Feminist icon Kate Millett, author of the ’70s classic Sexual Politics, received a star-studded sendoff Thursday afternoon, following her death on September 6 at age 82. The Upper West Side memorial service drew about 500 people, most of them women, and sometimes befitted a state funeral.
Pamela Mataszewski, a blonde bagpiper in a kilt, began the service with a mournful dirge as she strode up the center aisle of the Unitarian Universalist Church, to its altar. After she departed, soprano Katie Zaffrann sang “Ave Maria” to mark the passing of Millett, who lived at 295 Bowery for 38 years. The building once housed the infamous McGurk Suicide Hall, a spot where a couple of teenage prostitutes were believed to have killed themselves by lacing their last drinks with carbolic acid.
In 2004, Millett lost her fierce legal battle to retain the loft. “The city evicted her from her home, kicking and screaming, and relocated her” nearby on East Fourth Street, recalled Eleanor Pam, president of Veteran Feminists of America. “Kate embraced downward mobility,” cracked Millett’s friend of 60 years, whose group sponsored the service.
There was loud applause when actress Kathleen Turner, screen siren of the 1980s, delivered remarks from Hillary Rodham Clinton in her signature husky voice, quoting the former first lady and New York senator. Clinton’s comments lauded Millett’s “contributions to the women’s movement here and around the world,” referring to her as an “extraordinary woman” who had written a “unique work,” meaning Sexual Politics.
Turner next recited a lengthy tribute to Millet from poet Robin Morgan, editor of Sisterhood is Powerful, a well known 1970 anthology of radical second-wave feminist writings.
There were also spoken “reflections” on Millett’s life as an artist, writer, educator and activist by several prominent speakers, among them Yoko Ono, who faced the crowd seated in a wheelchair. Ono, 84, honored Millett in 2013 with a Yoko Ono Courage Award for the Arts. Before she spoke, Ono told B+B she couldn’t remember when she first met Millett, but noted “it was a long time ago.”
Gloria Steinem, 83, stood at the podium in black leather pants. She read a statement by Catharine MacKinnon calling Millet an original thinker who gave voice to “the most important ideals that animated the women’s movement.” MacKinnon wrote that Sexual Politics revealed misogyny in writing by ostensibly liberated male authors like D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, in a way that foreshadowed “all our work against rape, sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography and sex trafficking.”
On a personal note, Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, described Millet as “trenchant and funny, serious and zany.”
“She laughed at my jokes, which was a serious concession on her part, and all of my puns,” Steinem added.
Millet “tried to teach me how to fertilize Christmas trees on her farm,” Steinem said with a smile, referring to the Poughkeepsie farm where Millett sold Christmas trees.
Millett’s niece, Lisa Millett Rau, recounted how her aunt was able to buy the farm which encompassed a women’s art colony because she “got rich” from Sexual Politics, a bestseller based on her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University.
The book landed Millett, a native of St. Paul, Minn., on the cover of Time magazine. She soon “came out” as a lesbian after drawing criticism from gay women for identifying as a bisexual. Millet’s 20-year-marriage to sculptor Fumio Yoshimura ended around that time. She was wed to Yoshimura, whom she met in Japan, at the Unitarian University Church on Central Park West, according to Rev. Schuler Vogel, who gave the invocation. Shortly before her death, Millett married Sophie Keir, her longtime companion who also had lived at 295 Bowery.
Millett’s memorial lasted more than two hours. Mourners joined singer Holly Near and Joan Casamo in belting out “Bread and Roses,” a union song, and shouted a farewell salute as they exited the church.
Correction: This post was revised because it misspelled Millett’s name in the headline and Sophie Keir in the text.
Correction, Feb. 26: Two quotes from MacKinnon’s statement were originally misattributed to Steinem, and a quote about fertilizing Christmas trees was imprecise.