Columnist Marietta Pritchard: Relearning lessons from early feminist days


Published: 2/6/2018 7:33:14 PM

Kate Millett’s sober, academic book, “Sexual Politics,” set off a series of feminist bombshells when it was published in 1970. Millett died this past September.

A few weeks later, the Harvey Weinstein stories broke and the #MeToo movement was formed. Now, almost 50 years after the publication of Millett’s book, similar bombs seem to be going off again.

In the women’s liberation group that I joined in 1969, we did a lot of talking, as was expected of such a support group, telling each other the stories of our lives, trying to figure out what those stories meant for us as women. But we also did an enormous amount of reading. We were an articulate, brainy group — several academics, several graduate students, and a couple of us, including me, mothers of young children hoping to find our way out of part-time work and full-time motherhood.

Kate Millett’s book was a revelation, a new way of reading some of the books we’d read and sometimes admired in the past. It was, in addition, a new way of reading the world around us. She talked a lot about something called the patriarchy, arguing that attitudes embedded in literature, religion, the law and tradition served to lower women’s status, even as they sometimes put women on pedestals. (It’s true that John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women,” which we also read, had been published almost exactly 100 years earlier and, astonishingly, made many of the same arguments.)

Millett’s work was followed in my reading by Germaine Greer’s riveting book, “The Female Eunuch,” and in 1971 by “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” an eye-opening publication created by a women’s health collective. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” had come out in 1963, but it was “Sexual Politics” that broke the culture open for me.

Looking at it now, “Sexual Politics” still seems highly relevant, yet somehow immediately quaint. The first sentence of the preface begins like this: “Before the reader is shunted through the relatively uncharted, often even hypothetical territory which lies before him, it is perhaps only fair he be equipped with some general notion of the terrain.”

OK, this is a bit of writerly throat-clearing — but what about that reader, who is unambiguously designated as “him” and “he.” Those pronouns now jump off the page at me. One aspect of the culture that the women’s movement struggled with was language that suggested that the male was the norm, the female the exception or at best a subcategory.

All men are created equal, right? Women not so much. Language, we found out, mattered — and still does. Millett was still linguistically hampered by that old assumption.

We newly fledged feminists discovered many other things about the ways our culture had undervalued women and we set out to overturn them. Yet lately it has felt as though the lessons we learned need to be learned all over again.

The #MeToo movement has exposed entrenched patterns of exploitation and sexual harassment in which women — and, yes, some men — have been subjected to the worst sorts of routine humiliation and degradation. Much has changed in the law and the professions since 1969, but, as the recent scandals remind us, much remains to be changed in society at large. Women are still being treated as what we came to call “sexual objects.”

Meanwhile, as others have pointed out, there is the danger of overreaching. Accusations are not the same as proof of wrongdoing; flirting is not the same as rape. Everyone deserves due process. But when all the power is concentrated on one side, trouble is inevitable.

As in the early days of the women’s movement, it is now privileged white women who have spoken out first — in this case actors, celebrities, professionals. But just as in those early feminist days, it is probably working-class women of color along with people who do not identify as heterosexual who suffer most from these injustices, who lack a public platform or the money to hire lawyers.

Sisterhood, we used to say, is powerful, but we also learned that underserved people need the support of institutions and ordinary brave bystanders to bring bad actors to account, to bring about meaningful change.

Marietta Pritchard, of Amherst, can be reached at

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