The Radical Ellen Willis

The Radical Ellen Willis

For Willis, rock was sex, which was Freud, which was Marx, which was labor, which was politics and therefore a reason to vote or protest.

Ellen Willis, circa 1970 (courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz)

The Essential Ellen Willis
edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
University of Minnesota Press, 2014, 536 pp.

For those of us born in the eighties and nineties, unpleasantly called Millennials, prosperity has long seemed out of reach. We who rushed into the economy right as the “lesser Depression” peaked were worse off by nearly every metric possible: income, employment, mobility, home ownership, student loan debt. In 2012, according to the New York Times, the median household income for twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds was about the same, adjusted for inflation, as it was in 1980—and almost $8,000 less than it was in 2000. By last year’s measure, around 14 percent of my demographic—that’s 2.5 million people—were living with their parents. Of those, 43 percent would be below the poverty line if they moved out on their own.

Plainly, we should not expect what our parents had: we will not be getting it. Better educated though our generation may be, the opportunities out there are increasingly slim. For all the facetious mewling we confront—the mainstream knocking of spoiled liberal arts grads by people confused by Lena Dunham’s persistent nudity—the chance to make our way, creating and thinking, is slimmer than ever. In twenty years’ time, how many significant literary fiction writers will have grown up working class? How many career artists at all who weren’t endowed with a trust fund?

Maybe we’re oblivious, or maybe just stretched thin, but not enough people are talking about this. The late cultural critic Ellen Willis did—and years before the worst of it hit. With a clarity of thought and the kind of fury that pangs and never scabs over, she diagnosed, snarled, and illuminated what she considered a central plague of her day: the way our economy limits our creative expressions. As she put it in her essay “Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity”: “On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living.”

Willis, who died at the age of sixty-four in 2006, did not set out to write about austerity and economic inequality. But she couldn’t stand to see folks around her struggling, being denied what, in her mind—“in a rich postindustrial economy like ours”—should be guaranteed: job (and income) security, freedom of expression, time off. This insistence on everyone’s right to full and free human satisfaction was at the center of her politics from the get-go. How women were denied this satisfaction became her subject. She first came to the women’s movement with fears that meetings would be filled with bitter “anti-sex fanatics.” But she realized how urgent their task was, recording the formula as “the sharing of personal experience: generalization: analysis,” then action. It worked. “New women keep coming in,” she wrote in 1968, “women who are just discovering their oppression.” In her writing, she put the formula to use. Willis exposed for others what she had learned—that our sex and our self-esteem weren’t in our hands alone. Wine, roses, pleasure: these were too often withheld from us. For this reason, they were political concerns.

With a clarity of thought and the kind of fury that pangs and never scabs over, she diagnosed, snarled, and illuminated what she considered a central plague of her day: the way our economy limits our creative expressions.

This unique sensitivity to the mingling circumstances that shape our lives—this ability to see the economic in the cultural, the radical in the popular—comes through on almost every page of The Essential Ellen Willis, a new collection of her writings edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. Willis may have passed away before our particular moment of heightened austerity—before inequality again became the byword to which we anchor our complaints—but her prescience and activism rage on, shared personal experience to raise consciousness and to raise hell. Who cuts through like Willis did, today? Ellen Willis still helps women discover their oppression.

Willis began her career writing about music. Her first published piece of music criticism, for the independent magazine Cheetah, was on Bob Dylan. It got her hired as the New Yorker’s first rock critic. The somewhat prudish William Shawn asked if she would mind writing as E. Willis. She insisted on Ellen, and she refused to limit her scope just to rock. Her fifty-six columns—which covered everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Queens rock scene to Elvis Presley’s return to the stage—became spelunking missions into what people listened to, what they meant, and who they were.

For Willis, rock was sex, which was Freud, which was Marx, which was labor, which was politics and therefore a reason to vote or protest. She was at her best when writing about the shifting locus of freedom, in those early years viewed through the lens of American music. Willis spotted liberation all across pop culture, in its various states of mangle and undress. She found it in punk—the Sex Pistols’ outrage, she wrote, “encouraged my struggle for liberation”—and in women rockers—“Patti Smith stands alone. . . . She was funny, ironic, passionate, self-deprecating without being masochistic, vulnerable without being pathetic, and political in the best sense—that is, willing to tell the truth about the conditions of her life.” But she also studied it in artists who rocked but couldn’t be called radical, “from the apolitical Little Richard to the antipolitical Ramones.”

