[Marxism] Ellen Willis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 10 12:41:52 MST 2006

Over on Doug Henwood's list, leftist professor Jesse Lemisch has been 
scolding everybody including Doug for calling attention to Ellen Willis's 
bad side as well as her good. She just died of lung cancer at the age of 64 
She was an important feminist journalist and film critic in the 1960s and 
70s and was married to DSA leader Stanley Aronowitz. Her NY Times obit is 
followed by a link to a rather unflattering article I wrote about her. 
Since I have never curried favor from anybody, I would not have any 
particular reaction to anybody finding fault with what I wrote. Of course, 
I wouldn't expect here to begin with. That's what I love about Marxmail, 
the Last Chance Saloon for the hard left.

NY Timies November 10, 2006
Ellen Willis, 64, Journalist and Feminist, Dies

Ellen Willis, the noted journalist, feminist and cultural critic, whose 
work ranged seamlessly through politics and religion, sex, film and rock 
’n’ roll, died yesterday at her home in Queens. She was 64.

The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Stanley Aronowitz, the 
well-known sociologist and progressive activist.

At her death, Ms. Willis was a professor of journalism at New York 
University. She also directed the journalism department’s cultural 
reporting and criticism program, which she founded in 1995.

As a writer, she was best known for her political essays, which appeared in 
The Nation, Dissent and elsewhere. She was also widely recognized for her 
rock criticism: she was the first pop-music critic of The New Yorker, and 
wrote regularly about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other 

In addition, Ms. Willis was a vital figure in the women’s movement of the 
late 1960s and afterward. She was a founder of Redstockings, a short-lived 
but highly influential radical feminist group begun in 1969. In the 1980s, 
she helped found No More Nice Girls, a street theater and protest group 
that focused on abortion rights.

At its core, Ms. Willis’s work was rooted in the three R’s, which for her 
were radicalism, religion and rock. But little escaped her scrutiny, and 
over the years, her writings embraced subjects as diverse as 
psychoanalysis, the O. J. Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and “The 
Sopranos.” To Ms. Willis, each of these was a strand in the contemporary 
social fabric, and her responsibility as critic was to map out the complex 
ways in which they interlaced.

In an essay in The New York Times in 1999, Ms. Willis wrote:

“The Lewinsky scandal has prompted an impassioned national conversation on 
the relationship of the political to the personal, public authority to 
private behavior; on sexual privacy versus ‘family values’; on female 
sexual autonomy and victimization. Granted, the affair has also produced an 
outpouring of schlock with no redeeming social value. But far from 
vindicating the eat-your-vegetables school of journalism, the schlock 
suggests what’s wrong with it. Arguably, just as Victorian repression 
produced a thriving pornography industry, the exclusion of sex from 
‘serious’ news media produced tabloidism. As this taboo passes into 
history, there should be more room for a public conversation on sex that is 
neither coy nor prurient, but simply frank.”

Though Ms. Willis liked to describe herself as an anti-authoritarian 
democratic socialist, she was leery of extremism of either stripe. An 
outspoken advocate of women’s sexual empowerment, she also publicly 
condemned feminists who wanted to ban pornography. (She was disturbed by 
what she viewed as their Puritanism, and by the threat to free expression.) 
She also took some members of the American left to task for what she saw as 
anti-Semitism thinly veiled as political animus toward Israel.

“My education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me 
that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn 
the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the 
corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or 
manipulative revolutionaries,” Ms. Willis wrote in an essay collected in 
“Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade” (Knopf, 1981). She continued:

“Yet the modernists’ once-subversive refusal to be gulled or lulled has 
long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, 
soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it 
replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task 
is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to 
existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disaster, yet 
insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you 
have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss 
such a project as insane.”

Ellen Jane Willis was born in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 1941; her father was a 
lieutenant in the New York Police Department. Reared in the Bronx and 
Queens, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard in 1962 and 
afterward did graduate work in comparative literature at the University of 
California, Berkeley.

Ms. Willis was divorced after an early marriage. She wed Mr. Aronowitz, her 
longtime companion, in 1998. She is survived by Mr. Aronowitz, a 
distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York and 
the Green Party candidate for governor of New York in 2002; their daughter, 
Nona Willis-Aronowitz, of Manhattan; two siblings, Michael Willis of 
Johannesburg, South Africa, and Penny Willis of Queens; four stepchildren, 
Michael O’Connell of Basking Ridge, N.J.; Kim O’Connell of Montclair, N.J.; 
Alice Finer and Hampton Finer, both of Brooklyn; and two step-grandchildren.

Ms. Willis’s other books include “No More Nice Girls: Countercultural 
Essays” (University Press of New England, 1992); and “Don’t Think, Smile! 
Notes on a Decade of Denial” (Beacon Press, 1999).

Despite her anti-authoritarian positions — or perhaps because of them — she 
confessed to being constitutionally hopeful, however unfashionable that 
might seem. In the essay from “Beginning to See the Light” she described 
the condition this way:

“My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as 
spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.”





More information about the Marxism mailing list