Out of the Loop and Out of Print

Out of the Loop and Out of Print

by Kate Millett

Another season at the farm, not that bad, but not that good either: the tedium of a small community, shearing trees, so exhausted afterward that I did nothing but read. A season without writing or silk screening or drawing. Back to the Bowery and another emptiness. I cannot spend the whole day reading, so I write, or try to. A pure if pointless exercise. My books are out of print, even Sexual Politics, and the manuscript about my mother cannot find a publisher. Trying also to get a job. At first the academic voices were kind and welcoming, imagining I am rich and am doing this for amusement, slightly embarrassed as they offer the usual new slave wages of $1,200 or $1,800 per course. Things have gotten worse since I was a young lecturer at Barnard College in New York, earning $308 a month (they didn’t pay during the summer months). Now a far more evil system has been inaugurated, not just affecting teaching assistants in graduate school, but graduates and Ph.D.’s. A two-tier system, where the fortunate have “lines” and “positions” and the other 50 percent of college faculty, the “adjuncts,” have nothing. No benefits, no assurances, no future. As “temps” they are paid piece-work by the course, tiny sums that are an insult to them as well as their students, who pay plenty and have no idea this is going on. This is now a scandal all over the country. Saving the new corporate university a bundle in salary and benefits, dividing the faculty, and enforcing quiet and obedience and social and political conformity throughout our society. I hate the new American university for outdoing industry in “cutting back” to temporary and part-time teaching. Peonizing learning this way, and so devaluing the learned; the faculty reduced to mere employees of the administrators who now rule the academy according to the harshest corporate model. This in a time when Columbia and New York University are two of the leading real estate powers in my city: landlords. Less universities than businesses making a profit with endowments in the billions. I hear the guilty little catch in the administrative voice, forced maybe to make a big concession of $3,000 in my case. But I couldn’t live on that, I demur. “Of course, no one does,” they chuckle from their own $50,000 to $80,000 “positions.” A real faculty appointment, or “line,” seems an impossibility, in my case as in so many others now. I have friends with doctorates earning as little as $12,000 a year on these measly courses, eking out an existence at five different schools, their lives lived in cars and on the economic edge. I’m too old for that and must do better. “Oh, but our budget,” they moan, “we really have no funds at all, much as we would love to have you.” Times are so difficult; the bureaucracy or the legislature so obdurate. “Surely I’m qualified?” I ask, not as a “celebrity” but as a credentialed scholar with years of teaching and a doctorate with distinction from Columbia, an Oxford First, eight published books. Nor am I asking for anything fancy, no hotshot professorship. How about half-time in honor of my age, two courses a semester and a modest living wage, I scream silently, embarrassed to put reality into words. This would put me in a different category, a category which does not exist and can only be created through long, complex negotiations with higher-ups, not the department chair, but the dean or the provost. They’ll get back to me. But they never do. One woman promised to call me next week, and when she hadn’t phoned for ‘three weeks I called her. She “hasn’t had a chance” to talk with the dean and is incapable of hiring me herself, even though she is the department head. More time passes. When five months have passed from our first conversation in June (it is now October), and she still hasn’t “put this idea” before the dean (their offices are in the same building), I begin to realize that, for all her charm, this may never happen. We have even had a drink with the two other women who teach in this vast English department, nice women, but I begin to realize that 25 years after we started proving that women were either not hired or kept at the bottom of the heap in Academia, nothing really has changed. They seem so vulnerable, so powerless, so hunted. At another school, the man in charge of the English department was charming but he too has to consult, this time with the new head of women’s studies, since a joint appointment might be a possibility. Then, through an entire summer, he just can’t seem to make contact.

