Kate Millett

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Not to be confused with Catherine Millet.
Kate Millett
Kate millet 1.jpg
Millett in 1970
Born Katherine Murray Millett
(1934-09-14) September 14, 1934 (age 80)
St. Paul, Minnesota
Nationality United States
Occupation Feminist writer, artist, activist

Katherine Murray Millett, commonly known as Kate Millett (born September 14, 1934), is an American feminist writer, educator, artist and activist. She attended Oxford University and was the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honors by St. Hilda's. A seminal influence on second-wave feminism, Millett is perhaps best known for her 1970 book Sexual Politics, which was her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. "Legal abortion, greater professional equality between the sexes and a sexual freedom nearly unimaginable 40 years ago" were made possible partially due to her efforts.

The feminist, human rights, peace, civil rights, and anti-psychiatry movements have been some of her key causes. Her books were motivated by her activism, such as woman's rights and mental health reform, and several were autobiographical memoirs that explored her sexuality, mental health, and relationships. Mother Millett and The Loony Bin Trip, for instance, dealt with family issues and the times when she was involuntarily committed. Besides appearing in a number of documentaries, she produced Three Lives and wrote Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography. In the 1960s and 1970s, Millet taught at Waseda University, Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College, and University of California, Berkeley.

Millett was raised in Minnesota and has spent most of her adult life in Manhattan and the Woman's Art Colony that she established in Poughkeepsie, New York. Self-identified as bisexual, Millett was married to sculptor Fumio Yoshimura from 1965 to 1985 and had relationships with women, one of whom was the inspiration for her book Sita.

Early life[edit]

Katherine Murray Millett was born on September 14, 1934 to James Albert and Helen Feely Millett in Saint Paul, Minnesota. According to Millett she was afraid of her father, an engineer, who used corporal punishment.[1] He was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when she was 14, "consigning them to a life of genteel poverty."[2][3] Her mother was a teacher,[3] insurance saleswoman,[4] and the subject of her book Mother Millett.[1] Her sisters are Mallory, one of the subjects of Three Lives,[5] and Sally, who is her older sister.[6] Of Irish Catholic heritage,[3] she attended parochial schools in Saint Paul throughout her childhood.[1][2]


Millett graduated in 1956 magna cum laude from University of Minnesota with a B.A. degree;[1][3] she was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.[7] A wealthy aunt paid for her education[nb 1] at St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she obtained a first-class degree, with honors, in 1958.[1][7] She was the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honors by St. Hilda's.[8] After spending about 10 years as an educator and artist, Millett entered the graduate school program for English and comparative literature at Columbia University in 1968, during which she taught English at Barnard.[1][3] While there, she championed student rights, women's liberation, and abortion reform.[3] She completed her dissertation in September 1969 and was awarded her doctorate, with distinction, in March 1970.[3]

Career and activism[edit]

Early career as an artist and educator[edit]

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Barnard College, NYC IMG 0961.JPG Entrance Bryn Mawr.JPG
Clockwise from upper left:

Millett taught English at the University of North Carolina after graduating from St. Hilda's,[3][9] but she left mid-semester to study art.[3] In New York City she worked as a kindergarten teacher and learned to sculpt and paint from 1959 to 1961. She then moved to Japan and studied sculpture. Millett met fellow sculptor Fumio Yoshimura,[1][7] had her first one-woman show at Tokyo's Minami Gallery,[3] and taught English at Waseda University.[7] She left Japan in 1963 and moved to New York's Lower East Side.[10]

Millett taught English and exhibited her works of art at Barnard College[7] beginning in 1964. She was among a group of young, radical and untenured educators who wanted to modernize women's education; Millett wanted to provide them with "the critical tools necessary to understand their position in a patriarchal society."[10] Her viewpoints on radical politics, her "stinging attack" against Barnard in Token Learning, and a budget cut at the college led[11] to her being dismissed on December 23, 1968.[3]

Her artwork was featured in an exhibit at Greenwich Village's Judson Gallery.[7] During these years Millett became interested in the peace[1] and Civil Rights Movements, joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and participated in their protests.[1][7]

