I. Overview of book
II. Stardom and the Protestant Ethic
III. The Central Problem: Whose Perspective?
IV. Feminine Role-Playing: Reactions to Male Radicals
Overview of book
Flying is the autobiography of one of the earliest lesbian feminist leaders in the United States. In her 20s in the 1960s, Millett comes from that political era in which Maoism had a profound impact on youth and national minorities. MIM reviews this book at length because it is such a perfect statement of the kind of views that paralyzed and eventually snuffed out the radical feminist movement of the late 1960s-- views that still predominate in the remnants of the women's liberation movement.
Most of the book consists of small details common to autobiographies, but Maoism is perhaps the third most frequently discussed issue in a general list of issues causing creative tension in the book. The most important area of discussion is the practice of lesbianism. Millett sees herself as accountable to women, lesbians in particular, and hence women claiming to uphold a purer and more correct lesbian feminism hold much of Millett's attention throughout the book. (e.g. Jill Johnston, p. 345)
The second and largest area of tension in the book concerns monogamy, especially Millett's guilts and desires in connection to her lovers. With one of the lovers she would like to do without, Millett brings up typical idealist-pseudo- Marxism: "Private property is dead, I told Vita in the meadow after the march." (p. 493) Millett talks at length about making people get over jealousy evoked by her "free love" practices so ardently defended. Told that "free love" is impossible in society currently, Millett said, "to get out of monogamy is hard but it's worth it." (p. 461) Again, there does not appear to be any power structure to overthrow: if we wish hard enough we can wish away private property or so it would seem from Millett's writings typical of a generation's fatuous idealism. Although she believes she is a socialist and holds sympathy for the revisionist Communist Party of the time, Millett seems to forget that the society she lives in is capitalist still.
The third area of tension in the book concerns Maoism. In Flying, Maoism does not receive the attention that lesbianism and free love do, but in reality Millett's whole book is a reaction to the Maoism dominant in the student and national minority movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. We Maoists are only so fortunate that Millett was honest enough to present the evidence in connection to this point. Hence although Maoists have little in common with Millett's political approach, she has set up the contrast so well that it is a kind of service to the proletariat. Her ideas eclipsed those of Maoism in influence within Amerika by the mid-1970s and ever since her ideas have continued to retain more influence in larger numbers of Amerikans than Maoism has. We now turn to a presentation and criticism of those views on lesbian feminism, monogamy and Maoism.
Stardom and the Protestant Ethic
Like Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett came to fame through Time magazine. Compared with Steinem, however, it appears that Millett received slightly less favorable coverage. One of the main areas of guilt that Millett deals with in the book is becoming a media-selected "star" proponent of lesbian politics. Throughout the book, she comes under attack from feminists and hard-line lesbians as an "elitist." What makes matters worse is that Millett is really a bisexual who is married to a Japanese man. According to Millett, on her speaking tours and in her organizing, she came under pressure to be a more pure lesbian and she often felt hypocritically trapped in the role her book Sexual Politics and Time magazine created for her.
Here is one thought that crossed her mind regarding herself as an instant role model of change: "It doesn't work out with women. Should never have started again. Stick by your principles: Support Gay Liberation the whole way. But forget the practice. Nothing in it but the pain. They can say in public that I'm a queer, but that doesn't mean I have to be. Tell the truth--then outwit it in private." (p. 6)
This kind of hypocrisy is an issue throughout the book, mainly because of Millett's steadfast refusal to take a structuralist approach to patriarchy. When it comes down to it, Millett believes patriarchy is not a system but an attitude and lifestyle choice. Like many other unoriginal thinkers of the last 2000 years, Millett rewrites the Ten Commandments and then focuses people's attention on whether those commandments are upheld. Like countless other Christians, Millett does not care how successful her commandments are in practice in society at-large, only that individuals carry out the commandments after adequate preaching of them. She has no sense that some structures of society make living her ethics a lot easier than other structures.
