Authors: Ellen Willis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American essayist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade, 1981 (also known as Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll)

No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, 1992

Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial, 1999


The writings of Ellen Jane Willis trace the history of some of the leading social and political questions from the 1960’s through the 1990’s: popular music and culture, social and political revolution, feminism, and civil liberties. A continuing theme in her writing is the tension between individual freedom and the liberation of oppressed groups, with an attempt to maximize both wherever possible. This approach placed her squarely on the anticensorship side of the feminist debate over whether pornography or censorship is the greater problem, and she is probably best known for her writings on this question.{$I[AN]9810001555}{$I[A]Willis, Ellen}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Willis, Ellen}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Willis, Ellen}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Willis, Ellen}{$I[tim]1941;Willis, Ellen}

Willis was born in 1941. She often mentioned in her essays how unusual she felt, growing up as the daughter of a liberal Jewish police officer. After graduation from Barnard College in 1962 and two years of graduate study at Berkeley, she began writing rock criticism.

Her early writings view rock and roll as a liberating, sexually energizing force, with such figures as Bob Dylan and The Who as heroes. But by the late 1960’s, she had become more aware of the sexism and commercialism behind the music, and her writing, as in “Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning,” an account of the Woodstock festival, reflects an effort to include this awareness without losing sight of the liberating power of the music.

In general her writing became more political, and specifically feminist, in the late 1960’s. With Shulamith Firestone, she started the Redstockings, one of the most influential of the feminist groups of that time. She saw her approach at that time as an attempt to apply the class analysis of the Left to women as a class, while remaining concerned with the cultural oppression of both sexes that forced everyone into overly constrained roles.

Her essays in the 1970’s showed the range of her concerns. On one hand, she sought sexual freedom for women and men alike, exploring the range of sexual possibilities in “Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life” (1979). On the other, she was aware of the dangers of this approach, particularly to women, and in “The Trial of Arline Hunt” (1979), she reported on the case of a woman who was raped by a man she had met in a singles bar. Hunt brought the case to trial, but she had to watch as her assailant was acquitted–the jury apparently believing that any woman who stepped outside the bounds of traditional double-standard roles was “fair game.” One can see the beginning of Willis’s role in the feminist censorship debate in her essay “Hard to Swallow: Deep Throat,” in which she expresses her revulsion at the pornographic film while making clear that she could find liberation and even arousal in an equally explicit film that would better reflect women’s concerns. These essays were collected, along with thoughts on such subjects as Herbert Marcuse, abortion rights, and “The Myth of the Powerful Jew,” in Beginning to See the Light.

In the 1980’s, Willis continued to write on a broad variety of topics–cultural, sexual, and political. Her articles, collected in No More Nice Girls, show this range. In the ironically titled “Escape from New York,” she describes a bus tour of the United States, visiting old friends and meeting the inhabitants of the heartland, and finally expresses her relief at returning to New York City. “Exile on Main Street: What the Pollard Case Means to Jews” (1987), returns to the question of the relationship of the Jews to the radical Left and to the United States in general, in the light of the first person convicted of spying on the United States for Israel. “Putting Women Back in the Abortion Debate” (1985), looks at the missing element in many discussions of fetuses and their status. “In Defense of Offense: Salman Rushdie’s Religious Problem” (1989), excoriates the sort of “pluralism” which emphasizes the rights of small groups to oppress their own members.

The 1980’s were a time of cultural fragmentation, much of it in the name of “identity politics”; one consequence was the division of women and feminists along the same lines of class, race, and sexual orientation that were dividing the country as a whole. Much of Willis’s energy was devoted to healing such rifts in the women’s movement. In “Sisters Under the Skin” (1982), she attempted to address the concerns of black feminists such as Michelle Wallace, Gloria Joseph, and Bell Hooks. “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism” (1984), traces the history of feminism since the 1960’s.

The issue in which Willis was most notably involved is that of feminist sexuality, as discussed in a major essay, specifically rewritten for No More Nice Girls: “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution.” In 1982 Willis and other feminists of similar viewpoint organized a conference on feminism and sexuality at Barnard College. A group of antipornography feminists picketed the conference and persuaded the college to confiscate conference materials on the grounds that they encouraged pornography, if they were not themselves pornographic. Willis insisted that the placement of pornography at the center of the feminist worldview comes from a traditionalist view of sexuality which it shares with right-wing conservatism: Male sexuality is demandingly genital, while proper women see sex only in terms of nurturance, and hence must be protected from the bestial lusts of the male. Willis’s eloquent feminism, incorporating insights from other liberal and radical approaches, makes her an important social critic. Willis died at her home in New York in November 2006.

BibliographyAronowitz, Stanley. Roll over Beethoven: The Return of Cultural Strife. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1993. Aronowitz’s novel and cogently argued thesis is that Willis and other rock critics of the 1960’s were inventing a cultural studies approach similar to the one that had developed in Great Britain since World War II. He uses Willis as a prime example of these writers’ abilities to find meaningful aesthetic and social values in pop culture.Featherstone, Liza. “The Joy of Sex.” The Nation, October 4, 1993, pp. 360-363. Reviews No More Nice Girls.Levinson, Nan. “Unconventional Wisdom.” The Women’s Review of Books 17 (October, 1999): 1-3. Reviews Don’t Think, Smile!Scialabba, George. “Entrapments of Modernity.” Dissent 46 (Fall, 1999): 101-105. Thorough review of Don’t Think, Smile! also offers a good overview of Willis’s career and thought.
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