What inspired such an influential book? It’s hard to miss, as part of the answer, the role of orthodox liberal philosophy.
There’s even that most primal liberal idea: that we are made human by our ability to shape our own existence, in contrast to the animals who act from biological instinct.
What’s odd about this idea is that it means we can be more or less human, according to how much we are subject to forces we don’t decide for ourselves, such as traditions, or authorities, or behavioural codes or our own inherited nature. Our very humanity is put on the line.
This is particularly a problem for women, as traditional womanhood was centred on the biological act of motherhood and the emotional life associated with it, rather than an act of intellectual or wilful “self-making” as might be claimed by men competing in the public world of arts, sciences and politics.
This, at any rate, is how Kate Millett saw things. She wrote,
In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience. Therefore, nearly all that can be described as distinctly human rather than animal activity (in their own way animals also give birth and care for their young) is largely reserved for the male.
This is a devastating way to understand the traditional female role. It means that women are lower even than slaves – they are not even living as humans.
Why would women be assigned such a role? Millett argues at length, as she must, that there is nothing natural about the female role. In fact, Millett doesn’t even accept that our “core gender identity” is natural.
Instead, Millett makes a distinction between our “sex”, which is biological, and our “gender”, which is a product of culture. As she herself puts it:
Important new research not only suggests that the possibilities of innate temperamental differences seem more remote than ever, but even raises questions as to the validity and permanence of psycho-sexual identity. In doing so it gives fairly concrete positive evidence of the overwhelmingly cultural character of gender.
So why then do women have a role which robs them of their humanity? Millett answers: as an act of power by men over women. For Millett all politics is to be understood as a will to power by one group over another:
The term ‘politics’ shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another.
Millett believes that men are the dominant group who have subordinated women within a patriarchy:
the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft, a relationship of dominance and subordinance.
By this point there is no saving the position of love, marriage and family. They can only be understood as instruments of control by men over women:
Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family ... the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient ... Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale ... The concept of romantic love affords a means of emotional manipulation which the male is free to exploit ...
How to respond?
This then is the feminist path to bad faith, laid out so clearly for us by Kate Millett.
It begins with the idea that our humanity is contingent - that acting from a biological nature imperils our distinct status as humans. From this flows the claim that women’s traditional role, based around motherhood, denies women their humanity. This makes it awkward to view women’s role as natural; as an alternative the role is explained as a product of cultural influences. The leading position of men within public culture, the “human” sphere, similarly cannot be accepted as natural, but is explained as a politically organised dominance of men over women: a patriarchy. Love, marriage and the family, central as they are to relations between men and women, are then understood as “local” mechanisms of a male subordination of women.
There is, in other words, a chain of argument leading up to feminist expressions of bad faith. When Kate Millett writes of women being treated as chattels by men, or when she describes sexuality as an act of hostility by men toward women, or when she denies the real possibilities of love between men and women, denigrating love instead as a politically calculated manipulation, she does so within an ideological framework which appears to justify such claims.
However, in the feminist chain of argument there is no strong link – each argument can be easily pulled apart.
There is no compelling reason, for instance, to accept the idea that our status as humans is contingent. We certainly don’t feel this to be true. If I act according to instinct, or in obedience to a traditional authority, or from an inherited identity, I don’t feel my humanity to be under threat. Most of us, I expect, have a sense that our humanity is something that is with us as a matter of course and is more the sum total of our existence, rather than something we must self-consciously achieve as an act of “self-making”.
Once we view our human status this way, then we are more free to accept the significance of the traditional female role. Creating a new human life can be seen as important, even if it is connected closely to biology. Similarly, it becomes possible again to value the role women traditionally played as the emotional centre of family life.
Nor are we under the same pressure to deny that sex roles are natural. Millett wanted us to believe that the distinction between masculine and feminine was not natural: that it was an artificial product of culture and not biology. She claimed that “important new research” supported this view.
She has been proved wrong. Science has, in fact, proved the conservative view to be correct: that differences between men and women are hardwired into our biology. It is now accepted, for instance, that there are important differences between men and women in the structure of the brain.
Couldn’t this mean that the personalities of men have developed in a distinct way as part of their natural role as protectors and providers? Thousands of years ago, being a protector and provider might have meant organising to hunt together and establishing basic leadership councils to hold the tribe together. But as civilisation developed, these same functions might have been expressed in more sophisticated ways. The masculine personality might have been directed toward industry and economic development, and toward higher level political activity and interests.
The greater involvement of men in careers and politics might, therefore, simply be an expression of a positive and useful function played by men in society, something they are fitted for in their personalities, namely their traditional function of being providers and protectors. It does not have to be explained as an organised attempt to subordinate women. It might actually be something which has generally benefited women.
A failed experiment
Which brings us finally to love, marriage and the family.
Whereas a conservative might see love between a man and a woman as a finer part of human nature, leading ideally to marriage, an exclusive union for life of a man and a woman, Kate Millett regarded love and marriage as oppressive instruments of control over women.
And whereas a conservative might see the family as securing for women both emotional and material support, Millett took the more negative view that the family was a mechanism for subordinating women.
So which outlook has more validity? Millett herself decided to find out by living as part of a “sisterhood” rather than as part of a family. She used the money she made from the success of her book to buy a farm, which she invited other women to stay at.
According to Millett’s theory, by making this choice she ought to have escaped a patriarchal oppression and found happiness, freedom and fulfilment. What she actually did experience is recorded in a description of her life she wrote in 1998. It is too long to reproduce in full, but a few excerpts will do:
Another season at the farm ... the tedium of a small community, shearing trees, so exhausted afterward that I did nothing but read ... 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 ...
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? Nothing I write now has any prospect of seeing print ...
Frightening, this future. What poverty ahead, what mortification, what distant bag-lady horrors, when my savings are gone? And why did I imagine it would be any different, imagine my books would give me some slender living ...
Much as I tire of a life without purpose or the meaningful work that would make it bearable, I can’t die because the moment I do, my sculpture, drawings, negatives and silkscreens will be carted off to the dump ...
We [feminists] 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. There were despairs that could only end in death: Maria del Drago chose suicide, so did Ellen Frankfurt, and Elizabeth Fischer ...
Elizabeth and I would eat an afternoon breakfast and chat, carefully disguising our misery from each other. Feminists didn’t complain to one another then; each imagined the loneliness and sense of failure was unique.
The outcome of Millett’s experiment was loneliness, insecurity and a loss of purpose. I don’t think that this is accidental. If the family has resilience it is partly because it offers the possibility of a refuge from these things. This, though, is not something to be admitted by those, like Kate Millett, who understand the family primarily in terms of “sexual politics”.