Ellen Willis Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

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Ellen Willis Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aronowitz, 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.