Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts 2018 Grants Booklet
We live at a moment of change, enormous change in human life. We tend to imagine it is material change, electronic and technical. We have almost forgotten the great social changes of the modem era: democracy, universal suffrage, representative government, and individual rights. But the last one hundred fifty years has seen a far greater transformation of human relationships. Indeed, we live in the last days of patriarchy.
Since patriarchy is the oldest and most universal form of human organization in the historical period, the most pervasive and entire, the fact that it is not changing is of enormous importance. It has not existed forever, of course, but it is all we know and our most fundamental social scheme. It is behind, beneath, and below every other form of human organization—whether it is the rule of kings or presidents, laws or religions, families or tribes or nations. Patriarchy is so indigenous and basic it has existed without question or recognition for millennia. Patriarchy is the rule of male over female in all departments of human life. It is based on custom, belief, law, and ultimately on force.
A great deal of the impetus of the second wave of American feminism has been toward sexual freedom and sexual expression for women, and also toward the liberation of sexual orientations other than compulsive heterosexuality. Here, the new women's movement is aligned with gay liberation. As lesbians are women too, the second wave has battled for them and challenged the heterosexual norm and the very notions of masculinity and femininity. Women have children on their own now: lesbians have children. You can see how this wreaks havoc with patriarchal control, and how the very struggle takes place over the female body. The second wave has also highlighted the role of domestic violence and rape—what you might call “informal” patriarchal practices, officially disapproved of but culturally encouraged as a kind of vigilante intimidation of the entire female population. Fear of rape helps in sequestration and prevents women from being free, or even visible, in public or at night. Within the family, domestic terrorization, secret and embarrassing, keeps individual women in line and assures male control in the home. Both women and children are threatened in a general way by this widespread violence because so many are suborned and imprisoned in what is supposedly “private” rather than public existence within the family and the privileged space of domestic life.
A tight ship—a rigid hierarchy—is extremely easy to control and direct towards government's own economic or martial purposes. Of course, patriarchy is essentially and historically war-like, socially hierarchical and economically exploitative. We see it today in the neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest in global marketeering and the exploitation of foreign—usually female—labor.
United States capital dominates the world in harsher and harsher terms. The richest seek the poorest to hire for the lowest wage, to entrap their resources and despoil their environment.
But here we are in the belly of the beast, the heart of the empire. Anyone can see the effects on feminism: we have had decades of essentially Republican rule, a profit driven culture, and a powerful religious right that has come within an inch of a coup d'état and imposed moralizing hypocrisy upon the nation. They have come a long way and pulled the country with them toward the right and authoritarian controls. Authoritarianism is all around us. Our television programs revolve around cops as heroes. Imagine, free people entertaining themselves this way.
I recite all this quick history to make a simple point: even though things used to be worse, this is not a good moment for American feminism. Like most progressive forces, we are stalemated, on the defensive, trying desperately to hold on to the gains we have made and unable to go forward. Which is why I want to praise international feminism. There, real progress is being made. That is where the action is, in this great world of social change. There we see a different frame of reference: the idea that women's rights are human rights.
© Excerpts Chicago-Kent Law Review, Volume 75, No. 3, 2000. Pages 659,662,663,664.
Kate Millett was a visual artist, writer, and leader of the feminist movement. She died at the age of 82 in Paris in September 2017. She received a Grants to Artists award in 2012.