Editor’s Note: Ellen Willis, a valued contributor to The Nation and a crucial figure in the women’s liberation movement, died on November 9. We invited several of her friends, colleagues and admirers to contribute to this appreciation of her extraordinary life and work.
Ellen and I had a connection that began before we were born. Our mothers were sisters, and very close; we were their first pregnancies, practically simultaneous. They wrote letters to each other constantly before and after giving birth, which they did a month apart. Our earliest pictures show us in the same crib, eyeing each other warily. Ellen was the first person I knew besides my parents, and almost the first thing I remember knowing was that she was smarter than me. That, of course, was long before I knew she was smarter than anyone.
I remember the time both of us, aged 4, were crayoning, and I managed to rip through my coloring book. “I hate these crayons,” I cried. “Judy, don’t be so sarcastic,” she said coolly, a word I wouldn’t understand for years (it would be even more years before I understood she was using the word incorrectly; being a typical 4-year-old, at that moment I really did hate those crayons). At the time, she simply floored me; I stared at her, awed.
As kids, we were together for holidays, vacations and most of the summer, which we spent in Ellenville, New York, the small Catskills town where our mothers had grown up. Because of the war, and our fathers’ absences, Ellen and I made it to age 6 before we had to deal with siblings, first one, then two years later another, apiece (our mothers really were amazingly in sync). Becoming big sisters was a challenge. We handled it by first developing a deep yearning for a big sister of our own, and second, inventing one.
Her name was Margaret, our favorite name of the moment, and she was, we decided, away at camp–this, we figured, would explain her absence to anyone churlish enough to question her existence. We painstakingly composed a letter from her, which had her complaining about camp–Ellen thought that was a good touch, since we could then act annoyed at her complaints. We spent several days running around the small town of Ellenville, calling her name, informing anyone who looked at us quizically that she was just up ahead, around the corner. For some reason this whole venture satisfied us.
The odd thing was it never occurred to either of us that there was no way we could have had a mutual older sister. Obviously, it had never occurred to us that we weren’t sisters ourselves.
We shared many things, growing up. Books, for one. Almost every year we had a special book. We were 10 when we discovered Anne Frank. She affected us strongly, though not, I’m afraid, the same way she affected everyone else. What got to us was the fact that she had been on the spot at a particularly important time and place–and written it all down, earning eternal fame. We immediately started diaries of our own, even giving them names, silly as that seemed, since it had worked for her. We then set out to find adventures to record. It was slim pickings, back in 1950s surburbia, but we strove valiantly. One day we went for a walk and a dog followed us for an hour–Sandy, an amiable Irish setter. Thrilled, we ran home and rushed to our notebooks to record it.
We shared music, too. We were both there for that cataclysmic event, the birth of rock and roll. I remember us going to see Blackboard Jungle, which started and ended with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” later pinpointed by many as a primal moment. No one had to tell us that. We were so thrilled, so excited, we rushed outside feverishly, holding hands, the music ringing in our ears. Everything else was down the road–Elvis, Dylan, the Stones, all of it–but it was as if we knew it all in that one intoxicating moment, knew what was coming, felt it in the air.
Then there was sex, which fascinated us. We used to lie in bed when we were 12, planning our first honeymoon night. What would be best to wear, something sheer or maybe something flannel–that way, Ellen thought, you’d save the surprise for the end.
In our 20s, our ways diverged. Ellen got married, at age 20, because (she later admitted) she wanted to go to California with her boyfriend, and no one went off with a boyfriend in 1960 without being married. It didn’t last; she returned to New York and started forging her amazing career as a rock critic, then as a founder of the new feminist movement. I married and stayed home when the babies came, something she never, never made me feel bad about.
Still, she herself would never have children, she said. She needed too much time to read the papers on Sunday, and besides, changing diapers disgusted her and she would end up giving the kid a complex. I believed her, naturally; you always believed Ellen. Then one day, when we were standing in line at a supermarket and I was hugely pregnant and holding on to my 2-year-old, I thrust him at her, saying, “Here, hold this,” so I could pay. After I finished I glanced at her. She was holding him so tenderly, with such a loving look on her face, I knew right then: It didn’t matter what she said. Someday, someway, there would be a baby.
But before that, there was Stanley, and what everyone in our family considered the most romantic relationship of our generation. I remember them coming to visit, early on. It was a bad night; one of my kids had come down with a horrible case of stomach flu and was throwing up all over the house. I kept getting up to tend to him. I don’t think either of them noticed. They were totally oblivious–so completely immersed in each other, they could have been on the moon. Finally they left, both of them glowing, under their own private glass bell.
