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Arbitrary and sad Friday

At some point last night this blog received its five millionth visitor.  Thanks, whoever you were!  And the 4,999,999 who preceded you (though of course I know that some people have visited more than once).  I credit Howard Dean and his “fifty-state strategy” for my blogging success.  Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with it.  And I’m sorry I wasn’t around to welcome my five millionth visitor personally, but I was having dinner with some friendly folks at Northwestern University.  Thanks also for all the great suggestions for lunch conversation with U. No.!  I’m going to print them out and read every one to him.  We should be there all afternoon.

And no, we won’t be ordering any pie.

But I am not a happy blogger today, because late last night I learned that Ellen Willis died earlier in the day of lung cancer.  Ellen Willis was one of my Prose-‘n’-Politics Heroes when I was growing up: I would read her stuff in the Village Voice when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and say, “goddamn! I want to write like that someday.” (I would sometimes say this aloud while riding the rush-hour 7 train to and from high school.  It made an impression.) From her support for abortion rights and socialist feminism in the late 1960s as a founding member of Redstockings to her critiques of Women Against Pornography in the very late 1970s (which anticipated the work of most “sex-positive” feminists by about ten or fifteen years, though of course Carole Vance and the “pleasure and danger” theorists were working the same beat in the 1980s), Ellen Willis was fierce and crisp and always laser-smart.  And she was a fine, fine writer—the kind of writer any kid with a taste for cultural criticism should study and admire.  That means you kids on the Internets, too!  Stop reading this blog and go read Ellen Willis’s stuff.  Start with Don’t Think, Smile!  Notes on a Decade of Denial.  Your assignment is to write a 5000-word review by the end of the year.  Go.

Which reminds me.  There should be a school of feminism named just after her:  the Ellen Willis Radical Critique with Democratic Socialist Politics and Also Some Really Savvy Rock Criticism, All in Piquant Prose school of feminism.  I nominate this young woman for membership.

I finally got the chance to meet Ellen Willis almost ten years ago, in the very city I’m in now (the windy one), at a conference at the University of Chicago.  I was seated right across from her at lunch, and I went into complete fanboy mode, saying, “Ms. Willis, hi, we haven’t met, but my name is Michael Bérubé and I’ve been a fan of yours for twenty years, and it’s just such a thrill to meet you in person at last.” And she said, smiling ruefully, “oh, now that makes me feel old.”

She was not old: she was only in her mid-fifties at the time.  And she was not old yesterday, either: she was only 64.  Though I knew her only through her writing, I will miss her.

Saturday:  Her New York Times obit is here, and I managed to find an earlier photo of her on the Google, too:


Also check out Alice Echols’s terrific book, Daring to Be Bad:  Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75 for an account of Ellen Willis’s early work and the brief history of the Redstockings and much, much more.

SundayDissent says goodbye and makes five of Willis’s more recent essays available here.  And four nice tributes from the Nation here.

Posted by on 11/10 at 12:18 PM
  1. Michael-
    So sorry to hear this news. The loss of someone whose meant so much in one’s life is quite a loss indeed. But how lucky you were to have such a wonderful writer and person to inspire you!

    I will definitely acquaint myself with Ms. Willis’ writings.

    Posted by Oaktown Girl  on  11/10  at  01:43 PM
  2. My experience with Ellen Willis’ writing was similar to yours although I knew her for Really Savvy Rock Criticism more than anything else.  She often wrote about, and turned me on to, the Velvet Underground, for which I will be forever grateful.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  03:37 PM
  3. Do I need to google, or was she part of the early 70s, maybe even late 60s, Rolling Stone staff? Sadly, all I remember is the name.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  04:34 PM
  4. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost someone whose writing and life were so meaningful to you. She’s very lucky to live on in fans like you.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  11/10  at  04:45 PM
  5. I loved her rock criticism, especially her analysis of sexist lyrics.  She described a simple test: could the words be sung by the opposite sex and still have meaning?  I remember two of her examples: Cat Stevens’ “Ooo baby, baby it’s a wide world/And it’s hard to get by just upon a smile, girl, etc.,” which she pointed out would make no sense sung by a woman to a man (even changing “girl” to something masculine) because only women are supposed to need sheltering, and the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl,” which she said could be sung (with appropriate pronoun changes) about a boy with just as much validity, because men can be just as vain and clueless as any woman.  I always thought that was a right smart take-down of Mr. Stevens and a clever poke in the eye of people who dismissed the Stones as being obviously sexist.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  05:39 PM
  6. No pie? Really, you should have this one.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  05:56 PM
  7. Well, Susie Quatro sang “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the Beatles’ song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I like it better with her singing it than I like the original.


