Kate Millett: A Remarkable Life
Kate Millett has been described as one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century. She is a feminist activist, writer, visual artist, teacher, and human rights advocate and a 2013 Inductee into The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls NY, the birthplace of the American Suffragette Movement. Her portrait by Alice Neel hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
Born in 1934 in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Helen Feely Millett, a teacher and James Millett, an engineer, Kate is the middle child and has two sisters: Sally Millett Rau, a lawyer and Mallory Millett Danaher, an actress and film producer. Their parents divorced when Kate was thirteen and the Millett sisters were raised by their mother. Helen Millett took a job as an insurance salesperson with the Penn Mutual Company so she could have flexible hours to look after her daughters. “Mother Millett” was so successful as an insurance agent, she was voted “salesman of the year”. A very independent woman who had a great deal of influence over her daughters, Helen Millett was a feminist and voted in the first election in which women were allowed to vote in the United States of America.
Kate was educated in St. Paul, Minnesota at Derham Hall and the University of Minnesota where in 1956 she obtained a BA in English Literature, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. Later, she was sent by her Aunt Dorothy (AD) to Oxford University, St. Hilda’s College, and in 1958 earned a BA in English Literature, with First Class Honors, the first American woman ever to achieve that distinction.
In 1970, Columbia University awarded Kate a Ph.D. with Distinction for her thesis. It was published as the bestselling book, Sexual Politics. Since this landmark work in feminist theory, she has published numerous articles, essays, and another 10 books.
Her books have spanned the spectrum of her many interests, from the political in Sexual Politics, The Basement, Going to Iran, and Politics of Cruelty, to the autobiographical Flying, Sita, and Elegy for Sita, The Looney-Bin Trip, AD, and Mother Millett.
Kate’s travels, campaigning and lectures on behalf of women’s rights are legendary: her travels have taken her throughout the USA, Canada, South America, Europe and Asia. Her deep friendship with her mentor, Simone De Beauvoir and other feminists throughout the world created an important bridge between the American feminist movement and the more international movement for women’s rights.
In addition to her political work, Kate has held teaching positions in the English Departments of Tokyo’s, Wasada University, and at Barnard College and Columbia University where she was the Director of The Experimental College; she has taught at Bryn Mawr College, Sacramento State University, and The University of California at Berkeley; The State University of NY at Stony Brook and at New York University in NYC.
Kate has been working in multi-disciplines since she moved to New York and took up residence on The Bowery in 1959. "I’m a sculptor who writes." She once remarked.
From 1961-1963 Kate lived and worked in Japan where she held her first solo exhibition as a sculptor. Since then, she has exhibited her sculpture, drawings, serigraphs and photography internationally. Kate’s work has long been associated with the Fluxus art movement.
While in Japan, Kate met the sculptor, Fumio Yoshimura. They were married from 1965 until their divorce in 1985 but remained close friends and neighbors until Fumio’s death in 2003. Kate has chronicled the years of their unique open-marriage and friendship in several books and essays.
In 1966, Kate became the first Chair of the Education Committee of the newly formed National Organization for Women. During this period, she authored the groundbreaking Report, Token Learning, A Study of Women’s Higher Education in America.
During the late 60s and 70s when the women’s movement began to splinter and form factions, she remained steadfast, maintaining a good relationship and communication with all factions both at home and abroad.
In 1970, Kate’s portrait by Alice Neel appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Suddenly, Kate became “the face” of the feminist movement. Within months, the same magazine attempted to discredit her feminist views by declaring her a lesbian. Reaction to the article caused the conservative members of NOW under the leadership of Betty Friedan, to ban lesbians from the organization. Kate did not waiver and with the support of good friends like Gloria Steinem, Kate spoke out against prejudice and on behalf of lesbian feminists who would have otherwise been excluded from the Movement. The conservative leadership of NOW was persuaded and years later, Betty Friedan publically apologized to Kate.
During 1971, Kate formed Women’s Liberation Cinema. That year, she produced the feminist classic, Three Lives.
Throughout her adult life, Kate has worked tirelessly on behalf of the rights of women, gay liberation, mental patients and the elderly. Always outspoken and always controversial, she has risked her life, suffered attacks, harassment and death threats and arrest. Even her sculpture, The American Flag Goes to Pot has been arrested. Twice.
In 1978, Kate decided to open her own 10 acre farm in LaGrange NY to other women in the creative disciplines. With the advance for her book, The Basement, Kate purchased adjacent land so Christmas trees could be planted and eventually harvested to help support The Farm, an Art Colony for Women. Kate continues to provide subsidized creative work space for women from around the world. Recently renamed The Millett Center for the Arts, Kate serves as its Co-Director with her long-time friend and co-founder, Sophie Keir.
The spring of 1979 found Kate in Iran where she was invited to speak at the first ever celebration in Iran of International Women's Day. She and Sophie were arrested and held without charge and eventually expelled from the country. After their experience they formed The Circle of Support for Iranian Women. The group was able to welcome refugees and obtain political asylum for women who fled the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Kate has documented their experience in her book, Going to Iran.
In the mid-1990s Kate entered into a protracted battle with her landlord, The City of NY, when they threatened to demolish the historic Bowery building in which she had lived and worked for most of her adult life. The 19thcentury building at 295 Bowery was also known as McGurk’s Suicide Parlor, an infamous saloon where at the turn of the century, several young women prostitutes, despairing of their enslavement by McGurk, took their own lives. The support for her cause to save the building for Women’s History was widespread, even international. However, The City of New York was not moved. In spite of Kate’s efforts and the outcry of feminists across America and Europe, the City razed one of the most important touchstones in American women’s history. Kate and Sophie and their neighbors were eventually relocated. In her essay, The Suicide Parlor, Kate has chronicled the terrible history of McGurk’s Saloon and the young women who died there.
Following the loss of a nearly 10 year battle against the City, and never one to call it quits, Kate took on another cause close to her heart: from the early 2000s, Kate dedicated much of her time to the United Nations, working with the NGO, Mind Freedom International, to help draft The International Charter for Human Rights for People with Disabilities. The Charter was ratified in record time in 2008.
Both in her writing and in her art, Kate has chosen to explore the themes of entrapment, confinement, and subjugation. She states: “My work is about people and things in cages. It's how I view women’s place in society, Capital, housing for the aged and the poor.”
Kate has received numerous awards for her work; most recently: The Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts, The NY Foundation for Contemporary Arts Award, The Lambda Pioneer Literary Award and in June 2012, Kate’s life and work was celebrated at The Kate Millett Festival, a multi media event sponsored by The Veteran Feminists of America. In 2014, the University of Minnesota confered upon Kate, an Honorary Doctor of Science, the University’s highest honor.
Kate's papers are located at The Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.
When not at The Farm or traveling the globe, Kate can be found at her artist studio in New York City where she still lives and works in her beloved Bowery neighborhood.