And then, of course, there was her miracle daughter, beautiful Nona, who she adored from the moment she was born, who made her so proud. A few years ago, at one holiday or another, we were sitting around quietly, letting our kids–Nona, my nephew, one of my sons–do the talking. Ellen nudged me. “I feel like… wow, here are these prize watermelons we grew,” she said.
Ellen and I always talked nonstop when we were together, one long endless conversation, throughout our lives. But in the last few years, for some reason it seemed even more important to sit close to each other, hold hands, keep our arms around each other. Even when walking down a street or sitting at a restaurant. Just like we did when we were little, between squabbles. I have no idea why this was true, why we felt this need, but it felt so comforting, somehow. And necessary. I guess it was a way of saying without words, You know how much I’ve always loved you, don’t you? You know how important you’ve always been to me, right? How much I’ll miss you, forever.
Ellen Willis’s death is a very painful loss to me. She had a greater influence on my ideas than any other writer did (though I always felt that I could never catch up to her thinking). She represented radical humanism with an eloquent rigor that kept this perspective alive at a time when it has virtually no voice in the mass media. She managed to combine the respect for pleasure and desire that animated politics in the ’60s with a nuanced critique that was never chastened but always alert to the potential for tyranny that ideology contains. She brought the values of the ’60s into the present without becoming mired in nostalgia, making it possible to imagine that those values may play a role in the future, if we can preserve them.
For Ellen the personal was not only political but also an essential reminder that subjectivity underlies all intellectual work. Any writer who doesn’t admit that ought to raise suspicions right away. Her style was both complex and colloquial, a true expression of the demotic aesthetic of our generation. As my editor, she made me see the limits of journalism, helping me to nurture my ambitions even as I felt compelled to turn a funky phrase at the expense of reason. And her activism was a great inspiration, more in keeping with the European tradition than with the current norms of American intellectual life. I always thought of Ellen as our Simone de Beauvoir–though I bet she’d find that comparison simplistic, and prod me to think harder.
She was my cherished friend, and I shall miss her rapier affection more than I can say.
At the age of 23, I rearranged my life to move to New York City and study with my two favorite journalists–who conveniently both worked at the same place, the Village Voice.
I loved Guy Trebay for how he said things–who else could turn a bum assignment like the opening of the polar bear exhibit at the zoo into an exquisitely observed meditation on animal (and human) nature?–and Ellen Willis for what she said. Who else could turn a routine trip to the playground with her young daughter into a scorching critique of capitalism and American social policy on families?
My covert method of acquiring a free education under these masters, whom I’d never met, was to score an internship at the Village Voice, which conveniently meshed with the Voice‘s mission of extracting as much free labor as it could from eager, idealistic cub reporters from the hinterlands regardless of their experience or abilities.
I spent the next year trying to get Ellen Willis to talk to me.
“It’s not you,” Guy once told me, “it’s just that she’s socially… well, she’s reserved.”
I’d read every word she’d ever written and tripped over every idea she’d floated, and I couldn’t get her to shoot the shit for five minutes, let alone engage her in any real conversation.
Other reporters and editors were happy to pile on the research assignments, ask me to clip articles, have me answer their phones and tell their girlfriends they were out–and occasionally throw me a bone, say a sidebar on Barbara Bush’s dog. But Ellen did all her own research, all her own phone-answering, all her own clipping.
I was pretty sure she didn’t know my name.
I would try to engage her in conversation, curious about her reporting, her subjects, her interview methods, her take on office politics; she’d give me monosyllabic answers.
Finally, probably sick of my sycophantic ways, clueless queries and clearly inadequate undergraduate education, she dropped a book list on my desk, basically feminism’s greatest hits. “You might want to read these,” she said.
Without another word, she walked out of my cubicle and, shortly thereafter, out of the Village Voice.
That was the end of my relationship with Ellen, the un-mentor, until she hired me many years later to teach some journalism classes in her Cultural Reporting graduate program at NYU. (Apparently, she did know my name after all.)
By then, the significance of Ellen’s not-so-subtle gesture of providing a reading list had penetrated my pea-brain: good journalism isn’t simply about acquiring reporting and writing skills but about engaging in the world of ideas, or the cultural conversation, as she titled one of the classes she required of all her grad students.
