Mediating a Movement, Authorizing Discourse: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, and Feminism's Second Wave

By Poirot, Kristan | Women's Studies in Communication, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Mediating a Movement, Authorizing Discourse: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, and Feminism's Second Wave


Poirot, Kristan, Women's Studies in Communication


Mass media's relationship with feminism has long been of interest to feminist rhetorical scholars. In this essay, I examine the media's relationship with the second wave of feminism in terms of the outing of Kate Millett and the popular reception of her book, Sexual Politics. Rather than separating the movement's reception of Millen and the popular media reception, I explore how both intersected and culminated in disciplinary processes of authority and authorization.

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The summer of 1970 proved to be a pivotal moment for feminism's second wave. Although the August 26th Women's Strike for Equality was arguably the most notable event of the summer of 1970, a close second may be the August release of Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. Of course, neither Sexual Politics nor the Strike for Equality mark the beginning of fruitful feminist activity during the second wave--one could easily turn to the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the break away from New Left groups in the early 1960s, the formation of NOW in 1966, etc. for such germinal events--however, as Bonnie J. Dow (1999) notes, in terms of the development of feminism's public identity via media attention, 1970 marks an important moment. Indeed, the media had begun to pay more attention to the movement in the early part of 1970, (1) and in terms of greatest media attention, the summer of 1970 is the most remarkable. The Women's Strike for Equality placed women's liberation on the front page of the New York Times for the first time, as well as marked the first event to be covered by all three television news networks of the time (Dow, 1999). Not so silently behind this coverage, however, was Kate Millett with her new book, Sexual Politics.

On the shelves by August of 1970, Sexual Politics was considered to be the first book-length exposition of second wave radical feminist theory, and as such it received substantial attention within the mainstream press.

On August 5th and 6th New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, for example, in a "most unusual move" devoted two separate columns to the Sexual Politics review (Cohen, 1988, p. 235). Millett's place in feminist media history was secured by the New York Times' subsequent series of articles on August 27th surrounding the Women's Strike for Equality where Millett was mentioned right after Betty Friedan on the front page (Charlton, 1970) and more notably was anointed as the new "high priestess" of feminism (Prial, 1970, p. 30). (2) By August 31, 1970, Millett was on the cover of Time magazine, again anointed as the new high priestess or the "Mao Tse-tung of Women's Liberation" ("Who's come a long way, baby?" 1970, p. 16). Although Sexual Politics propelled Millett into a media maelstrom, her "15 minutes of fame" was short lived. In December of 1970, Time, in "Women's Lib: A Second Look," publicly outed Millett as bisexual, and claimed that "[t]he disclosure is bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause, cast further doubt on her theories, and reinforce the views of those skeptics which routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians" (p. 50). In four short months feminism was forced to almost sit back and witness the media anointing of their new "priestess,"--an inauguration that no doubt radical feminists, with their standing critique against media and leadership, feared. And as radical feminists debated the media's involvement in Millett's Sexual Politics, liberal feminists faced one of their biggest fears--a more solidified identification of feminism with lesbianism within the public consciousness.

Indeed, Time's investiture and subsequent dismissal of Millett was especially timely. Millett's media emergence not only surfaced at a critical moment in the media's attention to the movement, but also surfaced at a time when the movement faced a series of "reformations" centered on its leadership, media, sexual, and representation politics.

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Mediating a Movement, Authorizing Discourse: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, and Feminism's Second Wave
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