When it comes to why she does not live life perfectly, Millett says, "I am all waver, I doubt everything." (p. 14) An example is how bad she feels about not being a pure lesbian: "Finally I am accused. 'Say it! Say you are a Lesbian.' Yes I said. Yes. Because I know what she means. The line goes, inflexible as a fascist edict, that bisexuality is a cop-out. Yes I said yes I am a Lesbian. It was the last strength I had." (p. 15) Having no sense of revolutionary science, it is no wonder that Millett believes correct practice is always a matter of being personally "strong."
Millett buys into the Protestant ethic wholesale in other aspects of life. She says repeatedly to her critics that the reason that she is in Time magazine, gets speaking engagements and obtains finances for films is that she works harder than other women in the movement who criticize her. (p. 402-3) (MIM agrees with Millett that it is legitimate to fight Christianity with Christianity: defend one individual practice relative to another; although, what good this does in the end is dubious. What we should really compare is different political lines and movements that embrace or could embrace millions.) Like the middle-class generally, Millett believes good and bad are a matter of taking responsibility for one's individual actions, working hard etc. (See page 21 for how she is "one of the few productive women we have," page 29 for how weakness is a reason "to despise myself all night," p. 55, how all her "crazy theories" were "hot air" because of her weak hypocritical practice.) Like many other lesbians, Millett believes she has a strong disdain for the Church, but in the end even she admits that she is caught in its discourse.
Whether to be monogamous or not and the question of how much she satisfies or hurts various lovers is the preoccupation of the book. "That book is all about your sex life." (p. 255)
This kind of individualistic and moralistic focus pervades the book. Its only positive aspect is that one could get the sense from the individual failings of so many people that it is useless to speak of gender as other than a system. Millett finds that lesbians play sex-power games against each other (p. 124); she recognizes how her sexual relationship with her secretary is fundamentally no different than the kind of thing her movement condemns (p. 196) and finally she admits that her own tastes in sex trouble her as she believes that she has not escaped socialization (pp. 152-3 etc.).
The Central Problem: Whose Perspective?
"I found the Left could mean dull persons shouting at meetings. Boring me to death with their egos. With words. Verbiage more outrageous the less it meant. . . Living lives of frenzied emotionality based on the sufferings of other persons in other countries about whom they seemed to care very little except to find them convenient for certain neurotic needs and schemes of their own." (p. 359)
People who take the perspective of the international proletariat as necessary for the most radical change are suspect according to Kate Millett. Employing the psychiatrists' smear against something she admits to knowing nothing about, she finds these people "neurotic." Psychological smear tactics are certainly a lot easier than actually finding out what works in the history of social change and what doesn't.
From this book a person would hardly know it that women bear the brunt of starvation in the world, the most important source of violence; yet, Kate Millet claims to be a feminist. Even in sexual matters, one would hardly know that Third World women are the most oppressed and naturally disposed to radical change.
As is clear in the acknowledgements of the Redstockings book Feminist Revolution and as is clear from Millett's own disdain for the feminist movement's copying the Black movement, (p. 209) women's movements learned strange lessons from Black nationalism. A wishful kind of thinking still prevalent today is that if Blacks pay attention to Black issues, women to women's issues and workers to workers' issues, everything will come out all right.
Millett quotes someone as follows: "'All day we've talked about the working class yet all of us are middle class, we talk about investment [in South Africa--mc5] but nobody here has any money to invest, we talk about Africa and live in suburbia. We talk about racism and have never had relationships with persons of another race. We have been doing it for years." (p. 298)
The problem with the above quote is that white nation workers and white nation women do not have the same interests and perspectives as the Third World laboring classes. Hence, they cannot "work on their own oppressions first" and the kind of things mentioned in the above quote without working against the Third World proletariat and working against the Third World masses in history is a futile exercise. That is not a moralistic statement, the kind that Millett likes to shoot down as a straw man. The point is not that Vietnamese peasants are "superior." (p. 365) The point is that the Vietnamese peasant during the Vietnam War had a much more desperate interest in change than the First World lesbians like Millett did. When we do not adopt that perspective of the Third World toilers, we fail to take the most radical perspective, the most effective perspective in moving forward.
