Ellen Willis

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Ellen Willis
Ellen willis.png
Ellen Willis at the Village Voice in the late 1970s
Ellen Jane Willis

(1941-12-14)December 14, 1941
DiedNovember 9, 2006(2006-11-09) (aged 64)
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. A 2014 collection of her essays, The Essential Ellen Willis, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Early life and education[edit]

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 as an undergraduate and did graduate study at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied comparative literature.[1]


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]

Writing and activism[edit]

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 the field was predominantly male. 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 and left. 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.[citation needed]

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]

Rock criticism[edit]

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, "Dylan" in the underground magazine Cheetah, 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."[9]

She was a friend of many contemporary critics, including Robert Christgau, Georgia Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Richard Goldstein. Christgau, Joe Levy, Evelyn McDonnell, Joan Morgan, and Ann Powers have all cited her as an influence on their careers and writing styles.[10] At one point, she and Robert Christgau were lovers.[11] In 2011, the first collection of Willis's music reviews and essays, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press), arrived. It was edited by her daughter Nona Willis-Aronowitz. Ellen Willis "celebrated the seriousness of pleasure and relished the pleasure of thinking seriously," a review in The New York Times said.[12] It was announced that a conference at New York University, "Sex, Hope, & Rock 'n' Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis",[13] celebrated her anthology and pop music criticism on April 30, 2011.


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.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Willis had an abortion and was raped.[14]

She married first when at Barnard College, and divorced at age 24.[15] She then had various relationships. She had met her second husband, sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz, in the late 1960s, and they entered a relationship some 10 years later. They shared domestic tasks equally. [16]

She was survived by her husband and her daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz.

Works and publications[edit]


  • Willis, Ellen (1962). Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls. New York: Dutton. LCCN 62007824.
  • Willis, Ellen (1981). Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade. New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House. ISBN 0-394-51137-9.
  • Willis, Ellen (1992). Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll. 2d ed. Hanover: Wesleyan. ISBN 0-8195-6255-6.
  • Willis, Ellen (1992). No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Hanover, NH: Published by University Press of New England [for] Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-5250-X.
  • Willis, Ellen (1999). Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial. Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4320-6.
  • Willis, Ellen (2011). Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-7283-7. Retrieved October 19, 2013.
  • Willis, Ellen (2014). Willis-Aronowitz, Nona (ed.). The Essential Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota. ISBN 978-0-8166-8121-1.
  • Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1786-4. Retrieved June 3, 2009. Willis wrote the foreword.

Selected works[edit]

The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism).[17]

Other works including Willis[edit]

Ellen Willis is featured in the feminist history film She's Beautiful When She's Angry.[18][19]


  1. ^ a b c Margalit Fox, Ellen Willis, 64, Journalist and Feminist, Dies, The New York Times, November 10, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c Official page Archived July 5, 2006, at the Wayback Machine 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 Archived August 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, 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 Archived September 29, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, Dissent, Winter 2003. Accessed online July 7, 2007.
  6. ^ "Why I'm not for Peace" (PDF). Archived from the original on December 23, 2005. Retrieved June 16, 2006.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), 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. ^ Willis, Ellen (2011). "Foreword". Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Foreword by Sasha Frere-Jones. University of Minnesota Press. p. xiii.
  10. ^ Willis, Ellen (2011). "Afterword". Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Afterword by Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy. University of Minnesota Press.
  11. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/books/review/robert-christgau-going-into-the-city.html
  12. ^ McDonnell, Evelyn (June 10, 2011). "Ellen Willis's Pioneering Rock Criticism". The New York Times. Retrieved November 15, 2011.
  13. ^ "Sex, Hope, & Rock 'n' Roll". website.
  14. ^ https://www.thecut.com/2014/04/feminism-and-family-life-with-ellen-willis-mom.html
  15. ^ https://medium.com/the-hairpin/whats-essential-a-conversation-with-nona-willis-aronowitz-about-her-late-mother-s-work-7ddaedce3cf4
  16. ^ https://www.thecut.com/2014/04/feminism-and-family-life-with-ellen-willis-mom.html
  17. ^ "National Book Critics Circle: awards". Bookcritics.org. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved April 28, 2017.
  18. ^ "The Women".
  19. ^ "The Film — She's Beautiful When She's Angry". Shesbeautifulwhenshesangry.com. Retrieved April 28, 2017.

External links[edit]

Reviews and critiques of Ellen Willis[edit]