Kate Millett, pioneering voice about the interplay of sexism and women’s sexuality, died this week from cardiac arrest. Her landmark book, Sexual Politics, was published in 1969 to some rave reviews, some loud denunciations, and much thanks from women trying to figure out about our lives. Millett grew up in St. Paul, just across the Mississippi River from where I live, and attended and got her B.A. from the University of Minnesota, where I worked for 37 years. Of course I bought and devoured and taught her book and waited eagerly for the next one. She decided to write a memoir that must have upset her mother who read a draft of the manuscript. That’s where I come in.
In the middle of a week in the early 1970’s I received a telephone call from Ken Tilsen, well-known civil rights lawyer in St. Paul. Somehow my name had been given to him. He said he had taken Kate Millett’s case which involved trying to get her released from the psychiatric ward of the University of Minnesota hospital system where her mother had had her involuntarily committed. Mr. Tilsen told me she had done that in an attempt to keep Kate from publishing the memoir that said things about her that she didn’t want read by the general public. The reason Mr. Tilsen called me was the fact that he’d persuaded the hospital to release Kate for the weekend under his guardianship. He wanted to take her down the beautiful St. Croix River that Sunday afternoon and wondered if I’d agree to spend the afternoon with them. Admitting to his not really feeling comfortable about talking all that time with such an ardent feminist, Mr. Tilsen hoped I’d “rescue” him. Needless to say, I answered in the strongly affirmative.
At the appointed time, I drove to where the pontoon was docked, parked my car, found Ken and Kate, and we all boarded for our outing. The next three hours flew by for me. Millett and I talked about all sorts of things having to do with the current state of feminism inside and outside of academe. We also spoke about authors we both loved to read, never mind about their own sexual politics–Milton and Whitman and Wharton and Camus, among others. She seemed to relax and, though I would never have asked anything about her present situation, she ended up talking about how important it was for her to rescue the manuscript from her mother’s house before she destroyed it.
When we landed, Kate hurriedly spoke to Ken Tilsen who hurriedly spoke to me, asking if I felt able to drive Kate to her mother’s house off Cretin Avenue in St. Paul. He said he dare not do it because Mrs. Millett knew his car. It all seemed very cloak-and-dagger to me. I also know how complex it can be to have a mother with a short leash and definite views about what a daughter ought to do and say and be. So, without much thought about repercussions, I agreed. Kate and I got into my car and drove rather fast to her childhood home. I sat in my car while she went in. She thought there would be no one at home at that time on a Sunday afternoon, but there was always the possibility that her mother would materialize, be angry, and call the police who might not look kindly on my role in all this. But Kate hurried out undeterred and we drove even faster to where Ken Tilsen was waiting in his car. As Kate got out clutching her precious words, I wished her all good luck and made my way home.
Reliving that afternoon after reading the excellent obituary in The New York Times, I felt really glad I’d not hesitated or worried or felt “unworthy” to be the temporary companion to such an important feminist writer and person. And when the manuscript that had sat in my back seat appeared as Flying (1974), I of course snapped up a copy and read it in one sitting. And when I think of this pace-setter, I let myself see her smiling in the late afternoon sun while we glided down a quiet and beautiful river with no need to be changing the world just then.