Part of freedom, for Willis, was self-knowledge, so she wrote about feeling in her subjects’ work, too. At times, she worried about women performers as though they were friends. Janis Joplin, she observed, suffered “the worst fate that can befall an adolescent girl in America—unpopularity” and always had an “all-encompassing need for love. . . . When she said, ‘Onstage I make love to 25,000 people, then I go home alone,’ she was not merely repeating the cliché of the sad clown or the poor little rich girl. She was noting that the more she gave the less she got and that, honey, it ain’t fair.” Willis went to a feminist folk-rock concert at a lesbian bar and worried that the group wasn’t sufficiently “indifferent to the response of their audience. I just thought that the question they ought to ask was not ‘How can I make them like me?’ but ‘How can I make them hear me?’”

Even when her writing wasn’t called feminism—yet—it was, of course, still feminist. Her articles on music were on how women performed, how they worked, and how they lived in American society. In 1975 Willis turned from these broader politics of culture to politics more explicitly, publishing a searing and upsetting procedural of a San Francisco rape case in Rolling Stone, “The Trial of Arline Hunt.” New Yorker editor William Shawn praised the piece but admitted he could never have published it. She left the New Yorker then and rarely wrote about music again, turning to psychoanalysis, drugs, AIDS, New York—just about anything she came across. She showed that shopping and magazines were political, too—that child care, marriage, and pensions weren’t just individual problems.

In 1969 Willis and Shulamith Firestone started Redstockings, a radical feminist group that championed women’s liberation through advocacy and actions like “speakouts.” As she became more and more politically focused in the years that followed, it was this work that came to matter most. She wrote about pornography just as the anti-porn movement pulsed among feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and she lamented feminism’s half-benign turn to “a reformist politics, a countercultural community, and a network of self-help projects” rather than a true liberation movement. She was constantly agitating. While many feminists argued that “in a patriarchy, all sex with men is pornographic,” Willis couldn’t define herself against porn or sex—heterosexual or otherwise. Even in sites of domination, she insisted women be granted the freedom to define what turns them on. And she reminded feminists of the rights that men have when it comes to sex, interrogating “the idea that untrammeled male sexuality must inevitably be oppressive.” She wouldn’t give too much to the other side, on any side. She wrote:

It is a losing proposition for feminists to compete with the right in trying to soothe women’s fears of sexual anarchy. We must of course acknowledge those fears and the legitimate reasons for them, but our interest as feminists is to demonstrate that a law-and-order approach to sex can only result in a drastic curtailment of our freedom. In the long run, we can win only if women (and men) want freedom (and love) more than they fear its consequences.

Willis could write wonderful sentences, but they came expressed as journalism, intended not to impress but to distill and to incite. In her crackling, unforgettable essay on Bob Dylan, she wrote, “Dylan’s moral outrage coexisted with a grudging affection for American society and its foibles.” The same could be said of her. In the midst of all her provocations runs a streak of absolute fun. There’s little question about it: Willis loved the good times. Humor, even mischief, burrowed its way into her articles. (From an essay on classic and baroque sex: “All technology is baroque, including contraceptives, vibrators, and air conditioning. . . . The only truly classical outfit is nothing.”)

She carried enough light that she was able to accept criticism, even of those things close to her heart. When she was wrong, she was not afraid to admit it; in an essay called “Rodney King’s Revenge,” Willis lays bare the prejudices that informed her expectations of O.J. Simpson’s trial. She could not be pompous because she believed in progress, and she never let go of a sense of hope. She wrote in 1969, “How can anyone claim to hate America deep down and be a rock fan?” Her faith cut deep, growing as it did from her belief that in the face of all that was dark and unsatisfactory and middling, there was the possibility of the empowering. “My deepest impulses are optimistic,” she explained in an essay on Tom Wolfe, “an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.”

The key, for her, was to steer clear of the extreme, the rigid and doctrinaire. She wrote critically of feminists who were too stridently anti-porn, lefties who were too hard on Israel. She criticized Woodstock as “bourgeois at its core.” This impatience for the inflexible is one of her lasting charms. To read her is to see her trying on hats and not to be ashamed of it. In one essay from 1964, she declared, “I read Wilhelm Reich, A.S. Neill and Paul Goodman and decide[d] I’m an anarchist. . . .” Two years later: “I can’t keep myself from playing roles. The emotionless decadent, looking for diversion from boredom, is a favorite.”

To read her cultural criticism is to see her admitting insecurity, weakness. Willis wasn’t always sure where the boundaries fell between personal and political, if those boundaries even existed. She could grant, “My commitment to heterosexual sex is very basic and I want, need love and companionship.” And she could also observe when her own politics became more sophisticated. She later footnoted her celebrated article on Dylan as a “prefeminist essay,” critiquing her reference “with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan’s characteristic bohemian contempt for women.” She calls another statement in the piece “absurd.” What other writer would inspect her shedded skin with such harsh and bracing honesty?

