Merle Hoffman Interviews Kate Millett
“There is an enormous psychic rocket effect with coming out .. .you’ve broken the last barrier.. .there’s nothing they can do to you anymore.”
“Our tire got busted and we need somebody who knows how to change a tire.”
“We should decriminalize prostitution because it is sexually more progressive than censorship.”
“When you’re working.. .on any kind of social change, it is extremely important always to have that radical edge or your intellectual content will turn to water.”
MH Kate, describe your political evolution.
KM I didn’t grow up in a conventionally political family. It was a mixture of classes and immigrant types who were always trying to assimilate. The real theater in which my emotional life was played out was the Irish political situation because it was interesting, exciting, and it was ours. There could be strenuous arguments over the Civil War in ’22, the Settlement in ’36 and the six remaining unfree counties in Northern Ireland, etc. I learned good liberal sentiments from my mother along with tolerance, kindness and a real dislike for racism. Of course, as Irish immigrants we were naturally Democrats, with mother’s family being very deeply involved in the Democratic party and the labor movement. The only taste of revolution came from abroad with the notion of centuries and centuries of oppression—700 years under the Heel of England, as my Aunt used to say. The unfairness of it all echoed again when I began to get a little feminist consciousness as a very small child.
MH Did you have any political role models?
KM Not the classic Marxist Jewish intellectual kind. Our was different…an ongoing strange revolution which is still not solved…Northern Ireland is still an occupied country and it’s not even a fashionable cause.
MH When did the feminism begin?
KM I think when I was five years old, or even earlier. I pointed out to my mother that the whole system was profoundly unfair.
MH Did she agree and tell you to change it?
KM Well, yes she agreed. I think she has often found me a bit headstrong about all this but when I wrote Sexual Politics and explained to her that I was a feminist she said “Well, well, I have always been a feminist.”
MH Since you wrote Sexual Politics, how much do you think has changed?
KM A great deal. The movement has had a great effect. We made alternate institutions but we haven’t had a profound effect on the establishment, the government, public institutions. We didn’t get the ERA and we can see how much is eroded or disappearing. Abortion is attacked every day. A lot of energy just goes into hanging on to what you already have. So, if you’re still trying to hold on to abortion which you won 15 years ago, how much can you go out there and fight for decriminalization of prostitution, lesbian rights or whatever real radical issues would be interesting to work on now? A movement on the defense can’t keep moving its front guard out the way we’d like to be doing.
MH What about the troops? Are there enough, are they still there, are they motivated?
KM I think we’ve created a consciousness. The media is always trying to say it’s over, that college girls today are real nitwits, etc. They’re certainly not the activists I’d like to see, but the fact that we are as strong as we are is positive. Other progressive causes are in worse trouble; the unions, and the Blacks, who are more defensive than we are, because they’re losing more faster. Education rates and college degree’s for Black people are just shriveling up. It’s remarkable that we’ve got a strong enough base to be in this good a shape in the last year of Reagan’s reign. Ten years ago you couldn’t say the word, now you can be a gay and run for office in certain places. You are a recognized political movement and class of people which even AIDS can’t seem to eradicate. That’s a terrific amount of progress.
MH Do you agree that defining oneself politically by sexual preference is great progress or just another way to separate?
KM I think it’s a wonderful thing because what is at stake here is everyone’s sexual freedom. The more gay liberation the more sexual possibility. It’s really not only sexual. It’s the right to fall in love with, experience, be intimate, spend years with, another entire half of the human race. It really does widen the whole human experience vastly.
MH There are some that say that bisexuality is nonexistent, that it’s a flight from the acceptance of homosexuality. In that sense, do you think that some of the politics of gay liberation are restrictive and oppressive.?
KM Well, they can be. Groups have become very faction ridden, dogmatic and tedious, but all the early classic essays on gay liberation realize and were aware that the liberation of human sexuality was the essential issue.
MH The gay liberation movement seems to be willing (in comparison to a lot of feminist groups) to take greater political risks, both individually and as a movement. Do you think feminists have more of a stake in keeping the status quo on some level as opposed to gays who have broken the last social barrier?
