[Marxism] Ellen Willis, warts and all

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 16 10:52:04 MST 2006

Ellen Willis, 64; radical critic targeted foibles wherever she saw them, on 
the left or right
By Jocelyn Y. Stewart
Times Staff Writer

November 15, 2006

In the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a chasm "the size of 
ground zero" opened between feminist author and cultural critic Ellen 
Willis and the burgeoning anti-war movement.

Willis was a radical, but she supported military action and found herself 
taken aback by young protesters "looking and sounding like preserved 
specimens of the '60s anti-war counterculture, with the same songs and 
peace-and-love slogans."

"Everything about this bothered me: that 20-year-olds were using their 
elders' language and style instead of inventing their own; that those 
blinky-eyed, reductive slogans had induced me and many other card-carrying 
members of the anti-war counterculture to roll our eyes even in 1967," she 
wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Radical Society in April 2002.

As a cultural critic, Willis spared none; the posturing and foibles of her 
fellow leftists were as much a target of her criticism as those on the 
right. That willingness to critique with equanimity infused her writings on 
music, sex, politics, religion and movies and produced bold, sometimes 
unexpected results.

Willis, a former columnist and senior editor for the Village Voice and the 
first pop music critic for the New Yorker, died of lung cancer Thursday at 
her home in Queens, N.Y., said her daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz. She was 64.

At New York University, Willis was founder and director of the cultural 
reporting and criticism concentration in the journalism department. One 
course, "The Cultural Conversation," sought to help students "inculcate 
habits of thinking that are vital to informed and intelligent cultural 
reporting and criticism."

"While conventional news writers are simply expected to put their own 
attitudes aside, cultural journalists must be conscious of their standpoint 
and its impact on their observation and judgment," she wrote in a class 
syllabus. "Your credibility and the power of your literary voice depend a 
good deal on your ability to develop this capacity for self-reflection."

Such self-reflection was a hallmark of Willis' writing. She was born Dec. 
14, 1941, in New York City and graduated from Barnard College in 1962. In 
1969, she co-founded Redstockings, a short-lived but significant radical 
feminist group. When abortion was still illegal in most of the nation, the 
organization engaged in speak-outs and demonstrated in support of abortion 

But writing was her most potent political tool. Her essays appeared in the 
Nation and other magazines.

"My own vision of what I want — of why I want a movement — has at its 
center the conviction that freedom and equality are symbiotic, not opposed. 
While it's unlikely that social coercion — governmental or otherwise — will 
ever be entirely surpassed, my measure of a good society is the extent to 
which it functions by voluntary cooperation among people with equal social 
and political power," she wrote in an essay that appears in her 1999 book 
"Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial."

In a 1972 article in the Los Angeles Times, she takes on the notion of 
then-popular "open marriages." "The remedy is not for couples to embark on 
a futile struggle to create free marriage in an unfree society, but for the 
public to demand practical changes — an upgrading of part-time work, equal 
salaries and job opportunities for women, an end to the social segregation 
of mothers and children."

Willis supported abortion rights and argued against anti-pornographers, 
extensions of her belief in an individual's right to pleasure and freedom. 
Decades later, she supported war in Afghanistan for some of the same reasons.

It was the province of a democratic left to critique government, to demand 
that it be accountable to its citizens, international bodies and 
agreements, she argued, "but our focus should be assessing the impact of 
U.S. policy, not taking its spiritual temperature and parsing its 
inevitably tangled motives; ask not that your country be sincere; ask that 
its actions further democracy and promote the welfare of the people they 

In addition to "Don't Think, Smile!" her published works include a 1981 
collection of essays "Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade," and 
"No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays," published in 1992.

In addition to her daughter, who also writes, Willis is survived by her 
second husband, Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist and former candidate for 
governor of New York; a brother, Michael Willis of Johannesburg, South 
Africa; a sister, Penny Willis of Queens, N.Y.; and stepchildren Michael 
O'Connell and Kim O'Connell of New Jersey and Alice Finer and Hampton Finer 
of New York.

Willis allowed her daughter her own life and discoveries, never flinching 
when she wore "those ridiculous mini-skirts in ninth grade," 
Willis-Aronowitz said on the Nation's website.

"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 
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 

Beginning in the late 1960s, Willis freelanced and became a contributing 
editor for the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York.

She also worked at US magazine and Rolling Stone and in 1967 became the New 
Yorker's first pop music critic. Rock music was for Willis, according to 
one reviewer, the elemental force of a generation born in the 1940s and 
'50s. It was her generation, and she wrote about it with a sense of 
familiarity. A review of the 2001 Bob Dylan album "Love and Theft" begins 
with Willis recalling her experience as a twentysomething high on LSD.

Through her exploration of a wide range of topics, she helped explain a 
generation and a nation to itself. Her analysis of pop culture wove 
history, politics and feminist theory in a way that gave heft to what 
otherwise might be dismissed as insignificant developments. She also 
managed to maintain a sense of hope.

"My deepest impulses are optimistic," she wrote in an essay that appears in 
"Beginning to See the Light."

"In college 
 my education was dominated by modernist thinkers 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. I learned that lesson well."


jocelyn.stewart at latimes.com



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