Feminine Role-Playing: Reactions to Male Radicals
"He lectures me on politics, an old master with a store of knowledge who has memorized the history of the Communist Party, American radicalism since the Founding Fathers, and every wrinkle of the New Left. Paul teaching me. His affection. Also his sternness. Every fact he produces intimidates me further, elaborate evidence of my absolute incapacity to be what I'm supposed to." (p. 276)
This first admission amounts to the supposed historic inability of women to engage in politics. That's Millett's step one in buying into feminine socialization.
"One assassination follows another in his recital, the full panorama of historical bad faith. I protest against the inevitable pattern. 'You are too soft,' he says, dismissing me. Now I am a cream puff. I sag." (p. 276-7)
All one gathers again is the gender roles and most likely when she uses the word "assassination" she is referring to criticism of herself. This was a tactic throughout the book to protest how much she was hurt by her critics. The words "stab," "knife" etc. are used to refer to verbal criticism, not real acts of physical violence. She goes on.
"He has done this to me before. I feel bullied. I also feel absurd. In paying me the compliment of taking me seriously, he takes me too seriously. Paul has got it in his head I am some kind of politico or another." (p. 277)
Now Millett invites male chauvinism by claiming not to be serious about politics, that somehow she populates a different world, the world of artist--a frequent refuge for women who do not wish a direct confrontation with gender oppression. Next she throws in the towel completely on politics itself, the study of power.
"'Look, Paul, I just care about change. I'd like to dedicate myself to that somehow. I'm not quite sure what it is or what I can do. But I know it's not about power. And what I have in mind is somehow more basic to experience than a 'politics' that is 'out there.' . . .I'm interested in something entirely different and trying to figure it out with myself first--how I could get it together, change myself.'" (p. 277)
The above emphasis opposing all politics and focussing on self-change first shows that Millett is really the forerunner of the New Age movement that absorbed all those not quite conforming to the system but not ready to take it on either. She certainly shares all the trite individualism, idealism and historically ignorant claims to originality that the New Age fad embodies.
Here is a clearer justification of what Millett thinks. "We are naive and moralistic women. We are human beings. Who find politics a blight upon the human condition. And do not know how one copes with it except through politics. And more directly through change, liberation, small personal things, subjective exercises appropriate only to persons with enough to eat, residence in one of the supposedly advanced, namely developed, capitalist and imperialist nations. Who if they made certain inroads upon their own society could redirect it even to the advantage of the others upon whose neck it stands." (p. 359, more on politics, p. 418)
This is the most direct statement Millett makes that justifies taking the perspective she does instead of the scientific outlook of the revolutionary proletariat. She admits that what she does is limited, but still finds justification in that somehow if more people could make her small steps, the imperialist countries would not step on the oppressed anymore.
Yet, Millett also knows that she really can't make important claims like that, because she does not claim to have studied what she is talking about very much. She claims to be working on her own oppression. However, no First World person who has made no effort to understand how the world works--how First World oppression is related to Third World oppression--can understand much less be a positive factor in the eradication of imperialism. As it turns out, people who cannot understand the Third World and imperialism have done much less for women's liberation than the movements that do address imperialism head-on.
