Sexual Politics

Yet another mega-hit from the Second Wave, published in 1970, billed as “a surprising examination of society’s most arbitrary folly,” and composed of equal parts literary and cultural criticism. Fantastic intellectual exploration that also provides juicy new vocabulary by introducing or reminding me of harridan, quisling, tergiversation, inchoate.
She starts by exposing a bunch of snippets from Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet, uncovering the power dynamic with (I assume) a wry smile. Her second chapter, Theory of Sexual Politics, “the most important in the book,” formulates patriarchy as a political institution. This powerful second chapter analyzes the situation from ideological, biological, sociological, class, economic, force, anthropological and psychological dimensions. Millett is nothing if not thorough in her surgical analysis. She also points to two important Western archetypes that condemn woman through sexuality and justify her punishment: Pandora myth (as told in Hesiod: her box is genitalia and its opening brings sexual knowledge then downfall) and the infamous Fall of Genesis.
Equally powerful is the chapter on the first phase (1830-1930) of the sexual revolution, diving into the political (paradoxes & women’s movement – education, political organization, employment), polemical (Mill vs Ruskin: the problem of nature & education, the domestic theme; Engels’ revolutionary theory), and literary aspects (Jude the Obscure, The Egoist, Villette; contrasting poetry of Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne; pitting Ibsen vs. Wilde). She describes Dickens’ Dombey and Son as a “nearly perfect indictment of both patriarchy and capitalism.”
The dissection of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State deserves space here. Engels traces the roots of patriarchy back to conception of family, and is influenced by Bachofen’s idea of ancient matriarchy. However, he fails to account for one crucial event – the patriarchal takeover. Using evidence from Aeschylus’s Furies, she points to a confrontation drama between patriarchal authority and the defeated claims of an earlier order. “In Aeschylus’ dramatization of the myth one is permitted to see patriarchy confront matriarchy, confound it through the knowledge of paternity, and come off triumphant. Until Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door announcing the sexual revolution, this triumph went nearly uncontested.”
So what allowed the counterrevolution (1930-1960) to happen? The earlier revolution concentrated on the “superstructure of patriarchal policy, changing its legal forms, its more flagrant abuses, altering its formal educational patterns, but leaving the socialization process of temperament and role differentiation intact.” This psychic structure build over several millennia was not pierced, the family still stood intact. (Trotsky: “You cannot ‘abolish’ the family, you have to replace it”) Freud joined the scene and set things back a few decades with his idiotic theories based in no reality.
My enthusiasm flagged with the remaining chapters and I admit to skimming wildly over the sections detailing the failure of feminism in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. She concludes the book with an in-depth analysis of the misogynistic literature of DH Lawrence, and revisits her earlier evisceration of Miller, Mailer, and Genet. This third part would be a tremendous resource for anyone wanting to avoid the work of reading these authors and yet being able to crib together a book report.
Some brief snippets that bit my brain:

  • “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different – and this is crucial.” (p 31)
  • “In the matter of conformity patriarchy is a governing ideology without peer; it is probable that no other system has ever exercised such a complete control over its subjects.” (p 32-3)
  • “… the priorities of maintaining male supremacy might outweigh even those of white supremacy; sexism may be more endemic in our own society than racism.” (p 39)
  • “Because the opposition (to women’s voting) was so monolithic and unrelenting, the struggle so long and bitter, the vote took on a disproportionate importance. And when the ballot was won, the feminist movement collapsed in what can only be described as exhaustion. (p 83-4)

On chivalry:

In comparison with the candor of “machismo” or oriental behavior, one realizes how much of a concession traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. (p 37)

Lower class attitudes being co-opted into middle class:

The fairly blatant male chauvinism which was once a province of the lower class or immigrant male has been absorbed and taken on a certain glamour through a number of contemporary figures, who have made it, and a certain number of other working-class male attitudes, part of a new, and at the moment, fashionable life style. So influential is this working-class ideal of brute virility (or more accurately, a literary and therefore middle-class version of it) become in our time that it may replace more discreet and “gentlemanly” attitudes of the past. (Footnote: Mailer and Miller occur to one in this connection, and Lawrence as well.) (p 37-8)

I’ve struggled to understand why not all women are awakened, and this helps (emphasis mine):

Aristotle observed that the only slave to whom a commoner might lay claim was his woman, and the service of an unpaid domestic still provides working-class males with a “cushion” against the buffets of the class system which incidentally provides them with some of the psychic luxuries of the leisure class. Thrown upon their own resources, few women rise above working class in personal prestige and economic power, and women as a group do not enjoy many of the interest and benefits any class may offer its male members. Women have therefore less of an investment in the class system. But it is important to understand that as with any group whose existence is parasitic to its rulers, women are a dependency class who live on surplus. And their marginal life frequently renders them conservative, for like all persons in their situation (slaves are a classic example here) they identify their own survival with the prosperity of those who feed them. The hope of seeking liberating radical solutions of their own seems too remote for the majority to dare contemplate and remains so until consciousness on the subject is raised. (p 38)

