Interviewee: Kate Millett
IWY TX 328
Interviewer: Joan Hoff Wilson
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Kate Millett was a feminist writer, artist, educator, and activist. She was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and was 43 at the time of the National Women’s Conference. Her book Sexual Politics was published in 1970. She taught at a number of institutions in the 1960s and 1970s, including Waseda University, Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College, and the University of California, Berkeley. Interview includes discussion of the delegates’ experience at the Hyatt House and her impressions of the conference as a large, complicated, and thrilling event. She discussed her sculpture show and a recently completed book. Issues important to Millett included the lesbian rights and sexual preference portion of the conference as well as the cultural side of the feminist movement.
Joan Hoff Wilson: This is Kate Millett. It’s 10:30, we’re in the coliseum building and I have idea of what she’s going to do next in the coliseum building but she’s here for a few seconds. How long have you been here, Kate?
Kate Millett: Ever since last night.
JW: Okay, and do you have any distinct impressions; good, bad or indifferent about the way this things going?
KM: Oh, it’s so complicated, how one feels, I mean, you know. It’s like partly (unintelligible at 0:24) derailing and partly thrilling. It’s sort of terrifying the way the delegates, you know, the delegates are staying at the Hyatt House, and I was over there for about five hours in the late afternoon/evening. My older sister’s a delegate-at-large from Nebraska and an attorney. And, you know, they had been waiting to get their rooms since 11:00 in the morning, nine hours, you know. It’s appalling, I mean, you know, you simply can’t treat people who are paying $56 a room that way.
So I get the impression that, you know, somehow the whole thing gets sabotaged by the, you know, the world it goes up against. And it could have a really terrible effect, you know, nine hours in the hall there with your bags around you, and so, and there’s no way to, you know, like how can they think today and so on and so forth? So after the ERA thing I, over the protest of organizers, got a hold of the mic and registered a protest. (Laughter) On behalf of the delegates, yeah. I have a street fighter side of me. And yet, you know, on the other hand it was kind of thrilling to see all these people. And I hung out and had dinner with my sister and the other Nebraska women, you know, and I mean, it’s heartland and they’re excited, they couldn’t sleep last night and all that.
JW: What are they anticipating is going to come out of, I mean, what –
KM: Oh, I don’t know what other people are anticipating. I think that it makes the women about 10 to 100 times bigger than it had been before. I mean, despite the infiltration and craziness of the right and so on, we never had anything of this size. We’ve had rallies and some, but I mean, pertaining 30,000 people to come to a place like Houston. So I mean, it’s kind of a turning point. And you can see all the things that will happen at that point. It gets bourgeoisie, respectable, ladies in their long dresses at the ERA fundraiser last night. I mean, you know, it gets tedious.
JW: Fifteen dollars a plate.
KM: Yeah, right, proper behavior, all that kind of stuff, you know, it isn’t so blue jean-ville in a way. And I feel ambivalent about that, too, because I mean, it gets stuffy and pompous and they got all these government people and all that sort of thing. But it does build a mass base such as we never had before.
JW: So that’s what you think then is that it’s an indication of building a mass base as opposed to saying the death throes of this movement.
KM: Oh of course not, I mean, that’s sort of a media line. I think that’s just absolutely silly. Anything growing at this kind of rate you can hardly talk about death throes –
JW: And then we’re going to come away from this stronger.
KM: Oh yeah, absolutely.
JW: Now, from your perspective what are you doing here officially?