In 1971 Millett taught sociology at Bryn Mawr College.[3] Two years later she was an educator at the University of California, Berkeley.[12]

Feminism and sexuality[edit]

Millett is considered "an acknowledged leader of the modern women's movement",[3] or second-wave feminism, of the 1960s and 1970s. She is well known for her book, Sexual Politics,[8][13] considered the movement's manifesto.[3]


In 1966, she became a committee member of National Organization for Women[8] and subsequently joined the New York Radical Women,[7] Radicalesbians, and Downtown Radical Women organizations.[10] Millett is among the activists who made possible "legal abortion, greater professional equality between the sexes and a sexual freedom nearly unimaginable 40 years ago."[14]

She became a spokesperson for the movement following the success of Sexual Politics, but struggled with conflicting conceptions of her as an arrogant, elitist and the expectations from others to speak for them, which she covered in her 1974 book, Flying.[3]

Biographer Gayle Graham Yates said that "Millett articulated a theory of patriarchy and conceptualized the gender and sexual oppression of women in terms that demanded a sex role revolution with radical changes of personal and family lifestyles." Betty Friedan's focus, by comparison, was to improve leadership opportunities socially and politically and economic independence for women.[4]

Jenny Fay Likens watches the proceedings of the Baniszewski trial. It was she who acted as the catalyst for the investigation and case against her sister Sylvia's torturers and murderers by notifying the police.

She wrote several books of women's lives from a feminist perspective. The torture and murder of teenager Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski in 1965 from Indianapolis that had "haunted" Millett for 14 years. She chronicled the case in the book The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice (1980), which she worked on over a four year period. With a feminist perspective she explored the to story of the "powerless" girl and the dynamics of the individuals involved in her sexual, physical and emotional abuse. "Quite apart from any feminist polemics, The Basement can stand alone as an intensely felt and movingly written study of the problems of cruelty and submission."[3][15] Millett said of the motivation of the perpetrator: "It is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."[15]

In 1979, Millett went to Iran to work for women's rights, was soon deported by Komeini's government, and wrote about the experience in Going to Iran.[16]

Sexual Politics[edit]

Sexual Politics originated as Millett's Ph.D. dissertation and was published in 1970, the same year that she was awarded her doctorate from Columbia University. The bestselling book,[1] a critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature, addressed the sexism and heterosexism of the modern novelists D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer and contrasted their perspectives with the dissenting viewpoint of the homosexual author Jean Genet.[17] Millett questioned the origins of patriarchy, argued that sex-based oppression was both political and cultural, and posited that undoing the traditional family was the key to true sexual revolution.[18][19]

Millett, considered a symbol of the women's liberation movement, was featured in a Time cover story, "The Politics of Sex",[20] which called it a "remarkable book" that provided a coherent theory about the feminist movement.[1] Alice Neel created the depiction of Millett for the August 31, 1970 cover.[21]

Sexism and sexuality[edit]

While speaking about sexual liberation at Columbia University, a woman in the audience asked her, "Why don't you say you're a lesbian, here, openly. You've said you were a lesbian in the past." Millett hesitantly responded, "Yes, I am a lesbian".[20] A couple of weeks later, Time's December 8, 1970's article "Women's Lib: A Second Look" reported that Millett admitted she was bisexual, which it said would likely discredit her as a spokesperson for the feminist movement because it "reinforce[d] the views of those skeptics who routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians."[20][22] In response, two days later a press conference was organized by feminists Ivy Bottini and Barbara Love in Greenwich Village in which they spoke of their "solidarity with the struggle of homosexuals to attain their liberation in a sexist society" to Kate Millett and other attendees.[20]

