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Ellen Willis

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Title: Ellen Willis  
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Subject: List of American feminist literature, List of feminist literature, Sex-positive feminism, National Book Critics Circle Award, Second-wave feminism
Collection: 1941 Births, 2006 Deaths, American Essayists, American Feminist Writers, American Jews, American Music Critics, American Music Journalists, American Political Writers, American Pro-Choice Activists, American Socialists, American Women Journalists, Barnard College Alumni, Cancer Deaths in New York, Deaths from Lung Cancer, Feminist Studies Scholars, Jewish Feminists, Jewish Socialists, New York University Faculty, Radical Feminists, Rolling Stone People, Sex-Positive Feminists, Socialist Feminists, The Nation (U.S. Magazine) People, The Village Voice People, Women Essayists, Women Music Writers, Writers from New York City
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Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis
Born Ellen Jane Willis
(1941-12-14)December 14, 1941
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died November 9, 2006(2006-11-09) (aged 64)
Queens, New York, U.S.
Occupation Journalist
Spouse(s) Stanley Aronowitz

Ellen Jane Willis (December 14, 1941 – November 9, 2006) was an American left-wing political essayist, journalist, activist, feminist, and pop music critic.


  • Life and career 1
    • Writing and activism 1.1
    • Rock criticism 1.2
  • Bibliography 2
    • Books 2.1
  • References 3
  • External links 4
    • Essays by Ellen Willis 4.1
    • Reviews and critiques of Ellen Willis 4.2
    • Interviews 4.3

Life and career

Willis was born in Manhattan to a Jewish family, and grew up in the boroughs of the Bronx and Queens in New York City.[1] Her father was a police lieutenant in the New York City Police Department.[1] Willis attended Barnard College[1] as an undergraduate and did graduate study at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied comparative literature for a semester but left graduate school shortly afterwards.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, she was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker, and later wrote for, among others, the Village Voice, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Slate, and Salon, as well as Dissent, where she was also on the editorial board. She was the author of several books of collected essays.

At the time of her death, she was a professor in the journalism department of New York University and the head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism.[2] She lived in Queens with her husband Stanley Aronowitz and her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.

On November 9, 2006 she died of lung cancer.[2] Her papers were deposited in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in 2008.

Writing and activism

Willis was known for her feminist politics and was a member of New York Radical Women and subsequently co-founder in early 1969 with Shulamith Firestone of the radical feminist group Redstockings.[3] She was one of the few women working in music criticism during its inaugural years, when it was predominantly a male-dominated field. Starting in 1979, Willis wrote a number of essays that were highly critical of anti-pornography feminism, criticizing it for what she saw as its sexual puritanism and moral authoritarianism, as well as its threat to free speech. These essays were among the earliest expressions of feminist opposition to the anti-pornography movement in what became known as the feminist sex wars. Her 1981 essay, Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex? is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism".[4]

She was a strong supporter of women's abortion rights, and in the mid 1970s was a founding member of the pro-choice street theater and protest group No More Nice Girls. A self-described anti-authoritarian democratic socialist, she was very critical of what she viewed as social conservatism and authoritarianism on both the political Right-wing and Left-wing. In cultural politics, she was equally opposed to the idea that cultural issues are politically unimportant, as well as to strong forms of identity politics and their manifestation as political correctness.

In several essays and interviews written since the September 11 attacks, she cautiously supported humanitarian intervention and, while opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq,[5] she criticized certain aspects of the anti-war movement.[6][7]

Willis wrote a number of essays on anti-Semitism, and was particularly critical of left anti-Semitism. Occasionally she wrote about Judaism itself, penning a particularly notable essay about her brother's spiritual journey as a Baal Teshuva for Rolling Stone in 1977.[8]

She saw political authoritarianism and sexual repression as closely linked, an idea first advanced by psychologist Wilhelm Reich; much of Willis' writing advances a Reichian or radical Freudian analysis of such phenomena. In 2006 she was working on a book on the importance of radical psychoanalytic thought to current social and political issues.[2]

The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism).[9]

Rock criticism

Willis was the first popular music critic for The New Yorker, between 1968 and 1975. As such, she was one of the first American popular music critics to write for a national audience. She got the job after having published only one article on popular music in the underground magazine Cheetah, "Dylan", in 1967. In addition to her "Rock, etc." column in the New Yorker, she also published criticism on popular music in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and for liner notes and book anthologies, most notably her essay on the Velvet Underground for the Greil Marcus "desert island disc" anthology Stranded (1979). Contemporary Richard Goldstein characterized her work as "liberationist" at its heart and said that "Ellen, Emma Goldman, and Abbie Hoffman are part of a lost tradition — radicals of desire."[10]

She was a friend of many contemporary critics, including Ann Powers have all cited her as an influence on their careers and writing styles.[11] At one point, she and Robert Christgau were lovers.[12] In 2011, the first anthology exclusively devoted to Willis's popular music writing, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press), arrived. Willis "celebrated the seriousness of pleasure and relished the pleasure of thinking seriously," a review in The New York Times said.[13] It was announced that a conference at New York University, Sex, Hope, & Rock 'n' Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis,[14] celebrated her anthology and pop music criticism on April 30, 2011.