By fall, he has become dubious about her too—she’s a dim mysterious figure, but all my other informants know her, say she’s wonderful, yet now it seems she too “has no money.” Nor does he. Long ago he had seemed to offer me one class for young writers of promise, but now that job has gone out to a committee who will take months to decide and are very unlikely to decide on me. Ibegin to wonder what is wrong with me. Am I “too far out,” or too old? Is it age? I’m 63. Or am I “old hat” in the view of the “new feminist scholarship”? Or is it something worse? How much of this rejection may be due to hearsay about my “mental health,” even rumors that I’m crazy? I wrote an entire book, The Loony Bin Trip, to prove that I wasn’t, and even debunk psychiatry, but these folk have never read it. In fact they may never have read me at all, or are depending on vague memories of Sexual Politics being a “bestseller.” They have also never read Flying and Sita, since they were “queer” books; The Basement and The Politics of Cruelty were “depressing.” The effect of The Loony Bin Trip was a perception that I had “emotional troubles”; maybe what is left unsaid is that I’m unreliable, “shaky.” But no one will come out and say it. Meanwhile, the professor on the telephone drones on for 45 minutes about the lack of funds, the lateness of the state legislature in passing the university’s budget. He hired his wageslave adjuncts three days before fall classes began. He didn’t offer to hire me. I was hoping for something for spring semester, but next spring’s catalog is already at the printer. He won’t know till December. He’ll call me as soon as he knows. He was supposed to know months ago. I sweat at the phone, humiliated, furious, listening to his long-winded, impenetrable language. What’s wrong with me? Why won’t you give me a job, offer me something, anything, a dog bone, damn it? At least tell me the truth. Have I been denounced or bad-mouthed? By whom? What is the matter with me, for God’s sake? Has my feminism made me “abrasive”? Surely my polite, St. Paul manner should be reassuring. God knows I’m deferential enough to these people. The atmosphere is patronizing in the extreme. These people are doing me the most elaborate and difficult favor, going out on a limb, exercising the most reckless courage in merely making a phone call on my behalf. When I check back, having allowed them months to do this, they have never even done it. They are all “so busy.” The present semester races by, my chances for the next disappear. And now my last hope, the night school, the unfashionable extension in college, where a merciless young woman laughed at the idea of paying me anything above the usual peon wage they pay everyone, and then gave way to the princely young scholar Assistant Dean who pledged me double that rate, slips from my hands as well. This was my fall-back position, if nothing better turned up. It was all settled last August, just before the Dean’s vacation trip to France. He would guarantee my somewhat higher wage; I had only to meet with the head of curricula and choose course names with her— after her vacation. But when I finally reach this lady, in late September, the deal is on the rocks. She’ll get back to me after consulting again with the Dean, no point in outlining courses they may have no money to pay for. When she never gets back, I call the Dean again, five times. Secretaries now intervene and protect him for two weeks. He doesn’t get back. October passes. I begin to realize there isn’t a job. I cannot get employment.
I cannot earn money. Except by selling Christmas trees, one by one, in the cold in Poughkeepsie. I cannot teach, and have nothing but farming now. And when physically I can no longer farm, what then? As for publishing, I cannot even publish reprints; my editor quit the business and I have no prospects for a new editor, even though the book about my mother has been finished for three years. Nothing I write now has any prospect of seeing print. I cannot earn money in any way, and the idea terrifies me. I have no saleable skill, for all my supposed accomplishments, qualifications and training. I begin to understand that I have invested a great deal of “self-esteem” in the prospect of teaching. Age and identity have entered in. If I’m not able to publish and have thereby lost my profession and must find another to survive, I imagined I might age better as an academic than as a Christmas-tree farmer wringing out a living on the trees we planted to support the women’s art colony at the farm. Surely it’s more dignified to be a paid intellectual with the status of a professor, even if only an adjunct? My friends thought so, and have followed the job search with baited breath, wishing me every sort of good luck; a few of them, well-placed in academe, were perhaps vaguely embarrassed that their friend the writer is really that strange marginal figure, the seasonal peddler of spruce trees. Some days I think about “any job,” even forgetting the specter of age and a seductive appearance, “good clothes.” At this age, toward what is becoming the end of my life, I am unemployable. Frightening, this future. What poverty ahead, what mortification, what distant bag-lady horrors when my savings are gone and I am supported by $350 a month of social security? And why did I imagine it would be any different, imagine my books would give me some slender living, or that I could at least teach at the moment in life when every other teacher retires, having served dutifully all those long years when I was enjoying the freedom of writer and artist, unsalaried but able to survive on the little I’d always been used to, and still able to invest in a farm and build it into a self-sufficient woman’s art colony and even put a bit by in savings. The savings might last me as much 10 years, more like seven. So in seven years I should die. But I probably won’t; women in my family live forever. Much as I tire of a life without
purpose or the meaningful work which alone would make it bearable, I can’t die because the moment I do, all my sculpture, drawings, negatives and silkscreen prints will be carted off to the dump. The Feminist Press, in its first offer last fall (it took them 12 months to come up with this), suggested only $500 to reprint the entire text of Sexual Politics. Moreover, they couldn’t get around to it till the year 2000, since they’d need to commission one or two fancy prefaces by younger, more wonderful women’s studies scholars. My agent and I were happy to refuse this offer, and the next one, too, for $1,000. The book also fails to attract sufficient interest from the powers that be at Doubleday, who have refused to reprint it, even though another division of the company is celebrating Sexual Politics with a long excerpt in an anthology of the 10 most important books the house has published in the 100 years of their existence. A young female editor at Doubleday gave my agent to understand in a letter, which she was kind enough not to forward, that the work of more recent feminist scholarship had somehow rendered my book obsolete in the “current climate.” So I am out of fashion in the new academic cottage industry of feminism, unable to find even the most negligible teaching assignment in a field now seething with practitioners, and unworthy of publication as well, however spurious and underpaid. Recently a book inquired Who Stole Feminism? I sure didn’t. Nor did Ti-Grace Atkinson. Nor Jill Johnston. We’re all out of print. A few years ago, feminists gave a rent party for Ti-Grace in a loft downtown (she was too broke to pay her own). And another one for Cindy Cisler, who came from rural Kentucky poverty through Yale University’s school of architecture and sacrificed an architect’s career to get abortion legalized in New York State. We haven’t helped each other much, haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created community or safety. Some women in this generation disappeared to struggle alone in makeshift oblivion. Or vanished into asylums and have yet to return to tell the tale, as has Shula Firestone (see page 50). Our fragile cohort, unable to be effective against the real circumstances of our discouragement, were also too timid to address them and could only stand by and murmur the formulae of “mental health” as if it were an individual’s personal “problem” with the world. These “depressions” lasted decades, as our hopes faded—depressions that were rooted in professional frustration and were solid obstacles to self realization. Frustrations we not only could not resolve, but could not even succor, until they finally became disease: we could rally round disease. Too late: there were despairs that could only end in death. A few had the courage of direct action: Maria del Drago chose suicide, so did Ellen Frankfurt, and Elizabeth Fischer, the founder of Aphra, the first feminist literary journal. Elizabeth and I used to run into each other at a comfortable old hippie cafe in Greenwich Village that I visited in the afternoons, writing some of the darker passages of The Loony Bin Trip in public to avoid the dangers of suicidal privacy at home.