Millett's 1971 film Three Lives is a 16mm documentary made by an all-woman crew,[3][23] including co-director Susan Kleckner, cameraperson Lenore Bode, and editor Robin Mide, under the name Women's Liberation Cinema.[nb 2] The 70-minute film focuses on three women, Mallory Millett-Jones (the director's sister), Lillian Shreve, a chemist, and Robin Mide, an artist, reminiscing about their lives. Vincent Canby, New York Times art critic, wrote: "Three Lives is a good, simple movie in that it can't be bothered to call attention to itself, only to its three subjects, and to how they grew in the same male-dominated society that Miss Millett, in her Sexual Politics, so systematically tore apart, shook up, ridiculed and undermined—while, apparently, tickling it pink."[5] It received "generally excellent reviews" following its premiere at a New York City theater.[3]

Two autobiographical books were published in 1974 and 1977 that explored her sexuality. Flying (1974),[3] a "stream-of-consciousness memoir about her bisexuality",[25] explored her life after the success of Sexual Politics in "dazzling exhibitionism". Millett captured life as she thought, experienced and lived it, in a style like a documentary film.[26] Sita (1977) explores Millett's sexuality, particularly about her lesbian lover who committed suicide,[26] and its affect on her personal and private life.[3]


Women's Art Colony[edit]

Millett started buying and restoring fields and buildings in 1971 near Poughkeepsie, New York, that became the Women's Art Colony/Tree Farm,[8][27] a community of women artists and writers and Christmas tree farm.[27] In 2012, The Farm became a 501c3 non-profit organization and changed its name to the Millett Center for The Arts.[8]

Art exhibitions[edit]

In 1980, Millett was one of the ten invited artists whose work was exhibited in the Great American Lesbian Art Show at the Woman's Building.[28]


Millett was a contributor to On the Issues magazine.[29] Aside from her other books, she wrote about state-sanctioned torture in The Politics of Cruelty (1994) to bring attention to the practice performed in many countries. Mother Millett (2001) was about her mother's final years,[1] in which her mother required round-the-clock care due to her health problems. Millett rescued her mother from "a 'bizarre, dark, awful place' in the habit of doping its residents and pinning them in their beds."[6]

Bowery development plan[edit]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Millett was involved in a dispute with the New York City authorities who wanted to evict her from her home at 295 Bowery as part of a massive redevelopment plan. Millett and others held out, but ultimately lost their battle. Their building was demolished, and the residents were re-located.[30]

Other causes[edit]

She has also been involved in prison reform and campaigns against torture. Journalist Maureen Freely wrote of Millett's viewpoint regarding activism in her later years: "The best thing about being a freewheeler is that she can say what she pleases because 'nobody's giving me a chair in anything. I'm too old, mean and ornery. Everything depends on how well you argue.'"[6]

Awards and Honors[edit]

In 2012, Millett was awarded one of that year's Courage Awards for the Arts from Yoko Ono.[31]

In March 2013, the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame announced that Millett was to be among the institution's 2013 inductees.[32] The induction ceremony took place on October 24, 2013, at the National Women's Hall of Fame headquarters in Seneca Falls, New York.[33]


According to biographer Peter Manso, The Prisoner of Sex was written by Norman Mailer in response to Millett's Sexual Politics.[34] "The Prisoner of Sex is structured as a contest. His rhetoric against her prose, his charm against her earnestness, his polemic rage against her vitriolic charges. The aim is to convert the larger audience, the stronger presence as the sustaining truth. The Prisoner of Sex combines self parody and satire...", said Andrew Wilson, author of Norman Mailer: An American Aesthetic.[35]

Scholar Camille Paglia has described Millett's scholarship as deeply flawed, declaring that "American feminism’s nose dive began" when Millett achieved prominence.[36] According to Paglia, Millett's Sexual Politics "reduced complex artworks to their political content and attacked famous male artists and authors for their alleged sexism," thereby sending serious academic literary appreciation and criticism into eclipse.[37]

Personal life[edit]

Interpersonal relationships[edit]