KM The outrage, I love it. There is an enormous psychic rocket effect with coming out that does make you so empowered—you’ve broken that last conceivable barrier…there’s nothing they can do to you anymore.
MH You’re saying no one has power over you because you’ve taken away all the cards they can use to destroy you. Do you think a major issue with many women personally and with the Women’s Movement is that there is a great need to be liked, be accepted, to be in the same space that everybody else is in at the same time, that keeps them limited politically?
KM Then there is always that possibility of buying in, of getting that middle-level job, of being the only lady on the team. That’s something we always knew about. We had a little hometown saying for it: “We didn’t want apiece of the pie, we wanted to junk it and start all over again in a new mixing bowl.” There was always the question of whether we would compromise or be co-opted; we certainly knew about these issues from the beginning. When you’re working from the inside on any kind of social change, it is extremely important always to have that radical edge or your intellectual content will turn to water. You won’t have any new ideas, you won’t have any new issues, you won’t be doing anything that expands freedom itself, which is what this movement thing is about.
MH What are the cutting-edge issues? If we had the luxury of moving forward, where should we be moving?
KM We should decriminalize prostitution because it is sexually more progressive than censorship, and we should attack pornography tooth and claw in the streets, rather than through laws.
MH Stop pornography purely on an educational level?
KM Right, using our First Amendment rights to say this is rotten, nasty, inhuman, sadistic junk and no one would tolerate it if it were against any other class of people. We could be doing lots more for lesbian rights, and doing more for and with issues of working class and Black women.
MH Would your vision of a new society by a socialist vision?
KM We’d probably have day care, because if you really did that as an issue you would naturally give up class and capitalism; we’re just going to have to stop giving some kids a whole lot and others nothing at all. I guess that’s where I went over the socialist line, trying to imagine egalitarian day care.
MH But you’re comfortable with the two-party system the way it stands, the politics as usual in the country?
KM Oh no, I could never be comfortable with it; it’s crooked, they call the elections hours ahead of time. The whole thing is done with money, and with media which is all money. Corporations are manipulating our foreign policy and economic interests. That’s what all our wars are about; how this or that rich multi-national can exploit South America. It really has nothing at all to do with South America “going Red.”
MH I read Vie Basement years ago. It was in my mind and consciousness for a very long time, it touched me so profoundly. What moved you to write that book?
KM I read about the case in the cafeteria at Barnard and it changed my whole life. Sexual Politics doesn’t mention this atrocity because I was making a decent argument for a doctoral thesis, but The Basement was Sexual Politics II. I always felt that Sexual Politics was a theory and Vie Basement was practice. I wrote it in the Farm House. They were strange summers and it was an awful book to live with. I lived with it for 14 years. It’s a terrible book.
MH How was the book received?
KM The reviews were better than I’d ever had. I’m usually attacked tooth and nail with gleaming eyes. Yet for readers, and women in particular, it seemed to be so unpleasant a thing to bring up. It was evaded and refused. The Basement concerns the sexual abuse and murder of a young girl (Sylvia Likens) by her foster mother Gertrude. Many feminists still tell me years later “Well I never read your book; I just couldn’t put myself through that.” I always want to say that it was a lot harder for Sylvia Likens than for you. I wanted so much to help her, (Sylvia). I wanted us all to help her, but if we couldn’t save this particular Sylvia’s life, we’d get right on it and see it never happened again.
MH Then, what you were asking women to do even just by reading this book was to separate themselves from their subtle participation in the system that brutalizes and oppresses them. This is very difficult for many women. KM Perhaps if we could get The Basement back into print, people could stand it now. Enough time has passed. I always need a little while with my books because they’re always so repellent or shocking at first.
MH You spent 14 years of your life writing this book. If you could make a synopsis of what you wanted to say with ail those years and all that work, what was the message? What is the message?
