watch my government commit atrocity after atrocity upon people in South America, for example, or throughout the world, through the CIA, its support of dictatorships, and torture. I’m watching torture resurrect itself in the twentieth century and become one of the ways in which governments govern. One of the things i’m doing during this period of my life is writing a very long book about torture and its reemergence. I see patriarchy as grotesque, increasingly militaristic, increasingly greedy, colonialistic, imperialistic, brutal, with a terrible disregard of civil liberties, of democratic forms. This late-stage patriarchy is a tremendous threat to all citizens. The state’s invasion of private life is absolutely terrifying. Ultimately, patriarchy is about the continuation of male power as we have known it through history, but the means it is using now are very grotesque and very frightening. It’s a really exciting time to be a woman. We are on the move, and we are making history. It is an exciting time to be one of us.
Kate Millet: I find the maternal instinct is really the end product of a great deal of social conditioning. Lot’s of women don’t have children. I’ve never had any children. It seems to me absurd that my life should be judged on whether or not I have children. Lots of men don’t have children; their lives are not predicted on their paternity. To care for infants or any helpless vulnerable creature is a good and wonderful thing that anybody could experience probably, but i don’t really believe in maternal instinct. I realize, too, that it’s dinned into us all the time. Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda.
Kate Millet: Things were so arranged that woman had babies instead of making symphonies. There are always enough women around who haven’t got a baby this month who would have time to make a symphony if it was OK to make symphonies. But men said to us, you can’t make symphonies, but you can make babies, and wow, that’s wonderful. It is wonderful. To make a life is wonderful, absolutely marvellous. But it is also marvellous to make symphonies, and if you make lives because you have no other option, you are just a breeder and a slave. And most of history, what other option did we have? You can even poison maternity with this system. Just as you can poison sex with rape. You can ruin anything through invading it with power relationships. The history of men and women is a very sad disgrace.
Kate Millet: I like men very much, but I live very much of my life with women. Once upon a time I didn’t spend so much of my time with women. I knew more men, and I was married to a wonderful Japanese sculptor and lived in a heterosexual world, men and women. Of course, men dominated everything and talked all the time, and it was extremely frustrating in thousands of ways. But I had a greater sense of contact with the world than I do now, when I live mostly with women. Most of my friendships and contacts, and the work I do and the people I know and am close to, are women. If i’m likely to fall in love, i’m more likely to fall in love with a woman at this point, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t fall in love with a man. I have. It seems to me that the natural state of human beings would be bisexuality. But, under certain social conditions, that would be less likely to happen, as, for example, in a very repressive regime of heterosexuality. Or, in this case, where there is a kind of withdrawal from the male world to strengthen ourselves, and an enormous sense of solidarity, we would be more likely to form relationships with women.
There are some women who, for probably excellent reasons, choose to live in their own sphere, separately and so forth. Like any people who have been much aggressed upon, oppressed, so women can get a lot of strength from each other. That makes sense. That’s a political event in a certain period of time. The degree of separatism that actually exists is very much exaggerated, but it frightens men a lot, so they fixate on it.
It seems to me that heterosexuality is also conditioned into us as a result of endless propaganda, because otherwise we would just love whomever we like, which makes sense. But we are very carefully conditioned into heterosexuality. It is all part of the same set-up: conditioning you for motherhood, for heterosexuality, for feminine acquiescence in a patriarchal society, those are the things that make it work. I’ve loved both men and women. It’s sensible, I think. They were loveable people.
Kate Millet: I don’t know of any differences between men and women beyond the biological, physical ones. I don’t know of any inherent psychological differences. We have every proof of enormous cultural differences, social differences, conditioned differences, but we have no proofs of any inherent, innate psychological ones. But, through our conditioning, we have become enormously different. We live in two different cultures. You can’t quote the animal kingdom; the animal kingdom is a mess. It can prove almost anything; it’s like quoting the Bible.
With all the stereotyping and conditioned behaviour between men and women, we divide up the good and evil qualities in human nature. Men are active, women passive; woman are nurturing, men aggressive, and so on. Well, there’s a lot of good in nurturing, there’s some good in aggression, so everybody gets to, not a whole person, but half a one, like a semi-person. You can see how this would stunt the human spirit and unbalance human personality. So, in a male-dominated society, traits that are regarded as less valuable and important are assigned to women. Now, a lot of that is crazy. The caring of children is extremely important, but is regarded as unimportant, so we get it. All the way along, it’s illogical, irrational, arbitrary, stupid. It’s limiting, and it completely surpasses the human spirit, the growth of the individual, the development of an entire psyche. It’s a dumb, comically stupid, painfully tragic system.