Millett was not the "polite, middle-class girl" that many parents of her generation and social circle desired, she could be difficult, brutally honest and tenacious. These qualities helped to make her "one of the most influential radical feminists of the 1970s". They could also make for difficult interpersonal relationships.[14] Millett wrote several autobiographical memoirs with remarkable honesty about herself, her husband, lovers, and family.[14][26][nb 3] Her relationship with her mother was strained by her radical politics, domineering personality, and unconventional lifestyle.[39] Helen was particularly upset about examination of her lesbianism in her books.[26] Familial relationships were further strained after she was involuntarily committed to psychiatric wards and again when she wrote The Loony Bin Trip.[39]

She focused on her mother in Mother Millett, a book about how she was made aware by her sister Sally of the seriousness of her mother's declining health and came to her rescue.[26] In it, "Millett writes about the situation—her mother's distance and wiktionary:imperiousness, her family's failure to recognize the humanity of the old and the insane—with brutal honesty. Yet she also describes moments of forgiveness, humility and admiration."[14] During this time, she developed a previously inconceivable close relationship with her mother, which she considered "a miracle and a grace, a gift." The relationships with her sisters were troubled during this time, but they all came to support their mother's apartment-living. The suggestion of her role as the heroine in Mother Millett, however, may have been "at the expense of her two siblings".[39]


In 1961, Millet moved to Japan and met fellow sculptor Fumio Yoshimura,[1][7] who was previously married to a woman name Yoshiko who had died. A Japanese native, Yoshimura studied painting at Tokyo University of the Arts.[40] In 1963 Yoshimura and Millett left Japan and moved to New York's Lower East Side in the Bowery district.[10] In 1965 the two married[nb 4] and during their marriage Millett said that they were "friends and lovers".[4] She dedicated her book, Sexual Politics to him.[40] During their marriage, it was said that he "loves her, leads his own creative life, and accepts her woman lovers.[41]

Yoshimura sculpted in wood, first in unfinished linden wood, having taught himself how to work with the medium while in New York. Known for his "painstaking technique", he made life-like depictions of plants, machines, and other objects, like bicycles and kites. Yoshimura was an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College for 11 years.[40] In 1985, they divorced "amicably".[7][nb 5]

Mental health[edit]

Mental illness has affected Millett's personal and professional life since 1973,[25][42] when she lived with her husband in California and was an activist and teacher at the University of California, Berkeley. Yoshimura and Sally, Kate's eldest sister, became concerned about Kate's mental stability.[12] Her family claimed that she went for as many as five consecutive nights without sleep and could talk non-sensibly for hours. During a screening of one of her films at University of California, Berkeley, she "began talking incoherently". According to her sister, Mallory Millett Danaher, "There were pained looks of confusion in the audience, then people whispered and slowly got up to leave."[25] Sally, who was a law student in Nebraska, signed papers to have her involuntarily committed. Millett was forcefully taken and held in mental hospitals for ten days. She signed herself out using a release form intended for voluntary admissions. During a visit to St. Paul, Minnesota a couple of weeks later, her mother asked Kate to visit a psychiatrist and, based upon the psychiatrist's suggestion, signed commitment papers for Kate. She was released within three days,[12] having won a sanity trial,[43] due to the efforts of her friends and pro bono attorney.[12]

Following the two involuntary confinements, Millett became depressed, particularly disturbed about having been confined without due process. While in the mental hospitals, she was given "mind-altering" drugs or restrained, depending upon whether she cooperated or not. She was stigmatized for having been committed and diagnosed with manic depression, now commonly called bipolar disorder. The diagnosis affected how she was perceived by others and her ability to attain employment.[12][25][42] In California doctors had recommended that she take lithium to manage wide manic and depression swings. Her depression became more severe when her housing in the Bowery was condemned and Yoshimura threatened divorce. To manage the depression, Millett began taking lithium.[12][44] She also received electroconvulsive therapy a few times.[1]

In 1980, with support of two friends and photojournalist Sophie Keir, Millett stopped taking lithium to improve mental clarity, relieve diarrhea and hand tremors, and better uphold her philosophies about mental health and treatment. Millett began to feel alienated and was "snappish" as Keir watched for behavioral changes.[12] Millett's behavior was that of a bipolar high, including "mile-a-minute" speech, which turned her peaceful art colony to "a quarrelsome dystopia."[38] Mallory Millett, having talked to Keir, tried to get her committed but was unsuccessful due to New York's laws that controlled involuntary commitments.[12]

