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Sexual Politics

by Kate Millet

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Book Review

We started our book club on the day of Kate Millet’s death, so we wanted to read something by the legendary author in order to better understand her contribution to feminist theory.   We also chose this book because we thought we were reading radical feminist theory, which it is. We soon found out that this book is also a foundational text, or maybe the foundational text for feminist literary criticism.  Coming from a literary studies background, I didn’t find Millet’s literary analysis to be too difficult to get through, but other members in our group did, especially since we had not read many of the authors she is discussing.    

 

Millet begins by critiquing male authors of the twentieth century’s sexual revolution, like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and D.H. Lawrence.  That these male authors have been lauded for their contributions to the sexual revolution sets up Millet’s critique of their misogynistic characterizations of female sexuality and problematic structures of masculine and feminine.  Millet shows how the patriarchal system of power, violence, and rape, along with passive, ineffectual female characters pervade their novels. After reading exerts from various texts by these authors, we easily identified with her words because the type of male desire and fantasy that originates from control and violence towards women is pervasive even now.  Interestingly, some of the younger women in the group really liked some of Miller’s sex scenes and considered Millet to be responding prudishly to them. Is this because younger women are so indoctrinated into porn and romance fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey?

We found Millet’s second chapter, “Theory of Sexual Politics,” to be the most important because in it, she lays out her theories on sexual politics, which she identifies as the relationship between dominance and subordination, biology and culture.  She writes, “…fertility cults in ancient society at some point took a turn toward patriarchy, displacing and downgrading female function in procreation and attributing the power of life to the phallus alone” (28). She discusses the family as the institution of patriarchy, she explores women and class, women and education, economics, the myths of religion and anthropology, (which reinforces Sarah Hrdy’s book), medieval romance and chivalry, and Victorian attitudes towards female sexuality.  The next few chapters in Part II Historical Background go deep into the early sexual revolution and then the counter revolution.  She discusses the “state sponsored and legally enforced sexual counterrevolutions” in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, forced motherhood as a social obligation, and essentially what she describes as conditions that were “…worsened in the first decades after the revolution” (167-171).   She goes on to discuss Freud and social Darwinism, the influence of functionalism, and the divisions of roles and labor--basically any power structure or ideology that has been used to justify the dominant power structure that is patriarchy.

Why these ratings?

If a person has been introduced to literary criticism and enjoys feminist theory being applied to literary analysis, than they will really like this book.  It is a foundational text for understanding feminist theory and some history of the various waves of feminist movements going back as far as Mary Wolstencraft in the 16th century.   It is evidence of Kate Millet’s contributions to the feminist movement and the language we use to discuss feminist issues today, and, well, she is brilliant.   

 

If a person is looking for a more condensed book focused only on feminist theory, than this book is not for them.​  Other texts might provide similar information without the several chapters devoted to literary criticism, making for a shorter and more focused read.  This book is incredibly dense and packed with more information than is probably needed for a basic understanding of feminist theory. One might find Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex a little more accessible as it stays more in the realm of feminist theory.  One does need to have a basic understanding of Psychoanalysis and Marxist theories though to fully appreciate her perspectives.

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