KM The issue is the imposition of sexual shame, which is a crucial part of our oppression and one that we’ve never really dealt with. Branding us at puberty with an enormous load of guilt which is terrific in terms of controlling us. After all, we really are an abject people. We will obey and make ourselves small. What could have been our source of life and happiness (our sexuality) is now terribly embarrassing, all manifestations of it are our fault, we’re dirty, etc. In Sylvia Liken’s case, this is particularly graphic because her tormentors were so sublimely stupid that they actually wrote it out on her body. [Sylvia’s body was found with the words “lama prostitute and proud of it” bumed into her stomach by cigarettes.] There was no way to escape it and when I read it I thought this is the most terrible thing that must have ever happened to anybody. Later I learned that there were people who had experienced worse.
MH Who is Gertrude to you and to us? Is some of her in all of us?
KM Yes she could be, especially if we didn’t have any options, or good luck, or liberated moments, we could all be driven into being that kind of thing. I couldn’t write the book for a long time because I couldn’t deal with Gertrude. I just didn’t want to admit “ideologically” that anyone like Gertrude could exist. We’ve all had bullying surrogate types who made us behave, made us put on lipstick, lower our eyes, etc. But Gertrude was different.
MH In a sense, Gertrude functions as a “Kapo”—a prisoner turned guard against her fellow prisoners.
KM You don’t run a system like this without Kapos.
MH There is a problem with the ideology that consistently promotes the view of women as purely victims of oppression. We have an enormous responsibility to see our own victimization and start to end it—to withdraw our consent. We talk about the patriarchy, yet most of the patriarchy comes home and lays his head on a woman’s breast and gets succor there to continue to go on the next day. There’s a lot of collusion.
KM We’re breaking the necks of our daughters, and that’s what Gertrude passes on: the stone that says we are a defeated people and this kid (Sylvia) will not learn. You’ve got the whole authoritarian personality in Gertrude. The true believer.
MH How did the system try to break you*
KM “Stopbeing a tomboy and be a good girl.” The nuns were always trying to make us demure. I had a big sister who had been expelled several times so I went for the big time and got thrown out five times. I was fortunate to get a very good education, but then they wouldn’t let me earn a living. That was when I started to join and organize. 1 joined the very first thing 1 heard about. I went to lectures the way a closet gay goes to a gay bar or as a junk food person sneaks out in the middle of the night with the thrills that go with it. I had already been told by my friends at the University of Oxford that because I read Vie Second Sex and quoted endlessly, I was a little unstable and maybe I should get some therapy and “adjust”. No—I went to those lectures and somebody from NOW got me to join and every week after that there was a new feminist group. I joined them all…Uptown, Downtown, Columbia, Now, Radical Women, Redstockings, the Lavender Menace, Radical Lesbians…I went to meetings all the time.
MH Did you come out as a lesbian at the same time as your growth as a feminist? What was the connection?
KM Feminism carried us all to such a height of euphoria that we thought it made a lot of sense to fall in love with each other. On the other hand, I did have a history…I had been a lesbian before I was married, and had been a lesbian in college, so it was a very pure and happy accident that I fell in love with a man and lived with him for 10 years. Now I was falling in love with women again and wow, it was even politically correct.
MH So, would you describe yourself as bisexual?
KM I guess so. I do have this one true case of being deeply in love with a man for a long time. I wasn’t just kidding myself. It would be a great shame if I hadn’t loved all of these people.
MH Were you egged on by feminists to come out publicly as a lesbian?
KM Oh sure, but that was fair enough because it all seemed to make a good deal of sense in terms of what feminism was trying to do. I wasn’t going to fall for the kind of thinking that said “It isn’t respectable and feminism could be hurt.” I was also egged on by the respectful feminists who would say “You can’t do this Kate1′, but I felt it was morally necessary and absolutely politically essential. If all of us who were gay said so, they couldn’t call us queers anymore at demonstrations. It would lose all its effect if we agreed we were.
MH Did you personally suffer for your political stand?
KM Those were very traumatic times for feminists in general. We were having enough trouble as it was with the media but it was a very wonderful and liberating experience and I did just fine. It also had another effect which was kind of nice for me. I was living in the television and the newspaper at the time, suddenly coming out of my happy little starving artist scholar obscurity. I found living in the television very crazy making, so when I said that I was a lesbian, bisexual, etc., and television and radio repeated this scandal, they didn’t need to hear from me anymore because I had become a patsy that they had set up.
