When the Revolution Left Kate Millett Behind

From Public Books:

In March 1979, the white American feminist Kate Millett landed in Tehran, in the wake of one of the most significant revolutions of the 20th century. Just weeks earlier, the Shah—the monarch of Iran—had been overthrown. Millett arrived with a suitcase of recording equipment and her partner, filmmaker Sophie Kier. While there, Millett methodically recorded her whispered reflections on everything around her: the cups of tea with her hosts, the hours stuck in traffic, and the International Women’s Day celebration, which exploded into major protests against Ayatollah Khomeini’s new mandatory veiling laws.

Millett’s whispers were the raw material for her own Going to Iran (1982), but they have been newly transcribed and examined by Negar Mottahedeh in her new book, Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran. With the same recordings, Mottahedeh does something in Whisper Tapes that Millett never could. She listens closely to the women speaking, yelling, and demonstrating in Farsi around Millett, centering their voices in a radically new and vital account of the revolution.

By exploring the complexities of what Millett couldn’t hear, Whisper Tapes also reveals the narrowness of her white feminism and her lack of reciprocity. Yet, there is no need to “cancel” Kate Millett (who profoundly contributed to both feminist and literary theory, not least in her pathbreaking 1970 work, Sexual Politics). Instead, it is necessary to explore her particular brand of white, Western feminism critically, asking what Millett’s brief time in Iran might offer contemporary understandings of feminist solidarity.

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This paradox—between the book’s centering and decentering of its subject—mirrors a wider paradox: the tension between the alleged universalism of Millett’s feminism and the increasingly particular way in which she pronounces it. We might read Millett’s paradox against and alongside a revolutionary slogan pulsing throughout Mottahedeh’s book—one that Millett only “provisionally understood”: “Azadi, na sharghist, na gharbist, jahanist,” or “Freedom is neither eastern nor western, it is planetary.”

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Mottahedeh identifies the conceptual problem of misunderstanding—of a white ally who just doesn’t get it—largely as a problem of mistranslation. In an elegant anecdote, Millett is given some chaghaleh badoom, which she says on the tape are “beans,” while the women around her suggest—in English—that they are “walnuts.” In fact, neither translation is adequate, Mottahedeh tells us; the best approximation is “green, unripe almonds.”

A thirsty Millett struggles to comprehend going “through a whole revolution and not being able to have a glass of wine after it’s all over?” She declares Iran “joyless,” not understanding that there are so many versions of the good life, so many ways to be joyful. Millett can’t quite grasp why the revolution happened alongside, and so also included, men. “It’s important to ignore men,” she advises a demonstrator. “He is never gonna listen. Why waste your time?”

Millett’s unfamiliarity with Iran allows us, with the benefit of hindsight, to laugh at her presence as an awkward white woman. But this is not really the problem with Millett’s white feminism. What white feminism means, at least in the context of Whisper Tapes, is that Millett considers patriarchy to be the primary organizing structure in women’s lives, globally. This is despite the interactions she has with women who explain otherwise.

Millett reads Iranian women’s heterogeneous experiences of religion, demonstration, and revolution through this lens, and only this lens. It is this focus on patriarchy that allows her to quickly diagnose the women of Iran as being behind white American women on the path of liberation; the path that she herself, through Sexual Politics and her work in the women’s liberation movement, helped to pave. Millett’s white feminism means that she applies the logic and schedule of US women’s liberation to the Iranian revolutionary moment.

Mottahedeh’s careful treatment of Millett reveals that “white feminism” is not just a scolding charge. Instead, Millett’s white feminism is a generative and persistent world view that creates particular behaviors, blinkers, and blinds, while simultaneously proclaiming to be a universalist politics that speaks for all women. It means that Millett’s “ambitions and preoccupations are elsewhere.” She is always waiting for the moment of a radical global women’s uprising. She is “out of sync with what is right in front of her,” be it green-shelled, unripe almonds in their crinkled paper bag, or men’s crucial place alongside women in the ongoing Iranian revolution.

Kate Millett certainly does not understand that she is imposing a presumed universality steeped in the specificity of the American context. Indeed, this is just one of the things that she does not get.

Link to the rest at Public Books