KM: You know, I’m just an observer and observing. (Laughter)
JW: Alright then from your point of view having, you know, going back to the early ‘60s and this kind of thing, what, outside of changes in dress in terms of socio-economic support for the ERA, what are your own feelings now about where the movement’s going and what’s going to happen next? As woman regard the ERA right now, I mean, where do you – after, let’s assume that this is the last stretch of the ERA, we get that amendment, where do you think the movement’s going? From your perspective, I mean –
KM: Well I don’t know, I mean, I always felt that there might be the danger that we would become, or forced to be, you know, fixated on ERA as we once had to be on suffrage and the ballot. And you know, if that happens then you’ll get it then, you know, you fall over exhausted and you’ve made so many compromises by that time you’ve undermined your own ethic and vitality. I hope that doesn’t happen. Somehow I don’t think the ERA’s ever really had the sort of terrible, emotional thrust that the ballot did, I mean, the right to suffrage is so much more. You know, it’s basic and gut level I think, so that I don’t think we got so hung up on the ERA, I mean on the national level sure they are. But there’s also, you know, abortion as well.
JW: Do you think those issues, like the abortion issue or lesbian (unintelligible at 4:51) are those basically maybe more important for the future of the movement than simply the general ERA?
KM: Oh sure. Yeah. Even if you get ERA, I mean, the main thing is implementing it. You know, you need nine million statutes in cases and you have to try it over and over in the courts and so on.
JW: What are you own plans? You’re working, what, the sculpture… (unintelligible at 5:14)
KM: Well see (unintelligible at 5:18-5:22) lesbian artist’s son, and that’s a whole, that’s a different place entirely than this business. And that’s sort of, you know, the cultural side of the movement has come along really well indeed and we have now almost, you know, air tight cultural island, you know, which is very pleasant but it’s also possible we’re living under it too much. Take account of what’s going on in the rest of –
JW: But that’s where you’re going to be figured within the movement for the –
KM: Yeah, I suppose so. Yeah. Where I live in my day-to-day living, yeah.
JW: What are you working on now?
KM: Well, I’m doing a sculpture show now.
JW: And in terms of writing?
KM: Just – well I finished a new book, but I’ll probably be, you know, holding on to it for a while, and going over it and grooming it and so on, because it’s a very important one.
JW: So… (Tape cuts out briefly at 6:22)
KM: – like to say how important to me the issue of lesbian rights is, and I suppose of anything, you know, that I sort of came to, like, watch out about or have to do with it’s to be sure that nothing is compromised by that issue.
JW: Okay. And that’s your main concern really.
KM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I figure other people will take care of abortion and ERA, I just don’t want the lesbians, us lesbians (laughter) to get sold down the river.
JW: Well, and that’s the problem because the minority status, you almost have to work for that through a larger group.
KM: Yeah, right. Sure. And I’m pleased at, you know, the number of endorsements that Lisa started out with and we just see to it we don’t let them –
JW: And from what I’ve seen in the exhibition hall and just around, the impression and the impact that lesbians are making seem to me are positive here. I don’t sense any real hostility or anything –
KM: Oh yeah. Oh, I don’t think people came with that sort of feeling, too.
JW: Do you have any idea about package or how this floor fight’s going to be carried on, getting that resolution, that one through?
KM: You know, I’m afraid I don’t yet, I’ll have to watch it.
(Break in the recording at 7:23)
JW: (Notes at end of interview) I’m now standing in the first plenary session in the coliseum. They just brought in the eternal flame, I guess you call it, that they have been running in a marathon fashion for the last two days. And the Convention is officially opening with the presentation of this flame on the podium. And the cheering you hear in the background is for the ERA. (Crowd cheering “ERA” in the background from 7:58 until 8:28)
It’s clear that at least at this opening plenary session that the pro-ERA people are dominating beyond any doubt. And I will be interviewing people from the floor on the remainder of this tape.
(Crowd cheering “ERA Now!” at 8:32) This portion of the first plenary session reminds one of a political conference that is a Democratic or Republican conference. There are state banners being carried around, state delegates, of course, sitting behind the state delegations so the delegation shines. And generally it has all the undertones at the moment of a rather, of a regular Republican or Democratic convention. (Crowd cheering “ERA Now!” at 9:14)
Now bringing the torch out of the coliseum floor here. All women’s band. (Marching band plays in background from 9:14 until end of recording)
End of Interview