Kate Millett, Eng Lit and the The Farm in Poughkeepsie

Alice Neel 1970 on commission from TIME Magazine. It was their August 31st cover. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

There are pockets of Poughkeepsie that still have a rural look and feel. Cows graze and the corn is ripe for harvest. Old Overlook Road is one of them. It’s under fifteen minutes from my house and today I went to pay tribute to its most famous resident – Kate Millett who died in Paris last week.

In 1970 Millett dropped a huge the-personal-is-poltical rock into the male-centric pond of literary theory. Sexual Politics was groundbreaking. It unleashed the fury of outraged conservative critics and inspired and helped propel a whole social movement. The world has not been quite the same since.

By the time I got around to reading it I was already up to my ears teaching. I distinctly recall wondering what the Eng.Lit.  crowd at University College Cardiff would be making of it.

I had arrived at Cardiff –Prifysgol Caerdydd – at a time when the point of English Studies seemed to have been how to teach students how to read in order to know the universal truths to be imparted by great literature. The influence of F.R. Leavis was still strong. Leavis had put D.H.Lawrence on a pedestal. Millett was to knock him off.

”Sexual Politics made her a celebrity. The NY Times called it the Bible of Women’s Liberation and TIME magazine called her the “Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation” .

The head of the department was Gwynn Jones – a distinguished scholar of Norse sagas and recipient of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon. Translating gobbets of Anglo-Saxon was compulsory; undergraduate gowns were to be worn at his lectures and for all exams. And in all his thirty years he had never hired a woman.

Literature and its values were timeless and about universal human nature. Issues of sexuality, race, class and gender just didn’t need to come into it and anyway nobody was raising the questions.

Terry Hawkes was my tutor for a year and he always made lively fun of Bardolotory and was not averse to being distracted by conversations about popular culture and other such vaguely subversive topics. Shakespeare was a middle-class, middle-of-the-road-Midlander, he declared. Ginger Baker (of Cream) was completely overrated as a drummer and didn’t hold a candle to any run-of-the-mill jazz drummer.

In the 1970’s Hawkes and new hires in the department – including – gasp! – women – notably Catherine Belsey – established a new regime. Strange intellectual currents were swirling in from the continent and they were poised to ride the wave. The English Department at Cardiff was transformed into a hotbed of postmoderismist literary theory and he and Belsey were at the center of it. They would have read Sexual Politics.

Old Overlook is a quiet road, shaded by old trees. New construction will bring traffic but on the afternoon I visited I saw no-one and no car passed as I stopped to take a photograph and peer up the dirt road that had once led to the Christmas tree farm.

Millett first bought the property in 1971 and then – with the proceeds from a book advance – purchased additional acres in order to establish a sustainable farm and later a women’s arts colony – a community for women combining outdoor labor with creative work.

We know from her writing that there is a pond behind the house where women at the farm would swim.

She also lived for many years on the Bowery in NYC and she held the book party for Sexual Politics at the then very unfashionable – and yet to be legendary – CBGB’s bar. It was the first of eleven books.

When I first came to NY I remember a late night breakfast at Phebe’s at Bowery and 4th Street and a friend saying with awe, “That’s Kate Millett over there. She comes here all the time.”

I didn’t know if that were true but it certainly felt as if it could be. It was the late 1970’s.

Decades later I read The Looney-Bin Trip and was so taken with the raw honesty of her account of struggles with medication and mental illness. She disputed the diagnosis of manic -depression, fought against committal and the oppressive arm of state mandated psychiatry.

Reading it felt like being taken inside the very sane mind of someone who appears to others to be veering into crazy. It’s a fierce, unsparing, passionate and painful book and it’s back on my must re-read list.

The road up to the tree farm is blocked and paved with crushed rubble. I picked up a rusted washer, a piece of green glass and a shard of pottery, just because.

Eleanor Pam’s Kate Millett & Me: A Memoir of Friendship  is published on Veteran Feminists of America, a site dedicated to the work past and present of the second wave of American feminists. Millett also used it for the Bio section on her website. Eleanor Pam ends her memoir with a two paragraphs the first of which intrigued me and second of which seemed like a fine and fierce coda for Millett – brilliant scholar, tireless activist, talented artist. 

I was reminded of the young Kate and her short career as a kindergarten teacher, a job inspired by the example of my own steady paycheck and one I strongly encouraged her to take. She cheerfully became a kindergarten teacher in Harlem and had a lovely time with the children, painting and listening to chamber music. Yet she was terminated from that job because her class was unruly and the noise (and the children) spilled out into the halls. But most of all, because of bitter complaints by the 3rd grade teachers that Kate had taught the tots to read! This was an outrageous and fatal offense because reading wasn’t on the curriculum until 3rd grade!

Does anyone know who first created this.? Would love to give them credit.

That was Kate, then and now–a rebel, an anarchist, a free-spirited gangster who wouldn’t behave, a woman who, at enormous cost to herself, led the rest of us–sometimes kicking and screaming, often at her–into the future.

We owe the women of Kate’s generation of feminist scholars, thinkers and activists such a debt of gratitude. Their courage knew no bounds.

There are examples of Millett’s art work on her website. Here are a few:

How soon hath time the subtle thief of
undershirts, tank tops even great August itself
stolen on its wing that particular summer.
How Soon Hath
Silkscreen, 1986.

Lustrife on White Background Silkscreen, 1986, purple and green ink. (Purple, green and white – the colors of the Women’s Suffrage movement.)

Everyday holding it together just as it comes apart again
Another leaves, something else breaks or won’t start
The money’s gone or the weather turns against us.
Big as life, this farm filling the whole sky with passion.
Everyday Holding it Together
Silkscreen, 1987.

Naked Ladies

(Purple, green and whitethe colors of the Women’s Suffrage movement)

New York Times Magazine Cover. Pictured clockwise from top right: Phyllis Chesler, Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, Ann Snitow, Alix Kates Shulman in the center. Article by Vivian Gornick, April 1990.

2 Comments

  1. It’s a real shame that for too long Kate Millett was remembered as the person Oliver Reed tried to kiss on a late night TV programme. Her death has at least allowed many of us to fill in the gaps, and personal histories of how she influenced and inspired people like yours are especially valuable. Thank you.
    David Nice´s last blog post ..Rouvali electrifies in Sibelius’s Kullervo

    • Interesting that I didn’t know about Oliver Reed’s alcohol fueled attempt at sexual assault – I had to go look it up. Reed should have stuck to rolling around naked with Alan Bates.

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