MH So in other words they defined you, categorized you, and minimized you.
KM And got rid of me. I loved the fact that they got rid of me because now I had my life back. I could be a downtown artist. 1 couldn’t live in that crazy box anymore anyway.
MH But didn’t that take away your power to affect people? You were, after all, the only Radical Feminist that made the cover of Time.
KM 1 gave them the reasons why gay liberation was a path to the future and that we were dealing with sexual human rights, etc., but it backfired on them because the Women’s Movement took a very strong stand. This gave the Movement enormous momentum— we did a bang-up press conference and really laid out the political lines endorsing gay liberation whole-heartedly. I thought that was splendid because we’d done what I wanted us to do. Half of them were saying “We have to do this for Kate”, and I’d say, dear hearts, don’t do it for Kate, we’re talking principle. So that was very good. Now the Women’s Movement enters Big Trauma where they deal with their homosexuality, bisexuality, etc., which goes on for years. It is a trauma when you don’t solve it. They did turn off my knob and silenced me but I also got on with my work, which is writing books and making pictures and sculptures. You don’t really ever silence me anyway.
MH I wouldn’t think so. What do you think has been your major contribution so far?
KM Well, I’m sure the world is convinced it’s Sexual Politics but I still think of that as my Doctoral Thesis. I wanted The Basement to be big and I’m very disappointed that it hasn’t reached its public recognition. You have to be a little patient if you’re an artist, people don’t always get you the first time.
MH Sometimes they don’t get you at all. What are you working on now?
KM I have two new books we haven’t published yet. One’s called the Looney Bin Trip and the other is about my family and my Aunt.
MH The Looney Bin is about your experience with the mental health establishment?
KM It’s my crazy book. My coming out as a crazy. What else will I think of? I believe I’ve exhausted the list. I don’t cheat on my income tax, and I can’t think of anything elswe that I’m trying to hide. You’ve arrived at the end of my liberations.
MH You’ve been on some psychotropic medications for depression. Did they help you?
KM I’ve taken antidepressants but I don’t know how much they really help. The fact that there is somebody giving them out, some human sympathy, may help as much as the stuff itself. I took lithium for ages and ages and still take it; and think all the time that I really ought not to but it seems to be part of the conditions of my “parole”. If you ever tell anybody that you stopped taking it, then 12 minutes later they decide you’re crazy.
MH Are you doing any political work on mental health issues?
KM I’ve been to some conferences this year and met some of the people involved, and I’ve read anything I could get my hands on. I’ve been doing some speaking on advocacy and community mental health. It’s a very interesting movement, one that’s going to have to come to the forefront soon, hopefully when things loosen up a little.
MH Do you agree that for a woman to be mentally healthy in this system is an act of great radicalism? If you become aware of all the conditioning and political difficulties of the system it has to make you a little crazy or enraged on some level. You can either close your mind off, or exist in a constant state of opposition.
KM When you have buddies and comrades, of course, it’s a big high.
MH But if they put you out alone and then say, you’re crazy, we’re not going to listen to you and people move away from you, it can be very crushing.
KM And stressful. So you’re in a kind of turmoil between their emotions and yours.
MH But you set up a support system here at the Farm which seems to work well for you.
KM Yeah, but it also has its moments when it’s not that wildly supportive. It can be a pain in the neck. When I have all the responsibility, expense, and everything else and somebody at the farm can decide we shouldn’t have planted trees, we should have planted lettuce—it can be a big problem. In the beginning it was terribly hard work, 12 hours a day for the staunch, the hardy. Now it is getting to be infinitely easier. We’ve restored the land and grow little Christmas tree seedlings, and we only work five hours a day in the summer. You have to wait 10 years for this crop, so something’s got to give on the economic line. It’s much harder to build a community than it is to restore farmland or rebuild buildings.
MH Why is it difficult for women to work together’?
