Author, activist and artist whose 1970 book Sexual Politics was a bestselling and hugely influential critique of patriarchal ideology
Kate Millett, the wayward artist, thinker and activist whose 1970 book Sexual Politics became a keystone of second-wave feminism, has died at the age of 82.
Perhaps aptly for someone who wrote widely and fervently of her pursuit of love, she succumbed to a heart attack during an annual holiday in Paris to celebrate her birthday with her wife and longtime collaborator, the photojournalist Sophie Keir. Lets always be having an affair. Wherever we meet, however many times a year let it always be an affair, Millett wrote in Sita, her 1976 account of an earlier lesbian relationship, which, like subsequent autobiographical works, became an exploration of forms of love.
Lena Dunham was among those who paid immediate tribute to her cultural importance, and its continuing impact on a new generation of readers and writers:
The cultural critic Elaine Showalter said: A revolution needs leaders, and with Sexual Politics Kate Millett came forward to give the Womens Liberation Movement a national voice and a strong connection to higher education. She was an intellectual and a radical feminist who could also speak effectively to a wide general audience.
Born in Minnesota in 1934 to an alcoholic father and a mother who worked as a teacher and insurance saleswoman to support her three daughters, Millett went first to the University of Minnesota. A rich aunt paid for her to go on to Oxford, where she became the first American woman to receive a first-class degree from St Hildas College.
She was working as a sculptor when Sexual Politics, based on her doctorate at Columbia, was published. A New York Times pen portrait written at the time reported that it had sold 10,000 copies in a fortnight, making her something of a high priestess of the current feminist wave, a movement long on gimmickry but short on philosophy until Miss Millett appeared on the scene. Andrea Dworkin later wrote: I cannot think of anyone who accomplished what Kate Millett did, with this one book. It remains the alpha and omega of the womens movement.
In the matter of conformity, Millett wrote in the book, patriarchy is a governing ideology without peer; it is probable that no other system has ever exercised such a complete control over its subjects.
Before Sexual Politics, she had published a scathing indictment of womens colleges, Token Learning, which documented the ways women were being trained for gentility and service rather than achievement and leadership, said Showalter. Her visit to Douglass, the womens college of Rutgers University where I taught, in April 1970, persuaded the faculty to rethink its mission and methods and began a new era of feminist education devoted to the encouragement of excellence in women.
Her forthright style and strong opinions won her as many adversaries as friends, among them Norman Mailer, whom she eviscerated in Sexual Politics as one of three counterrevolutionary sexual politicians, along with DH Lawrence and Henry Miller, for their representations of sex. Mailer lashed back in The Prisoner of Sex, published a year later not one of his best, quipped Millett.
In 1974, she published Flying, the first of her books rooted in her own experience, which dealt with the fallout of literary celebrity for a woman who was always uncomfortable in the spotlight. The Loony-Bin Trip (1990) dealt with a painful period when she was hospitalised by her family after being diagnosed with manic depression, and Mother Millett, in 2001, explored the love between mothers and children when decrepitude has overturned the old power relationship.
In 1979, she and Keir travelled to speak at Irans first celebration of International Womens Day. They were arrested and evicted from the country, but went on to found a support group for women fleeing Ayatollah Khomeinis regime, and to record the experience in a 1981 book, Going to Iran.
With the proceeds from her early success, she bought a 10-acre farm in LaGrange, New York, and set up an artists colony for women which she financed by growing and selling Christmas trees. She and Keir continued as co-directors after it was registered as a not-for-profit organisation in 2012 and was renamed the Millett Center for the Arts.
Millett was awarded a Yoko Ono Lennon Courage award for the arts in 2012, and a year later was inducted into The National Womens Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, site of the womens rights convention in the US in 1848.