How did I miss out on the legendary Ellen Willis? I’m embarrassed to admit that before reading this stunning, provocative, erudite, fun, challenging, witty, dire, brave, and above all incisive collection of her journalism and essays, I was unaware of one of the great feminist writers on the politics and culture of our times. Intelligently edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, The Essential Ellen Willis is a riveting chronicle of the U.S. from the sixties to post 9/11 as seen through the perspective of a radical feminist. In her analysis of everything from Bob Dylan to the Velvet Underground, from Woodstock to Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment of Anita Hill, from Tom Wolfe to The Sopranos, from bell hooks to the Million Man March, from Monica Lewinsky to The Bell Curve, from the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq, in her pieces on abortion, childcare, marriage, sex, the family, rape, and pornography Willis never fails, while presenting the many sides of an issue, event, or person, to surprise, amuse, and above all, elucidate. Astonishingly, little of Willis’s work feels dated, much of it as polemical and relevant as ever.
Born in 1941 to a middle-class Jewish family, Willis grew up in Queens. She studied English at Barnard, got married, and moved to Berkeley, where she embarked upon a PhD in comparative literature. By twenty-four, she’d dropped out of graduate school, divorced, and was living in the East Village, convinced she wanted to write for a living. She became a staff writer at Fact magazine and wrote freelance for various publications. In 1967, her trenchant assessment of Bob Dylan in Cheetah was noticed by William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker; he hired her to report on rock music and counterculture. She left the New Yorker in 1975 for the Village Voice, a publication more in keeping with her political and social views. Deeply involved with feminist activism, Willis founded the radical feminist group Redstockings with Shulamith Firestone in 1969 and in the mid-1970s formed the pro-choice street theater protest group No More Nice Girls. She eventually became a professor at NYU’s journalism school and established the Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism.
The first piece in the book, “Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal” relates how Willis became a radical feminist. A girl intuits early on, she says, who are the rulers and who are the ruled — how she then responds to patriarchy and male dominance is at the heart of feminism. A stringent, wondrous feminist inquiry underlies everything Willis writes. Coming of age in the fifties, she “followed all the rules — build up their egos, don’t be aggressive, don’t flaunt your brains, be charming, diet…” By 1964, she’d joined the Civil Rights movement. Based on her readings of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, she began to form her own ideas about patriarchal sexual repression as social control, particularly of women.
The “liberated woman,” like the “free world,” is a fiction that obscures real power relations and defuses revolution. How can women, subordinate in every other sphere, be free and equal in bed? Men want us to be a little free — it’s more exciting that way. But women who really take them at their word make them up-tight and they show it — by their jokes, their gossip, their obvious or subtle put-downs of women who seem too aggressive or too “easy.”
Willis fully developed these ideas in “Towards a Feminist Sexual Revolution” and “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?” — both seminal essays written in the early eighties in which she posits her conviction that a politics of sexual liberation must assume that sexual expression and satisfaction is as crucial to women as it is to men. She was under no delusion, however, that the sexual liberation achieved for women by feminists in the sixties was anything approaching an unmitigated success. The coinciding sexual libertarian movement was “conspicuously male-dominated and male-supremacist” and women were further abused and exploited under the guise of becoming “liberated.” Today, slut-shaming, “she was asking for it,” “good girls don’t have abortions,” female sexuality as a public prerogative of patriarchy, all of these misogynistic attitudes aimed at repressing and controlling female sexual desire are still very much with us.
Read on here at Bookslut plus mini review of What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement by Deborah Rhode
Also, here’s a great interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz by Sarah Nicole Prickett at Buzzfeed