Skip to main content

Alexandra Eul is an editor at EMMA, Europe's oldest and largest feminist magazine. She is a visiting journalist to The Globe and Mail and Arthur F. Burns Fellow.

When I woke up on Sept. 7, scrolling through my Facebook feed full of appreciations for Kate Millett, I knew another great female thinker was gone.

If you didn't take a women's studies class or if you are not involved in any kind of feminist activism, there is a good chance that your reaction on that day could have been: "Kate who?"

Her book, Sexual Politics, dropped like a bomb in 1969 and changed the way women and men thought about the interrelation of sexuality and gender and the power play that comes with it. Humiliation, sexual violence, pornographization, prostitution, Millett threw it all on the table. Her book turned her into one of the most inspiring voices of the women's liberation movement.

What does she think about feminism today? How does she recall the envy-driven hatred she had to face from women within her own movement? What is her most important advice for women like me, the daughters of the women's movement? Is she, after all, happy? There is no chance to ask her these questions now. Kate Millett, born in Saint Paul, Minn., died in Paris on Sept. 6 at the age of 82.

While I can't speak with her, I can embrace my history more. We all should embrace our history more.

The women's liberation movement has been one of the most important social movements in the Western World in the second part of the 20th century. It improved the lives of women and men alike in record-breaking speed. But has anyone born after 1980 heard of Kate Millett? Women themselves tend to forget they have a history that has changed their lives. Going to university, having the right to vote, being a working mom, leaving abusive partners, having full control over reproductive rights – we have these rights because there have been some kickass women who came before us. Some of them 50 years ago, like Millett. Others more than hundred years ago, like the Suffragettes.

When women start to read feminist literature for the first time, I bet they share my experience: Suddenly things start to make sense in ways that they haven't made sense before, just by reading a 50-year-old book that could have been written yesterday.

For example, have you ever wondered about the effects of isolation on the mental well-being of a stay-at-home mom – and why telling women to become housewives became so fashionable again? The answer is all there in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique from 1963, in which she exposed the widely assumed happiness of housewives as a lie by addressing the "problem that has no name."

Or think about the horrible pictures of Islamic State enslaving, raping and trafficking thousands of women in the Middle East since 2011 for a moment. Susan Brownmiller systemically analyzed the function of rape as a weapon of war in her book Against Our Will, published in 1975.

Did it ever cross your mind that the ongoing trend of making fashion sexier and heels higher and women thinner was a social-political response to emancipated women entering the work force on a larger scale in the 1980s? This is just one of many things Susan Faludi, a direct successor of the women's liberation movement, writes in her 1991 book Backlash.

And did you ever wonder why women can be so cruel to each other and why it is so hard for them to appreciate other women's success? Just read Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, by psychoanalyst Phyllis Chesler, which was published in 2001 and recalls years of experience.

I interviewed one of the pioneers of women's liberation some weeks ago in New York: 76-year old Robin Morgan, a veteran writer and feminism activist, and friend of Kate Millett. Ms. Morgan published the first feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful in 1970. When I asked her whether younger women appreciate her lifelong fight enough, she just smiled mildly. "No, they don't. But I am not about to turn into somebody's grandmother who says, 'You don't know how good you have it, I had to walk six miles in the snow, only wearing socks!' Because that's not going to turn them on, that's lecturing at them. Instead, what I tell them is: 'You owe us nothing. And here is a dirty little secret: We didn't do it for you, we did it for ourselves.' "

EMMA just celebrated its 40th birthday. The magazine's founder Alice Schwarzer, whose popularity in German speaking countries is comparable to Gloria Steinem in the U.S., is still editor-in-chief. She says something I always keep in mind: "Women without a past don't have a future." Because all they could do is start at zero, over and over again. That doesn't take you very far. It actually takes you nowhere.

Interact with The Globe