I have continued to read every word Ellen’s written and now put her mentoring in a much larger context: For several generations of feminists (and un-feminists, as they sometimes consider themselves, despite their politics), Ellen has imagined and described a better world–and insisted, in her cranky, sharp, amusing and insightful (inciting?) way, that we work toward that. Pronto!
In this way, her legacy of mentoring of young women is powerful and pervasive–even far-reaching.
For example, I have been doing a lot of reporting on the Ohio State University campus lately, and a few months ago an eager, excited young freshman (oh dear, her name escapes me) in her first women’s studies class gushed to me about a discovery: “Ohmygod, have you ever read Ellen Willis?”
I’ve received some sad news. The writer Ellen Willis, one of my heroes, died this morning of lung cancer, much too young (64). I will miss her lucid thinking about culture and politics, bracing scorn for sentimental obfuscation (whether from the right or the left), radical vision of a better society and gift for the art of writing.
Though Willis wholeheartedly participated in ’60s counterculture, she wrote incisively about its foolishness. A policeman’s daughter, she described demonstrators’ cop-hating as “another pretense that white bohemians and radicals are as oppressed as ghetto blacks,” and “fierce bohemian contempt for all those slobs who haven’t seen the light.”
A founding member of Redstockings, Willis was an articulate champion of seventies radical feminism, but wrote equally well about the pleasure-hating ’80s, with its drug wars, censorship and the rise of the “right to life” movement. She was deeply committed to a vision of love between free people, and through that lens, the social control decade took on a fresh desolation. She was eloquent about the extent to which fear of the libido not only energized the evangelical far right but had permeated feminism. Writing about feminist anti-porn crusades, she urged women not to “accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power.” Yet she admitted that the sexual radicals like herself didn’t have all the answers, and had “failed to put forth a convincing analysis of sexual violence, exploitation and alienation.”
Writing during this period, she created an alter ego for herself–and anyone else trying to live a passionate life in hostile times–an alienated character called Ruby Tuesday, periodically adrift from a cohesive community or social movement, asserting deviant desires in a culture that pretends we all want the same things.
But despite Willis’s sense of isolation and libertarian commitment to the individual–both of which pervade her writing in every era–she never lost sight of the importance of social movements: “The struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence is not just an individual matter. The social system that…as far as possible channels our desires, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort.”
Like her character Ruby Tuesday, who ends up seducing reporters who come to interview her, Willis was boldly optimistic about the transformative powers of desire, and the threateningly political implications of happiness. “The power of the ecstatic moment,” she writes, “This is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone–is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor.”
Like many feminists of my generation, I revered Ellen Willis and have been deeply influenced by her writing. I didn’t know her well as a person, however. Once at a party, I decided I had to talk to her, and tell her how much I admired her work. She seemed mortified, though not altogether displeased. After that, whenever we’d run into each other, she was pleasant enough, but always shy and awkward. I would often see her circling a party alone, apparently not finding anyone she was inclined to chat with, or any cluster she wanted to join. Still, I’m glad I got to tell her that I was a huge fan. I hope she enjoyed hearing that, at least a little bit.
(I should admit, I’m plagiarizing myself somewhat. I’ve written about Ellen Willis’s work before, in a “What Are They Reading?” on The Nation‘s website, and in a review of her 1993 book No More Nice Girls, the first piece I ever wrote for The Nation, which ran in the magazine October 4 of that year.)
I remember Ellen dancing at some Village Voice holiday party a dozen years ago. Her limbs swung loosely from side to side as she jiggled and swayed along with Stanley. Eyes closed, her expression was beatific. I was struck by how graceful and sexy she looked, so unabashedly immersed in music, movement and emotion.
Of all the essential insights Ellen’s work offered over the last four decades, her insistence on pleasure–in work, politics, day-to-day life–has been, to my mind, the most necessary. Neither hedonistic abandon (which is at its core nihilistic) nor an ironic Sex in the City style insouciance (because Ellen never agreed that there was anything naughty in it), the pleasure she propounded in her brilliant critical essays was part and parcel of freedom. No liberationist politics (and no critique of repressive reaction), she maintained, could make sense without taking account of the ways culture both answers and produces desire.
Ellen was one of the mind-blowing, convention-rattling feminists at the Voice when I started out there in the ’80s. She gave me–and many writers of my generation (and more who came later, especially those who had the good fortune to be her students at NYU)–a heady sense of what we could claim as worthy subjects of our journalism, and she provided a model for prose that could be simultaneously passionate, precise and playful. At the all-staff meetings where writers and editors argued enjoyably about what the paper should be covering and how (yeah, we did that in those days), the front-of-the-book white guys would have to lean forward and sit still to hear Ellen’s soft but certain voice–tearing their City Hall chauvinism to shreds.