She’d just finished a book that was her life’s work. Probably it wasn’t getting the reception she’d hoped for in the already crowded new market of “women’s studies” texts written by sudden specialists in this field. Elizabeth and I would eat an afternoon breakfast and chat, carefully and successfully disguising our misery from each other. Feminists didn’t complain to one another then; each imagined the loneliness and sense of failure was unique and personal. Consciousnessraising groups were over by then. One had no colleagues: New York is not a cozy town. Elizabeth is dead, and I must live to tell the tale, hoping to tell another generation something I’d like them to know of the long struggle for women’s liberation, something about history and America and censorship. I might also hope to explain that social change does not come easy, that pioneers pay dearly and in unnecessary solitude for what their successors take for granted. Why do women seem particularly unable to observe and revere their own history? What secret shame makes us so obtuse? We did not create the community necessary to support each other through institutions, against the coming of age. And now we have a lacuna between one generation’s understanding and that of the next, and have lost much of our sense of continuity and comradeship.
But I have also spent 40 years as a downtown < artist habituated to the existential edge, and ‘even as I proclaim all is lost, I am surreptitiously planning a comeback, if only in fantasy… imagining a sinecure in human rights for extreme old age, matched editions of my collected works, and final glory. And just last week, after a good dinner and a good play (Arthur Miller’s American Clock), I lay awake scheming till the early hours, adding up the farm rents and seeing the way to a summer of restoration, figuring to replace the slate roof on the back of the farmhouse, which is full of serious leaks that all who patch it claim are beyond further repair, then going on to paint every building, the lavender house, the blue barn. Bundling my sums together, ecstatic that I have finally paid off my credit cards, scribbling at three in the morning that I will plant roses again, the ultimate gesture of success; the place will glisten. I will have won out after all. Living well is the best revenge. And then a trip to see my elder sister, the banker/lawyer, caps my determination. The Elder has a computer program that guarantees you survival on your savings at five-percent interest if your withdrawal rate does not exceed seven percent—a vista of no less than 30 years. My savings plus my rat’s turd of social security: The two figures together would give me a rock-bottom, survival existence. Thanks to the magic of programmed arithmetic, I am, at one stroke, spared the humiliations of searching for regular employment, institutional obedience, discretion or regimentation. Looks like I can stay forever footloose and bohemian, a busy artist-writer free of gainful employment. Free at last—provided I live real close to the ground. There’s subsistence living. And the trees: hard physical work. There’s no retirement, no safety in age; you work till you die. On return from Elder’s bucolic life in retirement, where at a sporty 68 she no longer practices much law because it “interferes with traveling” (she’s not only fond of Italy but has five grandchildren in various parts of the United States), I found a letter full of pieties, but no cigar. It begins by saluting me as Professor and spells my name wrong. “I regret to inform you that you are not among the finalists chosen for the senior feminist theorist/critic position open in our department. I regret, too, that it has taken us longer than promised to arrive at a decision. But the response to the search was astonishing both in the number and distinction of the applicants. Members of the committee commented again and again on the difficulty of selecting individuals from a pool that contained so many women like you, whose thinking and writing have shaped and reshaped feminist inquiry for two decades.” Hard to believe there were so many fish in the tank from my age group. And the lucky “finalists” get to give a “major address” at this university for free, after which the ultimate winner of the contest actually gets a job with four courses and committee work thrown in. Just to consider it wearies me. What good fortune to have flunked out. As for the other jobs, they still don’t call back. The two courses at the night school have dwindled to one for less money, but anything else might interfere with my own travels. The trees will keep me alive for the year, and an old flame beckons me to New Orleans to try out her hospitality and the better restaurants; it might be time at last to see Paris again on a cheap ticket, since a friend there has offered me the use of a studio for a while. And in May, the German crazies are having a Bertrand Russell type trial in absentia to condemn psychiatry for its abuses; Thomas Szasz will be there, and Jacques Derrida. They want me to play juror and psychiatric survivor. Sweet revenge and a free ticket to Berlin. Why not? •

Kate Millett, Ph.D., is a sculptor and author. Her books include the groundbreaking Sexual Politics, which she wrote in 1970. She divides her time between New York City and Poughkeepsie, New York, where she founded an art colony for women.