[Marxism] Ellen Willis
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
By MARGALIT FOX
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 departments 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 womens 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. Williss work was rooted in the three Rs, 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 whats 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 womens 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 bachelors degree in English from Barnard in 1962 and
afterward did graduate work in comparative literature at the University of
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 OConnell of Basking Ridge, N.J.; Kim OConnell of Montclair, N.J.;
Alice Finer and Hampton Finer, both of Brooklyn; and two step-grandchildren.
Ms. Williss other books include No More Nice Girls: Countercultural
Essays (University Press of New England, 1992); and Dont 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.
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