When I first read this book I knew I had found the work of a true intellectual; no pretensions, just genius. The majority of the non-feminist Great Works of political or literary theory I’d read up until then were suddenly revealed as fakes. Later, I would enjoy the work of other radical women, but most of them acknowledge Sexual Politics as being influential, if not foundational, to their own writing.
Kate Millet, the woman who invented a solid, working definition of the term “patriarchy”, was living in Japan when the “theory of sexual politics” came to her. She confessed her newly-minted idea to her lover, a Japanese man she would later marry, and an American pal who had dropped by for the evening for drinks. The American “laughed his head off”, so did the Japanese. Armed with this encouragement, she decided that it would become the topic of her PhD thesis.
I can see why living in Japan would foster such clarity of thought when it comes to analyzing the power structures of society. Because when you are transplanted from your own culture into another, you are forced to look at society with fresh eyes. Japanese society reads like a parody of patriarchy to me. That all the actresses and actors are merely playing parts couldn’t be clearer. I am sure that this is how Millet felt when she looked around at the gendered interactions between the sexes.
No feminist bible exists, because radical women do not need dogma in order to understand the world, but if it did it would be Sexual Politics (alongside Gyn/Ecology by Daly). And yet despite (or perhaps because of) its importance, Millet’s work was put through the same kind of humiliating political censorship that many revolutionaries are forced to face. Her book was out of print for seven years and try as she might, she could not find anyone to republish it. The field of feminist texts were dominated by professors of feminism who selected one another’s secondary sources for university courses, rather than Sexual Politics, which was a primary source. In other words, the theory, the very concept they were teaching, was invented by Millet–the author they had rejected and spurned.
I’ll attempt to tackle an analysis, or even a summary, of Sexual Politics in part II and III, though it’s an overwhelming task when you’re being struck with an epiphany in between every single sentence. So for now I’ll just leave you with a taster of one of the greatest minds of the last century. An extract from the introduction to the Illinois paperback:
In the thirty years since the composition of Sexual Politics and in the seven years it has been out of print, I have had more than enough time to consider what I might say in an introduction to a new edition. Three decades have brought a great many changes, a great second wave of feminist insurgency in this country and throughout the West, but also considerable backlash and reaction despite a steady wave of patriarchal reform through the United Nations responding to international feminism. That would surely be another book–in fact it has been thousands and must go on being so. But in 1970 my main interest was to restate and reestablish the fact of historical patriarchy in modern terms and for my generation, to see it as a controlling political institution built on status, temperament, and role, a socially conditioned belief system presenting itself as nature or necessity. Thirty years have focused this understanding but could not alter it significantly. Of course there are hindsight perceptions as well. Reading Gerda Lerner’s magnificent Creation of Patriarchy, published in 1986, I regretted not having had its fine prose and confident scholarship to guide me when I approached the subject. Differing with Lerner, I wish I had placed more emphasis on the discovery of paternity as the critical factor in establishing the groundwork for patriarchy’s triumph over earlier fertility culture, as Elizabeth Fischer does. This great early scientific discovery, a hunch I shared with friends in discussion but theorists still do not emphasize, has struck me more and more over the years as the cause of what Engels called “the great historical defeat of woman”–the creation of patriarchy. Engels attributed it to the introduction of monogamy. And of course without monogamy and the ownership and sequestration of women, paternity is hard to ascertain. But in a free sexual culture only maternity is evident: the infant’s head in the birth canal is visible proof of parenthood, whereas a chance encounter among how many others nine months earlier can hardly establish fatherhood and all that came with it in the ownership of persons (women, children, and slaves), private property, and the state. In Engel’s Victorian imagination, itself a product of exploitative patriarchal sexual practices, sexuality was so odious to women that he reasoned they would prefer ownership by one man rather than “use” by some communal horde. All this implies the existence of an onerous and coercive sexuality instead of a free one: patriarchy, in fact. But before the establishment of patriarchy through the discovery of paternity, sexual intercourse might have had a very different meaning, a pleasure quite removed from consequences.
If paternity was not clear until the example of animal husbandry, with its use of breeding pens and sequestration, made the discovery of human paternity possible through analogy, the economic potential and social control over human birth and issue were not available to human males. Knowledge of paternity is the key; until its discovery, the religious and monetary uses of the phallus and the seed were also not available. The discovery once made, patriarchy could and did invalidate all female participation in the spiritual creation of life, nominate the female as a mere vessel in which the magic seed grew, invent male gods who gave birth alone to Adam or Athena, and begin the long subordination of women in every avenue of human experience and civilization–even to its symbols. The ovum was not discovered until the nineteenth century, and it appears not to have had much social or political significance.
If the biological discovery of paternity had monumental ramifications for human social organization at the onset of patriarchy, today, when that institution is under attack and perhaps about to be reformed out of existence, other biological discoveries have, perhaps even fortuitously, come into being. In vitro fertilization, cloning, and surrogate motherhood–the products of an essentially masculine science–have made human reproduction subject to human manipulation as it has never been previously. It is in the interpretation of scientific knowledge that power lies, and the social consequences of these discoveries are still unclear, but control over them is in the hands of a male scientific establishment increasingly driven by corporate profit and Western class interests. Why not wombs rented from the poor for the rich? As amniocentesis has made it possible to choose boy infants over girls, many have done so. The consequences of knowledge as power may be staggering; the discovery of paternity need not have had any social or political effect at all, yet it came to shape the iron form of human society in the entire historical period. What uses may be made of the new biology, by whom, and for what ends?
Another perception that hindsight might have emphasized is the role of force in patriarchy. When I finished Sexual Politics in 1970, feminists were still so intent on a reasonable civil rights argument that it seemed almost “shrill” to look very far into domestic violence and rape, which had always been presented as “aberrant” behaviour. Only later did we become aware that there was a normative element in patriarchal violence, still later we began to understand the depth of worldwide poverty among women, even the widespread malnourishment of female children. The brutality visited upon female adolescents that I studied in The Basement was too shocking for me to write about; although I already knew the story of Sylvia Litkins, it was fourteen years before I could put it on paper. And the explosion of state violence within patriarchy that I studied in The Politics of Cruelty took another ten years to understand.
Patriarchy is “in trouble” worldwide; institutions in trouble get tough. Vicious. Patriarchal powers still have the military and financial means. Patriarchy is not only male domination of females but also a militaristic hierarchy among males. Many of its concessions in the modern period–a universal franchise and representative democracy, rules of war or international law, constitutional and civil rights, individual rights, and human rights–have been cancelled during this century in the breathtaking creation of concentration camps and gulags, the reintroduction of torture on a wide scale, massacres and genocide, and the use of rape or starvation as policy. The scramble of greed represented to us as Darwinian necessity through the “global market” has undermined world labour and the integrity of trade, manufacture, and even medicine. Human organs are for sale, and the Chinese state can time its executions exactly to provide vital organs freshly air-expressed for Western hospitals.
Fundamentalist Christianity constantly thwarts feminism, and fundamentalist Islam has built its entire political programme on a new subjection of women. Dictatorships return again and again to a more virulent patriarchy. The length of patriarchy is its greatest strength, its seeming permanence; its pretensions to a divine or natural base have been repeatedly served by religion, pseudo-science, or state ambition. Its dangers and oppression are not easily done away with. But surely the very future of freedom requires it–not only for women but for humanity itself.
–Kate Millett, 2000.