This Last Interview With Famous Feminist Kate Millett Shows How Important Gay Women Are To Feminism
When feminist activist and author Kate Millett died on Sept. 6, at the age of 82, tributes poured in from around the world. One of them, a final interview with Millett published in the New Yorker, serves as an important reminder about the divisive relationship between queer women and feminism throughout the history of the movement, and how Millett helped to bridge that gap. Millett is best-known today for her work Sexual Politics, published in 1970 and still highly relevant to today's struggle with the patriarchy, but the short New Yorker interview presents another aspect of her work: what Millett, who was bisexual and married to a woman, thought of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, whose homophobic views of women in the feminist movement were well known.
These conversations continue to be important as the legacy of feminism's second-wave continues to make its mark. For one, acknowledging who second-wave feminism did and did not include gives us a good insight into what still needs to be done. For another, queer women in particular have had a complicated relationship with mainstream feminism. Looking at the issues between Millett and Friedan as a mere personality clash, as previous scholars may have been wont to do, ignores the vital lesson to be learned from their relationship as two leading figures of second-wave feminism: that homophobia and transphobia are incompatible with the fight for women's rights.
The "Lavender Menace" & Second-Wave Feminism's Homophobia Problem
To people who aren't super familiar with feminist history, it might be surprising that the New Yorker writer, Rachel Shteir, would spend an interview with one of the greatest luminaries of modern feminism asking about her feelings about events that happened 40 years ago. But that doesn't do justice to just how important the rift between Friedan and Millett was, and what it symbolized.
In the late '60s, Millett found herself at the center of a controversy at the heart of second-wave feminism. Friedan, famously, had referred to lesbians in the feminist movement in 1969 as "the lavender menace." She worried that if they came out as lesbians, they'd distract from issues of women's equality and create stereotypes about feminists as "man-hating." Friedan, who was straight and married to a man, said other things that were heavily homophobic. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic, re-examining The Feminine Mystique on its 50th anniversary in 2013, quotes Freidan referring to homosexuality as a "murky smog" spreading across America, and identifying "a recent increase in the overt manifestations of male homosexuality" as a sign that American children were being drilled with "parasitical softening" and "passive, childlike immaturity."
Friedan's comments in 1969 didn't go unnoticed. Shteir notes that Rita Mae Brown coordinated a protest against them at the Congress To Unite Women in 1970, where lesbians and queer feminists wore "lavender menace" T-shirts and stormed the stage. But Friedan's comments, and the attitude they espoused, became personal when Millett was outed in November by TIME magazine. At a rally organized to support Millett, Friedan was offered a lavender armband to wear in solidarity. She refused.
Millett, explaining what happened to Shteir, said: "You have to be loud and outspoken. [Friedan] hated the gay kids. They were messing up her program. We were naughty little kids. She wanted us to behave properly. We didn’t want to behave. She was ordering everyone around at all the demonstrations, and she took off the armband and threw it onto the ground. I felt sorry for her.”
The armband incident wasn't the last of the clashes between queer women and establishment feminism over the years, and the fight has created rancor on both sides. Professor Esther Newton has written that lesbians within feminism in the 1970s were often driven to form separatist movements, some of whom declared "lesbianism" to be "essential" to female liberation, and "pure" because it didn't involve men on any level. While they were "accused of elitism and arrogance," Newton said, they also had to cope with a lot from straight feminist women, often combatting stereotypes about lesbian masculinity and facing problems about peoples' discomfort with queer female sexuality. It's a wonder more women didn't get into situations like Friedan and Millett's.
What We Can Learn From The Friedan-Millett Rift
These days, acceptance of the rights of queer women as equal to those of heterosexual women in the fight for female equality is much more widespread. But first- and second-wave feminism's avoidance of issues that affect all women, not just straight, cis, white ones, is age-old, and has left long scars in how the movement is perceived.
The most famous example is in the treatment of women of color, specifically of Black American feminists, who were systematically excluded from the first wave of feminism, told to march at the back of the 1913 women's suffrage march on Washington D.C. (Ida B. Wells refused), and have battled significant hurdles for acceptance and recognition ever since. (Notably, Friedan's Feminine Mystique has also been accused of being racist, particularly by feminist theorist bell hooks; Millett's Sexual Politics has been criticized, too, for avoiding the topic of race.) But the Friedan-Millett rift remains relevant particularly in reference to queer women, who want to have their specific struggles recognized within the broader feminist movement. For all that we're extremely au fait with what intersectionality means, attempts to make feminism one-size-fits-all continue; at the 2017 Women's Marches across the country, NPR reported, some participants said that "racial tensions" about the March organization were a 'distraction' from the cause, on the grounds that "we should all be women first." Which is all well and good, until another aspect of your identity — be it race, class, identity, or orientation — seriously affects your experience and how others, including other women, treat you.
LGBTQ women are members of a minority, and their experience as non-straight people informs their experience of womanhood. The Office of the High Commissioner at the United Nations lists just some of the problems faced by gay people worldwide, from societal and familial rejection to discrimination in education and housing, and a high chance of being the target of homophobic abuse. Discrimination is particularly heightened for transgender women, who encounter severe dangers while also facing questions about whether they should be "allowed" to count as women by certain feminists.
We may have come a long way from the rift between Friedan and Millett in some ways. But in others, feminists continue to fight the same internal battles to recognize the levels of privilege that certain feminists have over others.