Anti-doctrinal and principled in equal measure, Ellen consistently challenged her comrades to pry open the pieties that always threaten to attach themselves to movements like barnacles and harden there. She extolled sex among ’70s feminists. She exalted rock and roll among Frankfurt School-spouting lefties. When Tony Kushner and I asked her a few years ago to contribute to an anthology of progressive Jewish Americans writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she produced a powerful assertion of her anti-anti-Zionism that contains an incisive capsule analysis of the persistence of anti-Semitism. Last week’s loosening of the reactionary grip on our country might open the air passages enough to allow us to think again. It’s a time when we need Ellen’s voice more than ever. Fueled by desire more than by outrage, her sharp analysis always pointed toward hope. She dared to remain utopian. I can hardly imagine what we will do without her.
My mom always answered my tireless questions the same way, from the time I was young up until just a few days ago, when I couldn’t possibly imagine writing anything for her memorial service. Always thirsting for a definitive answer, I would corner both my parents and demand a response from them. My father, no matter how little he knew about the subject, would jump to provide me with an answer–any answer to satisfy me. But my mom was different. She’d adjust her glasses, do a thoughtful lip caress that she always did and tell me tentatively, “Well… it depends.”
At the time, her response always elicited a frustrated “Mo-om.” But she refused to blabber on about something she didn’t know about, or answer before thinking first. She was wise and she was honest, and would never bullshit her way through anything. When I got old enough to read her stuff, I began to appreciate her as a person even more; it was just so obvious she thought through everything within an inch of its life. Reading her pieces also revealed to me her deep love and respect for pop culture. She got me watching The Sopranos, listening to Bob Dylan and paying attention to each development in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She made sure I knew that pop culture, politics and national identity were all inextricable.
To me, her personality was utterly true to her writing–she was critical without being cynical, sensual without being divulgent and wary without leaving one stone unturned. Her quietness was simply an excuse to allow the wheels to turn in her head. I know that most would say she was shy, socially awkward, especially in contrast to her family–my dad, who is proud and gregarious, and me, who might be the queen of impulsive, sweeping statements. She was thought of as a completely different person on the page than she was in the flesh. But once you got to know the real her, you’d realize the two were inseparable. Every obit, every e-mail of condolence I have received, has commented on her intellect, thought process, her challenges to the culture and her contribution to the radical left and feminism and rock criticism–the list goes on. I’m only 22, so I’m sure there are many people who knew her intellectually way better than me–it was her accessible side, the side that can be known just by picking up one of her anthologies.
But there are very few people who got to know Mom well–she definitely lived inside her own head a lot of the time. She showed me and her precious few other confidantes in this world a side that she had trouble showing to strangers–the side that went beyond her guarded surface and really brought her writing to life. It almost feels like an accomplishment, a privilege, to have really known the true nature of my mother’s loyalty, warmth and, above all, her sheer wisdom.
Despite, or more likely because of, her roots in 1970s feminism, she always allowed me to be as girly, sexy, womanly, sporty, sensitive, dismissive, ditzy, studious, impulsive or careful as I ever wanted. She never said a thing when I wore those ridiculous mini-skirts in ninth grade, and didn’t flinch when I told her as a little girl about my ill-conceived plans to marry at 21. She taught me what a feminist was–a woman who understood the concepts of joy, truth and curiosity, without forgetting that her personal life was hers to shape. And as I gradually learned what kind of woman I wanted to be, her sly half-smile told me she had always known I’d figure things out for myself.
Because if there was ever a person with a sense of self, Mom was it. I’ve known since I was tiny that she loved the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground, the shade rather than the sun, Cadbury’s chocolate and lots of garlic and balsamic vinegar. She knew what she wanted and didn’t mess around, as private as she was. And she respected others’ privacy like nobody I’ve ever known. She was almost afraid to ask me about my personal life, clearly scarred by my typical “None of your business” comments when I was a teenager. But when she did ask, there was such a delicate earnestness in her voice that I ended up spilling everything to her. My meandering stories were often met with pensive “Mmm-hmm”s from my mom, which frustrated me and relieved me at the same time. I didn’t have to say anything else…she was listening, and that was enough.