More along these lines of the psychological effect of patriarchy, why women not only don’t recognize their oppression, but actively participate in it:

When in any group of persons, the ego is subjected to such invidious versions of itself through social beliefs, ideology, and tradition, the effect is bound to be pernicious. This coupled with the persistent though frequently subtle denigration women encounter daily through personal contacts, the impressions gathered from the images and media about them, and the discrimination in matters of behavior, employment, and education which they endure, should make it no very special cause for surprise that women develop group characteristics common to those who suffer minority status and marginal existence. A witty experiment by Phillip Goldberg proves what everyone knows, that having internalized the disesteem in which they are held, women despise both themselves and each other. This simple test consisted of asking women undergraduates to respond to the scholarship in an essay signed alternately by one John McKay and one Joan McKay. In making their assessments the students generally agreed that John was a remarkable thinker, Joan an unimpressive mind. Yet the articles were identical: the reaction was dependent on the sex of the author.
As women in patriarchy are for the most part marginal citizens when they are citizens at all, their situation is like that of other minorities, here defined not as dependent upon numerical size of the group, but on its status. “A minority group is any group of people who because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment.” (footnote: It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning.) Only a handful of sociologists have ever addressed themselves in any meaningful way to the minority status of women. And psychology has yet to produce relevant studies on the subject of ego damage to the female which might bear comparison to the excellent work done on the effects of racism on the minds of blacks and colonials. (p 55)

Emotional response to violence against women in patriarchy is often curiously ambivalent; references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment. Exemplary atrocity, such as the murders committed by Richard Speck, greeted at one level with a certain scandalized, possibly hypocritical indignation, is capable of eliciting a mass response of titillation at another level… In view of the sadistic character of public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response. Probably a similar collective frisson sweeps through racist society when its more “logical” members have perpetrated a lynching. Unconsciously, both crimes may serve the larger group as a ritual act, cathartic in effect. (p 45)

I’ve been curious about the spike in overt hostility I perceive over my lifetime. Millett suggests an increase in “permissiveness in expression since the 20s (since suffrage?):

Hostility is expressed in a number of ways. One is laughter. Misogynist literature (is) the primary vehicle of masculine hostility… Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance literature in the West has each had a large element of misogyny (footnotes cite Petrarch & Boccaccio, see Rogers’ The Troublesome Helpmate for more detail)… As courtly love was transformed into romantic love, literary misogyny grew somewhat out of fashion… declined into ridicule and exhortative satire. In the nineteenth century its more acrimonious forms almost disappeared in English. Its resurrection in twentieth-century attitudes and literature is the result of a resentment over patriarchal reform, aided by the growing permissiveness in expression which has taken place at an increasing rate in the last fifty years… Since this tendency to hurt or insult has been given free expression, it has become far easier to assess sexual antagonism in the male… The rationale which accompanies that imposition of male authority euphemistically referred to as “the battle of the sexes” bears a certain resemblance to the formulas of nations at war, where any heinousness is justified on the grounds that the enemy is either an inferior species or really not human at all. The patriarchal mentality has concocted a whole series of rationales about women which accomplish this purpose tolerably well. (p 45-6)

Meredith’s The Egoist falls short in the end:

Throughout the novel she was a person in the process of becoming, but by the last page she has not succeeded in becoming anyone but Mrs. Vernon Whitford, which is to say, no one at all. Meredith knows how to save her from the egoist, but he can think of nothing else to do for her. A life more occupied and interesting than mere mating – for good or ill – never seems to have occurred to him in connection with an intelligent young woman. (p 139)

On Brontë’s Villette:

As there is no remedy to sexual politics in marriage, Lucy very logically doesn’t marry. But it is also impossible for a Victorian novel to recommend a woman not marry… Had Brontë’s heroine “adjusted” herself to society, compromised, and gone under, we should never have heard from her. Had Brontë herself not grown up in a house of half-mad sisters with a domestic tyrant for father, no “prospects” as marital security was referred to, and with only the confines of governessing and celibacy staring at her from the future, her chief release the group fantasy of “Angria,” that collective dream these strange siblings played all their lives, composing stories about a never-never land where women could rule, exercise power, govern the state, declare night and day, death and life – then we would never have heard from Charlotte either. Had that been the case, we might never have known what a resurrected soul wished to tell upon emerging from several millennia of subordination. (p 147)