If Kate Millett did not exist, MIM would have had to invent her to explain how it is that many 1960s radicals found their way into a pseudo-feminist dead-end. In the guise of radical feminism, Millett has already accepted that she is incapable of politics; although she is capable of humanely apologizing profusely for making so many lectures, talks and books without studying what she is talking about systematically. In addition, her coherent acceptance of the feminine role reaches its epitome in her rejection of armed struggle, leadership and Maoism. Her reaction to the Black Panthers is that the "Radical Lesbians" were much more real than the Panthers. "There is another way than playing god with life or performing maniac as talking star. I cannot believe in the gun. As as for the leader thing, I am a coward before the crowd, standing before it dizzy with my ignorance." (p. 30)
Although this was dishonest on her part, because what she said amounted to covering up and denying the leadership (misleadership) role she was playing in her talks, movies and press conferences, Millett again expresses the perfect conservative disempowerment socialization of femininity. She opposes both the leadership and armed struggle advocated by the Black Panthers. "But the Left is wearing its jeans and its stompers and is dying to kill you too, it's so revolutionary. America is a prick on a rampage." (p. 233) She goes on to make approving references to Gandhi, the overwhelming military power of the Establishment and "prick gun Cleaver." (p. 330-1, 365-8, 379) "Cheer up, this is only England, you still need not choose between violent revolution or the everyone-says- empty stance of pacifism," she says. (p. 296)
In statements like the above, Millett also makes it clear that at the time in the late 1960s, she felt constantly outnumbered and pressured by Maoists. References to Maoists and their organizations abound (p. 30, 68, 69, 209, 260, 331 etc.). For example, Millett sums up the situation of many women like herself who were involved in politics with her put-down of some radical women from New Haven. Millett says of these women that they sound "like everyone's Weatherman boyfriend." (p. 69) [The Weatherman was a semi-Maoist radical group--mc5] To Millett it is inconceivably unfeminine for a woman to take up revolutionary politics; hence women could only do so under the coercion of their boyfriends. By saying this, once again Millett buys into common views of women by maligning the independent thought processes of women, as if it were impossible for them to reach the conclusion of revolutionary politics using their own brain cells.
In the end, Millett herself makes a good point about the nature of the oppression she is fighting: "It always comes to this, and I know that no freedom of mine justifies someone's else's pain." (p. 91) She goes on to talking about the pain of dealing with parents and heterosexual lovers when it comes to her lesbianism. However, in this context, MIM agrees with Millett: oppressions that do not involve loss of life itself do not justify armed struggle. The liberty of sexual orientation by itself is not cause for armed struggle except where life is at stake, which it certainly is not in Millett's context. Herein lies the reason why it is not enough to just "work on one's own oppression first." Taking a narrow First World lesbian perspective, one might conclude that armed struggle and radical change are not necessary. That means one would pit oneself against the Third World liberation struggles. Instead, those of us who want effective and fast social change should adopt the perspective of those social groups most likely to be a vehicle of radical change.
While Millett opposes armed struggle and has no historic sense of what works to promote change and what doesn't, we are not surprised to find her adopting classic feminine strategies of social change--charity and social work. She engages in both in her practice. Something she talks about at length is organizing herself and others to give labor-intensive help to a crippled child needing physical therapy. (e.g. p. 282, p. 446 on food charity)
In conclusion, MIM agrees with Millett in her defense of gay/lesbian lifestyles under attack by bigoted mainstream heterosexuals. At the same time, MIM agrees with almost nothing that Millett says to the "left" or radical feminists. In fact, her book is a long list of what is wrong with Amerikan pseudo-feminism. Kate Millett led the way in constructing a new femininity in reaction to the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Millett's socialist veneer and insider status in the movement only makes her all the more reactionary in her impact. The saddest part of all is that her rejection of the Maoist ideas of her time in the name of independent feminist politics has resulted in an increase in the strength of patriarchy and the dependence of women on men. That her ideas have proved to be a historical dead-end is something she does not care to study, because dirtying her hands in the study of politics would be improper for someone of her kind of "feminism."
Related MIM Readings: Ask for these
Comparing Gandhi and Mao, MIM Notes 39 MIM Theory 2/3 on gender oppression Why vanguard parties with strong leadership are necessary: What Is To Be Done? and our reply to "American Leninism." Redstockings, Feminist Revolution.