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 sixties 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 eighties, 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.)