Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Peg Millett, a sister of Ms. Millett’s; Sophie Keir, Ms. Millett’s spouse; Yoko Ono; and Phyllis Chesler joined hands for Holly Near’s activist anthem “Singing for Our Lives.” Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Like so many rousing military celebrations, Kate Millett’s memorial service began with bagpipes.

The veterans of second-wave feminism had turned out by the hundreds, foot soldiers and commanders alike, including Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, both of whom wore leather pants, revolutionary-style. (“We didn’t coordinate that,” Ms. Pogrebin said.) Cynthia MacAdams, the photographer known for her 1977 book, “Emergence,” a collection of portraits of the era’s feminists and other heroes — Patti Smith, Lily Tomlin and Ms. Steinem — wore a voluminous orange silk scarf that looked like a military sash. Her rendition of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” was an anguished dirge to her late friend.

Phyllis Chesler, the activist and author, should have worn a cast, because she’d broken her leg. Instead, she brought a walker and a cane. She ended her reflections by reading from the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V,” recast with feminine pronouns: “We few, we happy few, we band of sisters,” and so on.

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Bagpipes began the service for Kate Millett, the feminist scholar, which was held at the Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Ms. Millett died Sept. 6 in Paris, a week before her 83rd birthday, with Sophie Keir, her spouse and partner of 39 years, by her side. The memorial was held Thursday afternoon at the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian church on Central Park West.

Before the service, friends and family traded war stories. Barbara Love, the lesbian activist, remembered a protest 50 years ago when she, Ms. Millett and others demonstrated against The New York Times and its gender-segregated want ads. And Ms. Love recalled, hilariously, the many actions Ms. Millett attended with a toilet. “It was arrested several times,” said Ms. Love of the toilet, though not at one famous demonstration in front of the Colgate-Palmolive offices on Park Avenue, when Ms. Millett and others dumped soap flakes into it to protest the company’s treatment of women on the assembly line.

Ms. Millett’s final demonstration was the women’s march last January in New York City, Ms. Love said. She attended in her wheelchair, holding a sign with her name on it. The police opened the barricades for her, and the march’s organizers led her to the front of the line, where demonstrators approached Ms. Millett to pay their respects and give thanks. “Even the police knew who she was,” Ms. Love said. It was a fitting tribute to the woman who some have called the most famous feminist you’ve never heard of.

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Gloria Steinem was one of nine female speakers. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Ms. Millett was the Oxford-educated author of “Sexual Politics,” her doctoral thesis for Columbia University that became a global sensation when it was published in 1970. Its rigorous analysis of gender dynamics in literature and history revealed a deep-rooted pattern of male discrimination that pointed out women’s conditioning to their second-class status.

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As Judith Shulevitz wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, Ms. Millett all but invented feminist literary criticism. “Sex Pol,” as Ms. Millett called it, would land her on the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed her the Mao Zedong of the woman’s movement, though as many recalled Thursday, Ms. Millett was uneasy with fame. Her discomfort was not just because she was extremely shy and suffered from manic-depression, but because she anticipated, rightly, the fury that would greet her scholarship.

But it was still a game changer. “It made me a feminist,” said Ms. Pogrebin, adding that her first book, “How to Make it in a Man’s World,” and “Sexual Politics,” were published the same year by the same publisher, Doubleday, and that the two women shared an editor, Betty Prashker.

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Kathleen Turner, the actress, was a stand-in for both Hillary Clinton and Robin Morgan, the activist and author. Ms. Turner read a short letter from Mrs. Clinton and a spicy encomium from Ms. Morgan. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“Betty gave me Kate’s manuscript,” Ms. Pogrebin said, “and after reading it, I wanted to toss mine in the trash. I felt like I was capitulating to the patriarchy, and Kate was arguing for revolution. ‘Sexual Politics’ was my epiphany.”

Ms. Steinem began her reflections by reading a note from Catharine A. MacKinnon, the feminist activist and legal scholar who argued persuasively that sexual harassment was a title IX issue, and who wrote the introduction to last year’s reprint of “Sexual Politics” by Columbia University Press. Quoting Ms. MacKinnon, Ms. Steinem declared that Ms. Millett “conceived the critique of sexuality as male-dominated from the bedroom to the boardroom to the potted plant.”

Then Ms. Steinem paused and looked out at the crowd. “Don’t you kind of wish we could read Kate on Harvey Weinstein?” she said, to loud applause and laughter from a group clearly familiar with the producer’s alleged emissions into a potted plant.

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Ms. Ono spoke of her shyness and her old friend’s enthusiasm, and noted that both her husband and her son were feminists. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

The speakers recalled Ms. Millett’s upstate New York farm, otherwise known as The Farm, which she conceived as a utopian women’s arts colony, and where bare-breasted women grew Christmas trees that Ms. Millett would sell on the Bowery each December. In the early days, said Linda Clarke, an old friend, neighbors would complain about the nudity and call the police, until Ms. Millett won them over.

On the farm, Ms. Clarke said, Ms. Millett was finally the president of her own university, a reference to Ms. Millett’s frustration at not being able to hold on to an academic post. (In 1968 she was fired from her teaching position at Barnard College for her role in the student protests there.)

The nine female speakers, including Yoko Ono, who spoke from a wheelchair, recalled Ms. Millett’s Dadaist artwork (chairs with human arms and legs; stools wearing shoes; giant vulvas) and her proud bohemianism — what Eleanor Pam, the president of the Veteran Feminists of America, called her reverse elitism.

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Feminism’s A-List Attends Kate Millett’s Memorial in New York
Ms. Millett’s ashes. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“She was probably the only person in the world who believed that being evicted from the Bowery was a step down,” Ms. Pam said.

The actor Kathleen Turner was a stand-in for both Hillary Clinton and Robin Morgan, the author and activist. In her distinctive, throaty bass, Ms. Turner read a short letter from Mrs. Clinton, and a stirring recollection from Ms. Morgan. In one war story, Ms. Morgan described a party thrown in Ms. Millett’s Bowery loft to pay for the legal fees of women who had been arrested at a Miss America pageant protest in Atlantic City in 1968. So many people showed up, the floor buckled. As a result, most of the money raised that night went to shoring up the building, rather than to the lawyers it was destined for.

More seriously, Ms. Turner said, “A feminist generation is marching again, this time into shadow. Another generation will march into the sun.”

In between speeches, the folk singer and activist Holly Near led the audience in familiar protest anthems from back in the day, including “Bread and Roses,” from the poem about striking female mill workers, and Ms. Near’s own, “Singing for Our Lives,” which she wrote after Harvey Milk was murdered. Everyone seemed to know the words. Ms. Ono joined hands with Ms. Keir and Ms. Chesler.

“I wouldn’t have missed this revolution,” Ms. Chesler said, “not for love or money.”

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