Millett visited Ireland in the fall of 1980 as an activist. Upon her return the United States, there was a delay at the airport and she decided to extend her stay. Millett was involuntarily committed in Ireland after airport security determined from someone in New York that she stopped taking lithium.[12] While confined, she was heavily drugged. To combat the aggressive pharmaceutical program of "the worst bin of all", she counteracted the effects of Thorazine and lithium by eating a lot of oranges or hid the pills in her mouth for later disposal. She said of the times when she was committed, "To remain sane in a bin is to defy its definition," she said.[38]

[Millett] describes with loathing the days of television-induced boredom, nights of drug-induced terror, people deprived of a sense of time, of personal dignity, even of hope. What crime justifies being locked up like this, Millett asks. How can one not be crazy in such a place?

—Journalist Mary O'Connell[45]

After several days she was found by her friend Margueretta D'Arcy. With the assistance of an Irish parliament member and a therapist-psychiatrist from Dublin, Millett was declared competent and released[12] within several weeks.[45] She returned to the United States, became severely depressed, and began taking lithium again. In 1986, Millett stopped taking lithium without adverse reactions. After one lithium-free year, Millett announced the news to stunned family and friends.[12]

Millett's depression caused her to attempt suicide several times.[46] She has said that she thought that the depression was due to grief and feeling broken. She said, "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over..."[12] In The Loony Bin Trip, Millett wrote that she dreaded her depressed periods:

"At one point, listening to others talk about her "freaking out," Millett muses, "How little weight my own perceptions seem to have," and goes on: "Depression is the victim's dread, not mania. For we could enjoy mania if we were permitted by the others around us. . . . A manic person permitted to think ten thousand miles a minute is happy and harmless and could, if encouraged and given time, perhaps be productive as well. Ah, but depression - that is what we all hate. We the afflicted. Whereas the relatives and shrinks . . . they rather welcome it: You are quiet and you suffer."[45]

Views on mental illness[edit]

Millett disputes diagnoses and labels like manic depression (bipolar disorder) and schizophrenia, which she claims are placed upon people who exhibit socially unacceptable behavior. "Many healthy people, she said, are 'driven to mental illness' by society's disapproval and by the 'authoritarian institution of psychiatry.'[25] She attributed her own depression to her diagnosis, and not the other way around, writing, "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over..."[12] Millett documented her experiences in the book The Loony Bin Trip (1990).[42]

Feminist author and historian Marilyn Yalom wrote that "Millett refuses the labels that would declare her insane." She continues, "she conveys the paranoid terror of being judged cruelly by others for what seems to the afflicted person to be a reasonable act."[38]


Further information: Mad Pride

Angered by institutional psychiatric practices and lenient involuntary commitment processes,[nb 6] Millett became an activist.[12] With her lawyer, they changed the State of Minnesota's commitment law so that a trial is required before a person is involuntarily committed.[43]

Millett has been active in the anti-psychiatry movement.[6] As a representative of MindFreedom International, she spoke out against psychiatric torture at the United Nations during the negotiations of the text of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2005).[47]

Mother Millett[edit]

Kate wrote Mother Millett about her mother who in her later years developed several serious health problems, including a brain tumor and hypercalcaemia.[14][26] Made aware of her mother's declining health, Millett visited her mother in Minnesota; their visits included conversations about their relationship and outings to baseball games, museums, and restaurants.[39] When her mother was no longer able to care for herself in her apartment, she was placed in a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota,[14][26] which was one of Helen Millett's greatest fears.[26] Kate visited her mother and was disturbed by the care she received and her mother's demoralized attitude. Nursing home residents who were labeled as "behavioral problems", as Helen was, were subject to forcible restraint. Helen said to Kate, "Now that you're here, we can leave."[14]

