Not Oprah’s Book Club: The Essential Ellen Willis

essential ellen willisI owe so much, as a writer and feminist, to Ellen Willis. And given how much of her work has remained uncollected or gone out of print, I suspect that we collectively owe her much more than has yet been accounted for. This month’s publication of The Essential Ellen Willis will, I hope, urge the accounting. Edited by her daughter, journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, this sprawling book surveys four decades of the cultural critic’s writing, beginning with the emergence of radical feminism in the late 1960s and continuing to the near present. (Willis died in 2006.)  [Ed note: this was at a time when "radical feminism" was more broadly defined and did not mean anti-sex worker and anti-trans feminism as it generally does today]. Though Willis’s essays cover topics as diverse as pornography, religion, and reality TV, the collection makes a remarkably coherent case for a radical politics rooted in pleasure and freedom.

Ellen Willis first came to my and many other young writers’ attention with the 2011 publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, also edited by Willis Aronowitz, which collected Willis’s best essays on rock music. (The timing couldn’t have been better; I had begun reviewing records for my college’s feminist magazine earlier that year.) Willis was hired by the New Yorker as their first popular music critic in 1968, just as she was coming into feminist consciousness—she would help found Redstockings, one of the better known of the early New York radical feminist groups, with Shulamith Firestone the following year. Her columns from that period astonish: expansive, funny, and intellectually ambitious, even the most straightforward album review became a platform for proving the political consequence of rock music and, by example, popular criticism.

A few of the best pieces from that volume appear again in The Essential Ellen Willis, but from the mid-1970s onward she shifted her attention to more directly engage her changing political climate; her essays on abortion, sex, neoliberalism, and the material stakes of cultural politics remain essential in our current moment.  Having been an invested participant in the cultural radicalism of the 1960s, Willis interprets nearly every subsequent political current as a reaction against or extension of that decade’s liberating thrust. Occasionally this limits her analysis; institutional racism is alternately ignored and misapprehended in her pieces on the drug war, for example, because she insists on framing it primarily as a rebuke of ‘60s liberationism.  But more often it confirms the centrality of personal freedom to her politics.

Willis was always skeptical of apolitical deployments of utopic language but was unabashedly invested in utopic thinking, in her belief that deep societal transformation is not only necessary but possible for and by us, now. The collection is full of memorable lines affirming her commitment to freedom as a political ideal, but Willis knew that its implications were far from self-evident. “Freedom isn’t doing whatever we please; it’s a basic ethical value. It means taking responsibility for the struggle.” This freedom was often tested and measured on an intimate scale, but throughout her career Willis was adamant that it could only be won collectively.

Willis had a rare eye for connecting the intimate to the collective: in her essays personal experience is never simply material to analyze but a tool to analyze with. This distinction was central to the consciousness-raising sessions through which Willis and her early peers in New York’s radical feminist groups of the late 1960s built their feminism. In the absence of coherently elaborated theory, the urgent question was not what the framework of patriarchy could teach these women about their circumstances, but rather what their circumstances could teach them about patriarchy. The discerningly deployed anecdote should expand rather than constrict the field of thought, as it does in Willis’s best essays.

Permit me the attempt: In the summer of 2012 I attended the 2nd Feminist General Assembly of Women Occupying Wall Street, where my breakout group quickly reached an impasse on the legacy of the 1960s radical feminism in which Willis cut her teeth. A young graduate student accused the older women of building an unwelcoming and gender-essentialist movement; these older women in turn described their earnest efforts to amplify the voices of queers and people of color within feminist spaces. This divide was not bridged in the allocated discussion time, but we all felt much better for having assessed it deeply and honestly together.

Engaging responsibly with forebears who have failed us in ways both large and small—more on Willis’s particular failures later—means staring into this divide and beginning to take its measurements. This impulse too often seems absent from conversations about the legacy of Willis’s generation of self-identified radical feminists. Were they middle-class essentialists responsible for the racial myopia and vicious transantagonism that have plagued mainstream feminism and more hateful strands of contemporary radical feminism since their earliest iterations, or were they visionaries who gave us (whom, exactly?) an ambitious structural analysis of gender oppression that continues to inform our most uncompromising and utopic demands?  Do we write and organize in their shadow or in their debt?

