The Clear-Eyed Utopianism of Ellen Willis


University of Minnesota Press

Ellen Willis, circa 1970

However much you may respect and admire a journalistic colleague, routine proximity to her and her work can dull  your understanding of her overall accomplishment. I'm proud to say that I knew Ellen Willis slightly; during my stint at the Village Voice, we worked together a couple of times and occasionally chatted. Of course, I was also reading her Voice pieces as they came out, so a lot of what's included in The Essential Ellen Willis—edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and newly out from the University of Minnesota Press—isn't unfamiliar to me.

Re-encountering insights and stray observations of Willis's that had stayed messily filed in my brain for 30 years or more was an ongoing pleasure. But the effect of reading her in bulk was staggering just the same. Gee, one of the 20th century's great essayists and feminist pioneers used to say "Hi" to me when our paths crossed in the office.

Dedicated utopianism will never be my favorite intellectual mode. But Willis must rank among the most hard-headed, contrary, incisive utopians who ever lived. One of her work's most salutary effects is its reminder that to cut yourself off from utopian impulses is to die a little. (Although ever the utopian, Willis died eight years ago.)

"I realize that the kind of change I'm talking about amounts to a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude," Willis briskly acknowledges in 1979's "The Family"—one of her most acute meldings of the personal and the political, the social and the psychological. The first word of the next sentence is Willis in a nutshell: "Yet. . ."

Granted, lots of people thought that thinking that way was realistic in, oh, 1967, the year Willis emerged as a writer with the groundbreaking essay on Bob Dylan's manipulations of his own image (reprinted here) that helped land her a job as The New Yorker's rock critic.  

By 1979,  a decade-plus of backlash and retrenchments later, she had a lot less millenarian company. That didn't seem to daunt her for a second. As you follow her through Our Side's long march to whatever, one of her work's most impressive qualities is the way she never yields to fatigue or crankhood—or fashionability, for that matter—when she's obliged to rehash the same quarrels over sex, empowerment, and other cans of worms again and again.  She evolves, sure; her changing opinion of motherhood is the reason her current editor exists. Willis argues with herself plenty. But she doesn't recant or retreat. 

Rooted in one of the few traditions whose value she never questioned—namely, a very New Yorky style of intellect and argumentativeness—she's also never anxious about contriving ways to hold her readers' attention. (I'm exempting the self-consciously whimsical pieces I never thought were her strong suit.) Achieving the kind of lucidity that never flees complexity was always her goal. Spotting the antipodes hidden in seeming allegiances—and vice-versa—was one of her specialties.

Here she is, for instance, on the then-vexed—pre-Madonna, pre-Miley—question of feminism and porn: "Insofar as pornography glorifies male supremacy and sexual alienation, it is deeply reactionary. But in rejecting sexual repression and hypocrisy—which have inflicted even more damage on women than on men—it expresses a radical impulse."

While I doubt many people would argue with either perception—go on and try, why don't you?—to combine them is the Willis trademark. When reconciling contradictions is impossible, equal-opportunity recognition is the next best thing. If that and similar paradoxes strike you as screamingly obvious,  it's partly because she made them so.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most feminist and/or leftist rhetoric wasn't exactly renowned for its subtlety. (If it had been, it wouldn't be renowned at all.) But Willis was ever alert to her own camp's unidentified blinkers and fallacies.

Given the times, her audience, and her venue—Ramparts, the rad-chic magazine—it took some guts to remind people in 1970 that "there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption." ("It is a bribe," she continues, "but like all bribes it offers concrete benefits.") A dozen years later, in "Sisters Under The Skin?", she's nailing "white feminist parochialism"—her own included—with one of her keenest binary insights: "Straightforward reactionary racism exaggerates differences and denies commonalities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite."

Willis always treated her own brain as both a laboratory and a pulsating lab sample. That's why the most mind-blowing piece in The Essential EW is "Next Year in Jerusalem," originally printed in a 1977 issue of Rolling Stone. (Those were the days.) Confounded by her brother's conversion to Orthodox Judaism, Willis voyages to Israel herself—and feels the same pull, which makes for the one essay of hers that's got suspense. If Ellen Willis can be tempted—Ellen Fucking Willis, radical secular humanist and feminist heroine—then  nobody's immune to religion's power. And maybe nobody should want to be.

"I think there's no such thing as too much freedom—only too little nerve," she once wrote. But you'd never have guessed that from her everyday affect, which was sleepy-eyed and on the gentle side.

I still remember how puzzled I was to see her picture in The New York Times one day in 2006 until I realized there could be only one reason. Since she struck me as someone who was generous with her time—yup, even on deadline—I wish I'd been smart enough to think up excuses to talk to her more. But I did get to call her Ellen, and maybe that's enough.  

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