Sexual Politics, 1970
The Prostitution Papers, 1971; rev. ed. 1976
The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, 1979
Going to Iran, 1981
The Loony-Bin Trip, 1990
The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, 1994
A.D., a Memoir, 1995
Mother Millett, 2001
Three Lives, 1971
Katherine Murray Millett (MIHL-iht) earned a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1956; studied at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, for two years; and received a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1970. Her published dissertation, Sexual Politics, which sold eighty thousand copies, is regarded as one of the first works of literary criticism from a feminist perspective. In it Millett points out that the work of such writers as D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller is patently antagonistic to women; by contrast, she extols the virtues of the French writer and critic Jean Genet, whose work, she argues, reverses harmful social stereotypes.
Much of Millett’s work can be divided as being either autobiographical or political. Flying, the first of her autobiographical works, describes a point in Millett’s life when, after the success of Sexual Politics, she had become a somewhat unwilling spokeswoman for the feminist movement. In this work she discusses the the ramifications of her celebrity and of her having acknowledged her lesbianism, and she describes her search for identity and fulfillment as an artist and as a human being. Flying, even more so than Millett’s other autobiographical works, immerses its readers in the author’s life. The style, which often approaches stream-of-consciousness, is characterized by short, staccato, allusive sentences that seem to mimic the actual process of her thoughts about the issues of her life.
In Sita, an autobiographical work that is more personal and less political than Flying, Millett frankly describes her desperate, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to preserve a relationship with an older woman named Sita, who seems to be losing interest in her.
The Loony-Bin Trip describes what happens when Millett stops taking lithium for a manic-depressive disorder. Her family, friends, and the young women residents at The Woman’s Art Colony Farm, which she founded near Poughkeepsie, New York, begin to insist that she resume taking her medication. Narrowly escaping involuntary commitment to a mental hospital several times, Millett is finally tricked into entering a horrifyingly backward Catholic facility in Ireland, after spending the night in an airport and washing her hair in a public restroom. Drugged and held virtually a prisoner, she is rescued several weeks later, when a friend finally discovers her whereabouts and goes to court to obtain her release. In The Loony-Bin Trip Millet discusses the definitions of sanity and insanity and condemns the fact that merely eccentric or unusual behavior is often wrongly considered unacceptable and therefore insane.
Like Sexual Politics, Millett’s less autobiographical political writing is noteworthy in part because she takes positions that do not seem clear until they are pointed out. In Going to Iran she discusses how harmful the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime was to women’s rights. The Politics of Cruelty is a discussion of various incidents of torture that have taken place over the last century in Nazi Germany, Algeria, South America, and elsewhere. Millett poses the question of why supposedly civilized societies do not do something to end torture. This theme also underlies The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, which describes the torture and murder of a girl by her foster mother, the foster mother’s children, and some neighbor boys; along with Millett’s meditations on the incident, the work includes an imagined diary in the voice of Gertrude Baniszewski, the instigator of the girl’s death. After first reading an account of this incident, Millett was obsessed with it for many years; in her work as a sculptor, she did nothing but create cages for ten years as she considered this murder.
A.D. is a memoir of Millett’s beloved but sometimes frightening Aunt Dorothy, who paid Millett’s way through Oxford but then appeared to lose interest in her and never forgave her for being a lesbian and an artist. At the heart of the memoir is Millett herself as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her aunt leaves her only twenty-five thousand dollars, whereas she leaves a quarter of a million to a cousin who had never been close to A.D. Eventually she decides to apply the money toward a New York loft apartment; she thereby converts the money into means by which to validate her belief in herself and in her status as an artist.
Mother Millett relates Millett’s struggles in taking care of her aging and infirm mother. Millett’s mother was the one who had had her committed to the mental hospital in Ireland, and Millett’s experiences there made her determined not to abandon her mother to similar treatment in an old age home. The book is as much a meditation on the positive and negative aspects of mother-daughter relationships as a commentary on the way that the elderly are treated in the United States.