Saturday, September 9, 2017
The Second Kating
I came of feminist age in an era when the radical feminism of the "second wave" that was launched by Kate Millett's book Sexual Politics (1970) had been rejected by most women as patronising in portraying women as helpless victims who needed our consciousness raised to realise just how oppressed and deluded about our freedoms and choices we were, so as not to collude in our own oppression.
Many young women in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s rejected 'radical' feminism and feminists as old-fashioned, aggressive, anti-men and altogether unsexy, claiming they had power in their sexuality and the freedom to do whatever they wanted and they only had to assert that 'girl power'. The system was not the problem, men were not the problem, women whinging about it was. Indeed the battle of the sexes was pretty much won and feminism was a politics we no longer needed or wanted. Women's Studies courses shut up shop and 'gender mainstreaming' became the new, 'post-feminist' ideal. In 2010 Taylor Swift, one of the most influential role-models for young women, declared she was not a feminist. The "F-word" was officially dead.
Kate Millett meanwhile was quietly going broke, having found herself for many years unemployable, and struggling to make her women's artist collective work (by growing and selling Christmas trees).
It is bittersweet that she died just as the feminism she politicised that argued that the personal is political, that almost everything we do, as women (and as men), reinforces the system of patriarchal oppression unless we speak out against it and resist the structures that uphold that system, from sexist cultural narratives in media and art to ongoing inequities in the number of women in positions of power and influence, is undergoing a revival. Taylor Swift now identifies as a feminist, indeed.
If Kate had to live to see Trump elected to lead her country, rather than the election of the first female president, and after he actually campaigned on threats to remove women's reproductive rights and send women who have abortions to prison, rights she had fought to set in place, she also got to see the new and similarly radical feminist wave of resistance and 'consciousness raising' that his election unleashed. The feminist sisterhood is back with renewed purpose and force.
While I personally never gave up on the radical feminist message of a politicised sisterhood bringing about a cultural revolution, despite coming of age between the waves and being raised by an anti-feminist mother who came of age between the first and second waves, if Millett's life and work tells us anything lasting it is that the battle for the equality of the sexes and against entrenched ideas and systems of male domination in culture, law and politics, must not lose faith and force again. A wave every thirty to fifty years hardly a sea of change makes.
So I can hardly say rest in peace, Kate Millett, while there is so much yet to be done in her name. But at least I might wish that she rest in the knowledge that she was right and that her efforts were not in vain. The personal is political indeed, but with radical feminist change it doesn't have to be. Viva la permanent wave!