  • Willis, Ellen (1962). Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls. New York: Dutton.  
  • Willis, Ellen (1981). Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade. New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House.  
  • Willis, Ellen (1992). Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll. 2d ed. Hanover: Wesleyan.  
  • Willis, Ellen (1992). No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Hanover, NH: Published by University Press of New England [for] Wesleyan University Press.  
  • Willis, Ellen (1999). Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial. Beacon Press.  
  • Willis, Ellen (2011). Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. University of Minnesota Press.  
  • Willis, Ellen (2014). The Essential Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota.  
  • Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. Alice Echols Willis wrote the foreword to a book by  


  1. ^ a b c Margalit Fox, Ellen Willis, 64, Journalist and Feminist, Dies, New York Times, November 10, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c Official page on the site of the Department of Journalism, New York University, accessed July 7, 2007
  3. ^ Ellen Willis, "Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism", 1984, collected in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, Wesleyan University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8195-5250-X, pp. 117–150, especially pp. 119 and 124.
  4. ^ Ellen Willis, Lust Horizons: The 'Voice' and the women's movement, Village Voice 50th Anniversary Issue, 2007. This is not the original "Lust Horizons" essay, but a retrospective essay mentioning that essay as the origin of the term. Accessed online July 7, 2007. A lightly revised version of the original "Lust Horizons" essay can be found in No More Nice Girls, pp. 3–14.
  5. ^ Ellen Willis, Ellen Willis Responds, Dissent, Winter 2003. Accessed online July 7, 2007.
  6. ^ Why I'm not for Peace at the Wayback Machine (archived December 23, 2005), Radical Society, April 2002, pp. 13–19; copy formerly posted on Willis's NYU faculty site was archived on the Internet Archive, December 23, 2005. Accessed online July 7, 2007.
  7. ^ March 27, 2003 broadcast, Doug Henwood's radio archives, Left Business Observer.
  8. ^ Ellen Willis, Next Year in Jerusalem, originally published in Rolling Stone, April 1977.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Willis, Ellen (2011). "Foreword". Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Foreword by Sasha Frere-Jones.  
  11. ^ Willis, Ellen (2011). "Afterword". Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Afterword by Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy. University of Minnesota Press. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ McDonnell, Evelyn (June 10, 2011). "Ellen Willis's Pioneering Rock Criticism". The New York Times. Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Sex, Hope, & Rock 'n' Roll". website. 

External links

  • "Ellen Willis, 64, Journalist and Feminist, Dies" by Margalit Fox, New York Times, November 10, 2006.
  • "My Ellen Willis" by Michael Bronski, The Boston Phoenix, November 30, 2006.
  • "Sex, Hope and Rock and Roll: A Conversation with Ellen Willis" by Chris O'Connell, Pop Matters, January 8, 2007.
  • Papers of Ellen Willis, 1941-2006. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Essays by Ellen Willis

  • Ellen Willis Tumblr Page - large collection of Willis's writings.
  • "Ellen Willis's Reply", 1968.
  • "Women and the Myth of Consumerism", Ramparts, 1969.
  • "Hell No, I Won't Go: End the War on Drugs", Village Voice, September 19, 1989.
  • "Vote for Ralph Nader!", Salon, November 6, 2000.
  • "The Realities of War" (A response to Elaine Scarry's “Citizenship in Emergency”), Boston Review, October/November 2002.
  • "The Pernicious Concept of 'Balance'", The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 9, 2005. Note: scroll down page.

Reviews and critiques of Ellen Willis

  • Don't Think, Smile!Review of at the Wayback Machine (archived October 16, 2004) by Marcy Sheiner, San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 29, 2000.
  • Bully in the Pulpit? (Discussion of Ellen Willis "Freedom From Religion"), The Nation, February 22, 2001.


  • "Ellen Willis, Feminist and Writer", Fresh Air, November 10, 2006 (originally broadcast February 14, 1989). (page links to RealAudio audio file)
  • Implicating EmpireInterview with Ellen Willis and others on by Doug Henwood, Left Business Observer (radio), March 27, 2003. (page links to MP3 audio)

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