52 pages 1 hour read

Kate Millett

Sexual Politics

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1970

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Summary and Study Guide


Kate Millett’s 1970 book Sexual Politics is a groundbreaking feminist critique of literature and social organization that is widely regarded as an essential radical feminist text.

It opens with brief exploration of fiction by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. Presenting these as “Incidents of Sexual Politics,” Millett examines how power operates within sexual relationships and builds an argument that the relationship between the sexes is a political issue revolving around the dominance of one group by another. The second chapter makes this argument more explicit, offering an analysis of patriarchal rule in contemporary and historical societies. Millett explores how traditional claims of male dominance as “natural” enforce legitimization, before critiquing this understanding and presenting traditional sex roles and patriarchal authority more broadly as a consequence of cultural conditioning.

Millett next examines the “first phase” of the sexual revolution between 1830 and 1930. Although this period is known for its prudishness and repression, a great deal of radical change nevertheless took place in the politics of sex. The Woman’s Movement made significant progress in opening up education for women and securing suffrage, as well as challenging (and defending) traditional understandings of sex, identity, and the family in literature and politics. Although it made significant advances, the first phase of the sexual revolution was ultimately incomplete in its failure to overthrow patriarchal rule, change the psychological foundations of traditional sex roles, and liberate sexuality from the social mores and political restrictions of the time.

The failure of the sexual revolution’s first phase paved the way for the counterrevolution, a range of reactionary moves intended to reestablish patriarchal rule and traditional sex roles. Millett explores this first through analysis of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. She examines how Nazi Germany coopted feminist struggle into its movements and vigorously worked to reestablish limiting models of femininity dedicated to motherhood and the traditional family, before discussing how Soviet efforts to overthrow patriarchy and the family were ultimately unsuccessful. This is followed by analysis of how the majority of the counterrevolution was actually enacted not by repressive political forces but by the social sciences. With a particular focus on the works of Sigmund Freud, she explores how these emerging disciplines legitimized traditional sex roles by giving them a veneer of scientific respectability.

The book closes with four chapters discussing in greater detail the works of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. The first of these explores Lawrence’s heroes’ manipulation of women and the coopting of sexual liberation as a means of reestablishing traditional sex roles. There is also an analysis of Lawrence’s dissatisfaction with women and his focus on male relationships and his consideration of love and sexuality in terms of power. Discussing Miller, Millett examines how he reduces women to the role of objects for male gratification.

The chapter on Mailer explores how his work obsesses over sexualized male violence, with the notion that masculinity must be demonstrable at all times, and a great fear of homosexuality undermining American “virility.” The final chapter focuses on a more positive reading of the works of Genet, examining how he uses the homosexual subcultures of his early novels to reflect and satirize heterosexual power relations before developing this into a more focused attack in his later plays, which portray marginalized groups of various types challenging their oppression with increasing fury and focus.

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