Cognizant of the efforts her mother made to give her life, support her and raise her, Millett became a care-giver, coordinated of many daily therapies, and pushed her mother to be active. She had a desire to give her "independence and dignity".[26] In the article, "Her Mother, Herself", Pat Swift wrote: "Helen Millett might have been content to go "gently into that good night"—she was after all more afraid of the nursing home than dying—but daughter Kate was having none of that. Feminist warrior, human rights activists, gay liberationist, writer and artist, Kate Millett has not gone gently through life and never hesitates to rage at anyone—friend or foe, family or the system—to right a perceived wrong. When the dignity and quality of her ailing mother's life was at stake, this book's unfolding tale became inevitable."[39] Even though Helen played a role in having her daughter committed to the University of Minnesota's Mayo wing,[26] Kate had her mother removed from the nursing home and returned to her apartment where attendants managed her care. During this period, Millett could also "bully" her mother for her lack of cultural sophistication and the amount of television she watched and could be harsh with caregivers.[14]



  • Kate Millett; Kathy O'Dell; Maurice Berger, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Fine Arts Gallery (April 1997). Kate Millett, sculptor: the first 38 years. University of Maryland, Baltimore County. ISBN 978-0-9624565-9-6. 


  • "Out of the Loop". On The Issues Magazine. Summer 1998. 
  • Peter Stastny & Peter Lehmann, ed. (2007). "The Illusion of Mental Illness". Alternatives Beyond Psychiatry. Peter Lehmann Publishing. pp. 29–38. ISBN 978-0-9788399-1-8. 


  • Three Lives (documentary). Womens Liberation Cinema Company. 1971. "Producer" 
  • Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (documentary). National Film Board of Canada (NFB). 1981. "Herself, writer, artist" 
  • Bookmark: Daughters of de Beauvoir (1 episode) (biography). British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Union Pictures Productions. 1989. "Herself" 
  • Playboy: The Story of X' (documentary). Calliope Films, Playboy Entertainment Group. 1998. "Herself" 
  • The Real Yoko Ono (television). 2001. "Herself" 
  • Des fleurs pour Simone de Beauvoir (documentary short) (in French). France. 2007. "Herself" 


  1. ^ Her aunt paid for her education at Oxford, which was considered "a gesture that had less to do with her aunt's respect for Kate's intellectual gifts than with the family's discovering that she was in love with another woman"[2] and / or due to her aunt's annoyance with Millett's "tendency to defy convention".[3]
  2. ^ After the film was released, three women from the film crew sued Millett for violating the profit-sharing terms of their contract. Millett represented herself in court, with emotional outbursts. The judge ruled in the plaintiffs favor, but Millett reluctantly paid portions of the earnings to the women.[24]
  3. ^ Of Millett's frankness about people close to her, Marilyn Yalom said in her Washington Post article, "What right did she have, I wondered (recalling George Sand's judgment of Rousseau's Confessions), to "confess" so many others as she confessed herself?"[38] Liza Featherstone wondered in her review of Mother Millett, "how Kate's sisters would tell this story."[14]
  4. ^ Author Rosalind Rosenberg said that the couple married to prevent Yoshimura from being deported.[10]
  5. ^ He was married to his third wife, Carol Yoshimura, when he died in 2002 at the age of 76 of complications from pancreatic cancer.[40]
  6. ^ She did not oppose "supportive, inquiring and sensitive psychotherapy."


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  10. ^ a b c d e Rosalind Rosenberg (13 August 2013). Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics. Columbia University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-231-50114-9. 
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  13. ^ Normal Mailer (March 1971). "The Prisoner of Sex". Harper’s Magazine. Retrieved 2009-09-13. 
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  20. ^ a b c d Dudley Clendinen; Adam Nagourney (30 July 2013). Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in Ame. Simon and Schuster. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-4767-4071-3. 
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  28. ^ Cornelia H. Butler; Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, Calif.) (2 April 2007). WACK!: art and the feminist revolution. Museum of Contemporary Art. p. 494. 
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]