Willis could see when she was wrong, and she could change her mind. She could also let you in on this process, recovering perhaps one of the more forgotten strengths of the essay: that it narrates its author coming to terms with him or herself. Of all the essays in this thick collection, the one that most stays in my mind is “Next Year in Jerusalem.” In 1975 Willis’s brother, Michael, nine years her junior but something of her twin, landed in Israel on his way home from Asia and there became an Orthodox Jew. Willis followed him, worried that he was “succumbing to an authoritarian illusion in an attempt to solve (or escape from) his problems.” This was something of an attempt to solve—or escape from—her own problems, too. She spoke to rabbis’ wives about authenticity and meaning, she identified her own mode of thinking and feeling as Jewish, and she learned that “it was a commandment to be happy.”

Willis shared her personal experiences to raise consciousness and to raise hell. Today, can anyone cut through like Willis did then?

Published at 20,000 words in Rolling Stone, Willis’s essay exposed her innards, baring not only her personal sorrow but also the seduction of religion. For all her militant feminism, she could not shake a deep worry that her gender made her frivolous, unlike the Orthodox woman, who “did not appear to doubt for a moment that she could be both a woman and a serious person.” Willis sees comfort in the religious worldview, acknowledges she feels “secretly afraid that the lie was true—that my humanity was hopelessly at odds with my ineluctably female sexuality.” Certain that God had ordained their roles, the Orthodox women she met were not afraid, she observed, not even secretly.

Willis finally wills herself to fly home and, upon her return, is relieved to feel “seized with an almost religious tenderness for New York and its special beauty.” She has confirmed her beliefs—the ardency of her secularism and skepticism—but as she watches the city lights blink on, she can no longer be quite so naïve. In them, she writes, “I saw something else: the temptations of Egypt.”

One of Willis’s students, Kate Bolick, writes in her remembrance of her teacher that Willis’s brother Michael devoted his entire eulogy to that essay. It’s not hard to guess why. This was Willis’s best expression of anti-authoritarianism, her courage to question her own command. Even then, at thirty-six, she felt there was nothing to protect. She was writing essays in the traditional sense—the “weighing” of Latin etymology, the “trial” or “attempt” as in old French—but with the American exuberance of Emerson, Thoreau, and Ellison, and with American womanhood on her side.

In 1998 Willis reviewed Grace Paley’s Just As I Thought, using it as an opportunity to consider not only the tormented relationship between mothers and daughters but also between generations of women’s rights and feminist activists. “Radical feminism,” Willis wrote, began as a daughters’ revolution. While it was not anti-mother, as has often been charged—on the contrary, it impelled many young women to regard their mothers’ struggles and defeats with unaccustomed empathy—it did center on rebellion against the enforced domesticity and repressive sexual morality that defined those mothers’ lives. The right to abortion—the refusal of motherhood-as-destiny—was its primary metaphor.

Willis admired Paley but wrote that her political commentary “raises my daughterly hackles (never mind that I too am a mother).” She didn’t like “feminist pacifism,” because “defining peace as a women’s issue reinforces an ideal of maternity aimed at keeping women in their place.” She didn’t, she wrote, “believe that by virtue of our childbearing capacity we have a special responsibility for children, a special talent for nurturance, a special connection with the earth or a special penchant for nonviolence that obliges us to save the world from men’s depredations.” It’s true that women’s wombs don’t give them elect earth-guru status, that biology is not destiny, but there may be something here that Willis missed. So long as depredations abound, men will never share equally, not exactly, in the project of women’s liberation. Daughters need mothers, and responsibility emerges from that; one generation of feminists needs the other—to draw inspiration from, to rebel against, to rally around.

Willis may not have had the ego to grasp herself as needed; never interested in a cult of personality, she did not became a household name the way Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, or Susan Sontag have. But other writers, other brave young feminists, have taken up the call and cry. The Essential Ellen Willis exists because the writer Sara Marcus asked for it, after the reception of a 2011 collection of Willis’s rock criticism showed that too few people knew Willis beyond her rock writing. Willis’s daughter—the journalist and feminist Nona Willis Aronowitz—made it happen. Nona’s peers and mine—including Marcus, Irin Carmon, and Ann Friedman, who contributed introductions to sections of the book—help preserve it too. But now, the worry isn’t so much whether the kids are going to be alright, but whether we will have the same freedom—sexual, reproductive, and otherwise—that our mothers struggled for.

In Willis’s review of Just As I Thought, she quotes from Paley’s visit to the Women’s Peace Encampment at Seneca Falls. Paley sees a daughter on the phone with her mother, who is terrified that her child is planning to get arrested. “I wanted to take the phone from her,” Paley wrote, “and say, ‘Ma, don’t worry, your kid’s OK. . . . Don’t you see she’s one of the young women who will save my granddaughter’s life?’” I’ve long felt that Grace Paley saved my life by explaining to me why and how I needed to struggle. Ellen Willis, by making radicalism the only reasonable way, may have too.

Emily Greenhouse is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.