Embarrassingly, this is the first piece of public writing that is reaching people without her seal of approval. I would seldom even hand in a paper in college without her editor’s comments, which eventually taught me to have the same aversion to clichés and wordiness that she did. She answered my phone calls at all hours of the night, stumbling out of bed and signing online at one in the morning to read my piece on deadline and rising to the occasion with some essential edit. She would write, “Say what you mean here.” “Is this the word you want to use?” “I really like it, but you could do x, y, and z.” I would toil faithfully, handing in the finished product at the eleventh hour. Later, with restrained sentimentality, she’d tell me how proud of me she was. Mom usually had no tolerance for mushy stuff, but sometimes her little eyes would tear up at the slightest things.
My mom always said she could never do two things at once–and it was definitely true, in a way. She couldn’t carry on a conversation while cooking, driving, anything–telling me sheepishly, “I’m concentrating” when I distracted her in the middle of the most menial chore. But in a sense, she multitasked more than anyone I know–cranked out pages and pages of thoughtful, important, witty writing, made it possible for me and other women to pursue the lives we want, mentored many of the sharpest journalists out there, read a few newspapers every day over a lukewarm cup of coffee, arguing with my dad over the latest political scandal–all the while still being the most open, affectionate and genuinely proud mother I could ever ask for.
Throughout this past whirlwind week, when my mom’s ability to communicate seemed to dwindle by the hour, she still could answer my “I love you’s” with a breathless “I love you too.” Less than twenty-four hours after she couldn’t answer me, she was gone. I guess as soon as her ever-churning mind became unable to express itself–both to me and the rest of the world–her body decided it was time to follow suit.
On February 17, 2005, Ellen Willis gave a talk at Take Back the Future, a group that meets on the third Thursday of each month for old New Leftists and feminists to talk about What to Do Now. The abortion situation was heating up; it really looked bad for one of feminism’s most concrete victories, Roe v. Wade. And no one seemed to care; there was a war on.
In this situation one would expect Ellen Willis, one of the great, original voices, one of the founders of the modern Women’s Liberation Movement, to say what she had always said: that abortion was key to our struggle, that without abortion there is no freedom and sexual pleasure is threatened, that freedom and pleasure are what we should want and what politics should be about. In 1977, when the Hyde Amendment cut off funding for abortion, hadn’t we founded No More Nice Girls to say just that? Rather than trudge around in a circle downhearted, we made our demonstrations theatrical and flamboyant, facing down signs on the other side that said “Abortion is Murder” with our own message: “Sex for Fun.”
What Ellen actually said that evening was that, in spite of all our efforts to keep the subject sexy and edgy, abortion wasn’t an exciting or useful starting point for radicals anymore. Liberal feminists had taken it over and disassociated abortion from sexual freedom, apologizing for this awful need women sometimes have. At the same time, left-wing feminists had buried abortion inside “reproductive rights” campaigns that were as much about health and having children as about that stigmatized, nasty thing, abortion. Besides, Ellen said, we’re on the defensive now, trying to protect a right, which can never be like fighting for something new that you urgently want. Backlash, she said, has mired feminism in ambivalence. How can you raise issues of sexual freedom through feminism in this compromised, self-deprecating condition?
Ever the critic of everything, she turned on herself: I usually say the left refused to take the culture wars seriously and that this is a serious mistake. But I, too, want us to turn our attention from this particular piece of the cultural wars, abortion. The New Right has cornered the market on passion about this one; let’s do something else, something new to raise the issue of sexual freedom. The passion we can claim at this moment is internationalism. People are not used to the idea that women’s rights are key to international affairs, but sexual repression is a basic element in religious totalitarianism. The feminist demand for sexual freedom could enter here. Here is a place for a feminist politics where we can talk about the fear of sexual freedom as a force in current world affairs.
Some in the room were stunned. Abandon abortion at home for international culture wars about sex? Yes, yes. Because Ellen was always moving beyond what we were currently saying and beyond herself. She was unpredictable because she was always seeking the burning tip, the place where political life is alive with desire, and that place is always changing. She had proposed at a left conference that fear of sex was a central motive for the bombing of the Twin Towers, and some had tittered. Surely, the great Ellen Willis had gone over the edge–or was she joking? She was always disappointed when the left refused to take psychology, and particularly sexuality, seriously. She was always seeking to keep radical ideas about freedom and pleasure alive and moving in the world.
For me, and for so many others, Ellen’s intellectual leadership has been formative, central, enduring. As a political comrade, she was cranky and skeptical, and I did my political work while woven into a constant conversation-argument with her for thirty years. She threw light on absolutely everything. When she edited our writing, she pulled from us a kind of clarity about what we wanted to say and do that we now have to hope will last us our lifetimes–lifetimes we expected to lead in her luminous company.