KM What we’re doing is strange. We’re sharing something and people are unaccustomed to dealing with: something they don’t own. For women to understand that they can come to the farm any time they want is kind of hard to believe. Suddenly they have a country house and all they have to do is show up. Some of them will put a paint brush in their hands for a couple of hours; the rest of the time they can get a sun tan, have terrific dinners, romp and do all the things they want to do. So, that’s an unusual thing and they see it as making this big desperate commitment and actually it is really kind of worry-free. But it’s a new idea and once they’ve been here for a while, they fall in love with the place. But then what will they do with it? They can’t own it because there’s no ownership, so they get very distressed and ambivalent, They have a hard time realizing that they can come back all the time.
MH It appears that you “let all flowers bloom” that there is no “politically correct” mind-set here at the farm.
KM Sometimes I want to throw in the towel. “I think you’re burning yourself out kid, nobody needs this many Christmas trees and certainly nobody needs this much grief. Go back to New York, write, forget about it all.” But now it’s beginning to work. You just have to keep at something. It’s about being stubborn and perseverance. You learn that working with the land. You keep mowing the dogwood until it no longer emerges to strangle your trees. It’s pretty much the same with this. You just keep believing in people’s good will, and there’s finally enough of it. This Spring has been wonderful because every time we really needed somebody, somebody drove up in a car and said oh yeah, I’m here, and we got everything done.
MH Do you have a sense of your own destiny? I know that your life has had a great deal of struggle. Have you come to terms with it?
KM Only on good days. Seriously, it’s getting a little surer now. Running a farm, there’s a lot of knowledge that one has to acquire very fast. There are so many ways you can err, and have to do it again next year, or a week later. My real terror is that the farm will consume me as an artist, so I’ve got to sort of slip out from under it. When I get this next book against torture finished I’m going to arrange my life so that I can really love writing and write just what I want to. Perhaps a book about my father and family. I want to write more autobiography. I think I’m ready for a lyric period or maybe loafing around foreign towns.
MH Where do you see women going? What more should they do?
KM I want to see it [the Movement] get more international because I think that we need the energy of people in other countries to clear our minds and go forward. Of course, this country is so basic to the general impression of the planet that the more we can energize and activate ourselves, the more it will be useful to fellow human beings, to fellow women in other places.
MH It’s your thinking that American feminists have been too isolated—too burned out…
KM Our tire got busted and we need somebody who knows how to change a tire.
MH Who do you see as having the ability to reenergize us?
KM Because of the book I’m doing on torture, I’m very aware of the political situations in South Africa, South America and Centra) America. I really want to see women of the two hemispheres come together, North and South. I think that’s our future. Our friends are European women but our real cousins (whom we haven’t met yet) are the women south of the border. We could be very germane to changing that situation along with the entire movement against racism and imperialism. It’s really essential that we do that and that there are beginnings. I went to Mexico last spring and realized that that’s my future. I’ll be going to Mexico and all over South America a great deal now because that’s where it’s going to be at. We can connect, and also it’s such a hopeful, wonderful thing to see it this other way—to begin to think about making a Pan American culture. It’s going to be (1 think) a delightful prospect. What wonderful women, what amazingly nice people all together, and how decent they are about their inevitable resentment against the United States of America. How really decent they are to you as an American when you and your ilk have caused them so much harm.
MH And we, always complaisant, have allowed Reagan to do this.
KM Because we thought it was economically advantageous to us. That is so short-sighted in terms of the economy—to penalize millions and millions of people. It’s not even good business—though that’s not why you shouldn’t do it. I truly believe women can be a real influence. We’ve got to become political, economic, heavy-duty and full citizens, not just arguing for issues that affect us personally, like “pay me the same amount of money,” or “take this disability away from me,” etc.
MH You mean move beyond the equality issues—to where feminism is a step in the process rather than the end of the process?
KM We need a totally different kind of political organization.
MH We need another level. Many women get very caught up in politics that relate purely to gender difference equity.
KM That just makes you another one of the other guys.
MH It’s liberal politics. Liberal feminism instead of radical feminism.
KM And it’s quite illiberal, finally.
MH Ultimately, it’s as you said, the difference between cutting up a piece of the same pie or rebaking it altogether.
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.