The answer is something like both, and therefore neither—history isn’t as neat as either telling, and The Essential Ellen Willis is a helpful reminder that, far from a united front, radical feminism in the late 1960s was a loose and internally incoherent collection of individual women’s groups struggling to find the right words and frameworks to articulate their oppression. The collection’s first essay “Up From Radicalism: A Feminist Journal” is an invaluable and deeply moving account of her entrance into this inchoate scene where everyone seemed to be starting from zero and every insight was arrived at as if for the first time. From 1968: “New women keep coming in, women who are just discovering their oppression, asserting for the first time their independence from husbands and lovers, overwhelmed that here they are listened to, respected. They want to talk about everything, their jobs, their husbands, their childhoods, their abortions, their attitudes toward other women. So we talk. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s bullshit, but I learn something at every meeting.”

In addition to the present-tense sketches of an emerging movement, Willis’s collection gives us the rare opportunity to follow a foundational radical feminist out of that defining decade and into its aftermath; the evolution of her analyses in response to conservative backlash and concurrent liberation struggles helps clarify which of the original arguments were misguided and which all too prescient. A perceptive reader of her own impulses and attachments, Willis does much of this meta-critical work for us. While many of the essays from the 1980s defensively clarify radical feminism’s influence, Willis is also admirably unequivocal in admitting what they got wrong. “The gap between what radical feminism promised and what it could deliver without a more complex, multivalent theory and strategy,” she writes in 1984, “was immense.”

“So to be a radical as [Willis] defined it implies self-consciousness and self-criticism,” but the fact that she was so often her own best critic makes her blind spots all the more troubling. These misapprehensions, perhaps unsurprisingly, occur most consistently around race and class. A 1982 essay on black feminist critiques of racism within feminism articulates the conceptual exclusions of white feminism clearly and without defensiveness, acknowledging that “confronting the oppression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues.  It also means questioning the intellectual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist movements have set up.” Unfortunately, Willis proves less willing to actually engage with black feminist critics, accusing Angela Davis of “crude economism” and “left antifeminism” and condescendingly dismissing bell hooks’s charge that white feminism is fundamentally assimilationist as “silly.”

Primary among the lessons I’ve learned from Willis is that criticism should aspire to be useful, whenever possible. She was firm and unsentimental in her judgments, but fair—the goal was always clarity, never reduction. Polemic is often but not always called for. The same goes for dogma, for hard lines and definitive dismissals.  The Essential Ellen Willis is over five-hundred pages long and spans four decades of thought; to present and respond to each of her arguments would be both unrealistically ambitious and a bit beside the point. Still, it is disappointing to read one of the most rigorous thinkers ever to put pen to paper argue that the harassment charges against Bill Clinton don’t stick because he “has never conveyed the impression of misogyny,” or that the now axiomatic feminist policy of believing survivors by default is (that awful word again) “silly,” or that heightened military intervention in Afghanistan in 2002 was “the prerequisite of stable peace.”

So how should I read this beloved writer who has in some large and small ways let me down? To say that she’s failed me less than many of her peers does little to mitigate the sting of those failures for this contemporary reader.  So too with the historicizing impulse: even Willis’s earliest essays feel remarkably alive, of our own moment, and so much of her thinking remains vitally useful to contemporary debates.

But even when she disappoints me, I am always learning from Willis. I learn from her pattern of thought, even when it fails her: her sentences often proceed as a series of definitions, clarifications, and exceptions, as if intervening in some muddy conversation the reader was lucky enough to have missed—she is alternately mediator, teacher, shadow boxer, and amused bystander, often in a single paragraph. As a writer, I have learned so much from her prose, which is always rich but never showy.  From the beginning she achieved a rare combination of economy and capaciousness. Willis wrote with confidence but was willing to risk embarrassment and admit error when she realized she must. It was this commitment to following through on dangerous thoughts that first led her to feminism. And I learn from her declared values, even when she fails to live up to them fully. “Feminism is a vision of active freedom, of fulfilled desires, or it is nothing.”

The publication of The Essential Ellen Willis should, and I hope will, be an event. One of my favorite essays in the collection begins, “My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary as it is intellectually suspect.” When have we had greater need of Willis’s optimism? This century, every day survived is a doomsday narrowly averted. The national pulse, if you can find it, quickens anxiously. When optimism fails me, I try to remember another favorite essay, which ends: “If anxiety is the flip side of desire, perhaps what we need to do is start asking ourselves and our fellow citizens what we want. The answers might surprise us.” Asking a lot—another debt I owe her.

Sam Huber lives and writes in New York City. He is a guest contributor to Feministing.

Brooklyn, NY

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.

Writer, editor, queer.

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