Most of us have a shortlist of bylines that quicken our readerly pulses; that make buying whatever issue of whatever publication they appear in a non-decision; that we Google regularly; whose owners we gossip about (intellectually, of course) and fondly imagine ourselves shmoozing with someday as peers. Ellen Willis was high on my list. Since I encountered her writing in the Village Voice thirty years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever passed by a piece of hers without reading it–even the rock criticism, which I knew perfectly well I had no business reading while Marx’s Grundrisse and Heidegger’s Being and Time languished, neglected, on my bookshelves. I didn’t even listen to the music she wrote about. But her passionate, protean intelligence fascinated me. How could she write so knowledgeably, so authoritatively, about politics, psychology and sex; about Reich, Roe v. Wade, Israel, the family, the First Amendment and the New York Dolls? Her versatility and verve reminded me of Irving Howe’s famous description of the “New York style,” which “celebrated the idea of the intellectual as anti-specialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.” Many people in her generation and since have tried to become New York intellectuals. Few succeeded as well as Willis, perhaps because smartness alone isn’t enough; moral seriousness is at least the half of it.
Her death comes in the middle of an argument she was indispensable to, about the right balance between economics and culture in left/liberal strategy. Earlier this year, in response to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, she published an important essay, “Escape from Freedom: What’s the Matter With Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?” It hasn’t generated much discussion, at least so far, and I doubt she would have left the matter there. As a Frank-lover, I wasn’t persuaded, but I couldn’t wait to see what she’d say next. I hope someone else will say it, but I can’t imagine anyone else saying it so well.
Ellen was my editor at the Village Voice in the 1980s, when I lived in West Texas. I started out covering immigration, but she called one day to say she’d seen a TV show about “satanic daycare” cases. She suspected they were bogus, an expression of anxiety about sex that everyone, even the women’s movement, was buying into. She asked me to spend six weeks reporting a case in El Paso. With her total support, I ended up spending nine months–not just because the topic was so confounding, but because I was scared of it. Hardly anyone, much less editors, had the insight or guts to face this phenomenon down. Ellen did.
She blue-penciled as an editor, but not much. Instead, she’d call and say, “The idea in this paragraph could be clearer. Read such-and-such book; I’ll Fed-Ex it, then we’ll talk.” She pushed complexity, concreteness and courage. We talked history, policy, psychology, anthropology and what we felt when we looked at our naked kids (we both had babies). Then I’d revise. The conceptual and stylistic power I gained shone in the finished pieces.
Post-publication, Ellen kept up her modus operandi. After she mailed 100 copies of the Voice with my daycare story to El Paso, people there read it. Community hysteria popped like a bubble, and a convicted defendant was acquitted at retrial. I reported on a New Jersey daycare aide who was rotting in prison. Stuck in Texas without contacts to assist the aide, I phoned Ellen, distraught. She immediately organized a defense committee.
Working with her felt down to earth, heady, collaborative and feminist. Her editing reflected her individual brilliance and the best of the women’s movement that she helped create and nurture. Ellen inspired writers to analyze, imagine and make a difference–with bravery, smarts, joy and with our periods just at the right place.
Most people don’t associate Ellen Willis’s name with Redstockings, the first radical feminist group. But it was Ellen who started the group with Shulie Firestone in 1969. The spark was an incident at a huge Washington antiwar demonstration, where a group of movement guys shouted at the women’s liberation spokesperson, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” as they tramped onto the nearly collapsing stage. Indeed, men and even left men could be the enemy, and this theory separated radical feminism from liberal or even left feminism.
Few on the left or in the women’s liberation movement understood consumption, and many blamed women for being profligate spenders. In “The Politics of Consumption,” Ellen explained why women and African-Americans consumed, and admitted in her unprudish way that consuming could be fun. She understood that a movement was more than politics; it was a social and cultural arena, and needed to be pleasurable, entertaining and sensual. She was influenced by Wilhelm Reich and rock music, and led the offensive against women who wanted pornography censored. In the 1980s she organized the guerrilla theater group No More Nice Girls, which recruited artists who designed flamboyant props and signs; it pops up now and again at demos to this day.
She was a clear and concise writer, and words mattered to her, which was why she objected to calling the abortion movement a choice movement. Sexual freedom and abortion rights were key to women’s liberation, and she felt as strongly about them in 1968 as she did in 2000. She had a cutting-edge intellect, was never content with easy answers and pushed beyond the conventional, comfortable left and feminist boundaries.
In 1990 Ellen wanted to write a letter to the New York Times after it published an account of how abortion in New York State was legalized that barely mentioned the women’s movement’s role. She circulated a draft of her letter, gathered signatures, and that list of women signing became the History in Action net, which lives on. Our visionary warrior will be sorely missed.
“Take back the night,” she scoffed. “How can women take back the night when they’ve never had it?” I had just met Ellen Willis. It was 1980, I think, and she was scheduled to speak at the University of Michigan about the anti-pornography movement. This was not Ellen’s most trenchant observation, but it reflected her lack of sentimentality, and it had never occurred to me. I was in awe of Ellen, yet our first conversation was filled with awkward misfires. Thinking that pop-music talk might help to get us on more comfortable footing, I asked her whose music excited her. I may have mentioned Gang of Four or Prince, and her eyes glazed over. She didn’t bother anymore with song titles or artists’ names, which put a quick end to that conversation.
After several such nonstarters, I didn’t know what to think. No one ruled my world like Ellen Willis, whose writing complicated feminism and the ’60s in ways that made me hungry to study them. Over the years my lover and I had spent hundreds of dollars subscribing to the Village Voice, which would arrive in our mailbox a week late–frayed, torn, sometimes soggy–but with great columns by Ellen. And yet Ellen and I were barely able to keep our stumbling conversation alive. Over the years our conversations improved considerably, and I saw that what made Ellen such a compelling writer and thinker–her almost scary incisiveness and fearlessness–could make for awkward conversations. Of all the feminists I knew, no one seemed to have more thoroughly absorbed the injunction against nice-girl behavior than Ellen. She looked feminine and had a sexy attractiveness, but she did not smile needlessly, make small talk or apparently care very much what you thought of her. Ellen did a lot of nailing in her day, but she was all about ideas. She insisted on the compatibility of women’s liberation and rock and roll, fought for a progressive movement in which feminism and the left informed each other and for a political vision that understood the centrality of culture to politics. Ellen’s work and her vision will live on, but God, how I wish she were still with us.
When the tsunami against male supremacy known as the Women’s Liberation Movement swept across the land in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Ellen Willis emerged as one of its most stalwart activist thinkers.
The sad news of her death sent me back to her writings in Notes From the Second Year, one of the earliest and most important collections from the WLM. In “Women and the Left” and “Sequel: Letter to a Critic,” she illuminated the need for a women’s liberation movement independent of the left and pointed out that the material basis of women’s oppression is “located in the production of new human beings,” something many of today’s feminists seem to overlook. In “‘Consumerism’ and Women” she bravely and deftly took on the idea that consumption, especially by women, was merely the result of media “brainwashing.”
Ellen was better than most writers at taking public the new understandings arising from women’s liberation consciousness-raising groups of which she was a member, first New York Radical Women and then Redstockings. I especially loved her “Up from Radicalism” in US magazine (October 1969). Her writing was always forthright and serious, unencumbered by pretentious cuteness or fawning. Her forte was in exploring dark corners and adding her own light so all could see more clearly. In those crucial years, we struggled to make the left more feminist and to keep the WLM genuinely radical.
As the WLM became decimated by liberal co-optation and right-wing backlash, I sometimes found myself in disagreement with Ellen. She was the “sexual libertine” and I a “prude” who opposed porn as anti-woman. I felt she put too much emphasis on women’s oppression as cultural. However, there remained important areas of agreement, and I was very much looking forward to participating in an upcoming cyber-discussion led by her on the “Second Wave” and Beyond forum about her recent article “Escape from Freedom: What’s the Matter With Tom Frank (And the Lefties Who Love Him)?” when the shocking news came that her clear and probing voice would be no more.
Much has been written about Ellen Willis’s unflinching honesty and courage to go against the prevailing grain, about her profound influence on her own generation of feminists, cultural critics and activists, as well as subsequent ones. We admire her iconoclasm, her intellectual scope and her brilliant, witty and trenchant writing about women and popular culture. But in the last quarter-century of her life, Ellen’s thinking and writing were devoted chiefly to politics and to what I want to call her spontaneous philosophical reflection. The term “spontaneous” refers to the fact that she was not scholastic; she rarely read and never commented on well-known philosophical works. Instead, she was able to uncover events in ways that displayed their underlying content, the ways in which they revealed aspects of what it was to be human.
Ellen hated moralism, whether it emanated from the left, from religious speech or from anywhere else. She was a thoroughgoing materialist in the sense that she believed there were rational influences that explained human events–not only economic interests, but also from the depths of the political and cultural unconscious. (For Ellen, “rational” referred as much to the political and cultural unconscious, which, contrary to common usage, she understood as a material force.) Yet she rejected the strict separation of matter and spirit and as a true dialectical thinker argued for their organic unity. She has left us with several chapters of a book on pyschoanalysis and politics that argues we cannot fully understand current events, let alone history, without taking account of the psychological aspects. She deplored the prevailing tendency among progressives to focus on categories such as the “greed” and “evil” of the Bush Administration and on corrupt politicians to explain our current political malaise. While not denying the power of the ruling class, she urged us to engage in collective self-examination to find the sources of our own powerlessness.
A militant Freudian, she deplored the current fashion on the left and among feminists of renouncing the importance of psychoanalysis. She was a close student and fervent advocate of the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose insights about the role of patriarchy and the authoritarian family in the rise of fascism and authoritarian tendencies in democratic societies she believed vital to any possible movement for social change. Long before others discovered the body as a source of wisdom, she learned from Reich and from her own reflection that the sources of mind and body were identical–the energy emanating in nature. That is why she was firmly on the side of pleasure, holding that its repression distorted our capacity to envision a different world. To distinguish her position from those who would confine women’s liberation to whether they smashed the glass ceiling, she described herself as a pro-sex feminist, a term that indicated that sexuality was a political question.
Ellen was a fierce critic of organized religion, in which she saw few redeeming features. For her, every religion perpetuates the oppression of women and children and maintains the status quo that has weighed heavily on us since the beginning of organized society. For these and other reasons, she was equally convinced that the left/populist attempt to dismiss the so-called social issues as diversions from the “real” questions of economic deprivation would lead us down the wrong path. Yet against the effort of much of the left to conflate the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli government–which she condemned–with Judaism, she argued that, however patriarchial it remained, Judaism’s cultural dimensions enabled Jewish women to enjoy more freedom than any other religion. Despite the misuse of freedom by the right, Ellen was a fervent partisan of freedom, which she held to be the highest aspiration of everyone who would emancipate humankind from exploitation and inequality. Her primary criterion for evaluating any society or political regime was the degree of freedom its members enjoyed; to her, those who provided social welfare without granting citizens genuine autonomy were part of the problem. Bereft of sentimentality, her devotion to freedom was her morality.
However much she railed against the politics of economic reductionism, Ellen was a passionate union person. She helped organize the union at the Village Voice and served on its negotiating committee. When graduate assistants struck at NYU for union recognition, she was among their faculty allies. Yet she was never convinced that collective bargaining and other union benefits should define the labor movement. She urged her fellow writers and editors at the Voice and colleagues at NYU to demand more power over governance, a task she thought unions had more or less surrendered. She wished for a different kind of labor movement.
Ellen and I lived together for almost twenty-five years. Even as she pined for collective forms of living, she was always bemused that she, our daughter, Nona, and I constituted a nuclear family. She was reserved, taking her own counsel rather than displaying private life as a public act. She was uncomfortable in groups, even as her most cherished social relations were with a large women’s group that, on and off, has been together for several decades. In the last eighteen months of her illness, she remained a private person, sharing her struggle with family and close friends but refusing to make her malady a literary product. And her penchant for self-examination led to uncertainty about whether she was a good parent, despite having been a fabulous mother who evoked the undying love of her daughter, whose testament shows Ellen’s dedication. As for me, I have lost my best friend, my chief interlocutor, my severest critic–indeed, many were the times when, after she read a piece or a chapter of one of my books, she sent me back to the drawing board with the admonition to do it again. She was my own model of how to live.
There are not many magazine writers who are also thinkers, and Ellen Willis, who died November 9 at the much too youthful age of 64, was one of the clearest, sharpest and deepest. In everything she wrote–for The New Yorker, the Village Voice, Salon and many other publications, including, all too rarely, The Nation–she was committed to liberation, to pleasure and to serious engagement with political ideas–ideas she might find anywhere, in a rock song or a movie or the way the tabloids covered Monica Lewinsky. The short-term tactics and positioning and voter-friendly sloganeering that obsess political junkies held little interest for her. Instead, she taught us how to think about what it means to be modern people. Her last long piece, “Escape From Freedom: What’s the Matter With Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?,” was a masterpiece of engaged analysis that, like much of her writing in recent years, should have received more attention than it did. I’ll miss our all-too-infrequent conversations and the lift of the heart I felt whenever I saw her byline.