    And Jennifer Warnes did Famous Blue Raincoat in a pretty awesome way. Her cover kept academia busy hermeneuting for years.

    Ellen Willis sounds tres cool. I’m sorry she’s gone at what is indeed an early age.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  07:16 PM
  8. Our household was stunned and sort of flattened all day by this news - which I/we learned via your site, Michael…

    I’ll just put it this way. Ellen Willis was also, in addition to all of the things you’ve listed, a wonderful teacher. She was an example first, and later a mentor to my wife. Extremely generous, and extremely interested in helping along the next generation of Radical Critics with Democratic Socialist Politics.

    For my wife and I, Stanley and Ellen were a model of what we’d like, as a couple and as individuals, to become one day.

    Yes, we’re kind of crushed as well. Too young…

    (And it’s good of you, Michael, to post this...)

    Posted by CR  on  11/10  at  11:07 PM
  9. Damndamndamn.  We lost Iris Marion Young, Lillian S. Robinson, and now Willis --all among the most innovative feminists of their generation.  I think I discovered W from her critique of John Irving, of all things --only later did I learn that she was responsible for co-creating and popularizing the word “sexism” in the early Seventies, and that she’d been one of maybe two female journalists of any prominence in the early years of rock criticism.  And Don’t Think --Smile! left me totally awestruck.

    I’d recommend Lisa Rhodes’ Electric Ladyland:  Women and Rock Culture for an overview of some of Willis’ major achievements.

    Posted by  on  11/10  at  11:24 PM
  10. Alex Ross, New Yorker critic and terrific music blogger, posted this


    to honor Ellen Willis.

    Posted by  on  11/11  at  12:38 AM
  11. Gosh, I’m flattered. 

    That is all. Thanks.

    Posted by Amanda Marcotte  on  11/11  at  01:32 AM
  12. My perspective on Willis is a little skewed. I read the Voice most voraciously from like 89 to 95 or so, and she wasn’t writing there much. Maybe she was writing more for the Nation at that point? Not sure.  In any case, about three times a year the Voice would run something of hers, and I’d usually think it was one of the best things they’d run in a long time.

    That’s how good she was.


    Posted by  on  11/11  at  02:08 AM
  13. I first knew Willis through her work on The Nation. My father actually sent med her columns. I directly connected her with t Carole Vance and the “pleasure and danger” feminists at the Barnard conference. Then I purseued her rock writing & other works, Sometime in the earlys 90s she produed a great piece on the cultrual wards. (I thin it was titled “cannon to the right ofme & canon to the left of me”
    Her writing was provoative informed, inflamed, and alsways groundd.
    She’ll be missed by million. including me.

    Posted by  on  11/11  at  02:26 AM
  14. Saying hello from across the way at Tennessee State University. Have followed with interest and pleasure your recent surge of media churn.

    Hello to Janet and to you from another uva alum, laboring in the digital vineyards from nashville tn.

    see the following link for interesting content:

    all best to all,

    bob bradley

    Posted by Bob Bradley  on  11/11  at  07:55 AM
  15. Ah, the Redstockings were famous for illuminating that unfortunate part of Gloria Steinem’s history, her work for the CIA in the late fifties, early sixties. See here:


    As I recall, her student spying operation was run out of the CIA’s JM/WAVE Station in Miami, which also ran the anti-Castro stuff and which many point to as part of the JFK assassination. JM/WAVE used drilling platforms in the Carribean owned by Zapata Oil (George H.W. Bush) to run raids against Cuba back then. A small world.

    I vaguely remember Ellen Willis’ byline. I used to read the Village Voice, subscribed to it when I moved out west, in order to get the music reviews. My favorite was Lester Bangs, but Christgau, Chuck Eddy, Willis, they all made you think about what was going into your head via your ears.

    Posted by Bob in Pacifica  on  11/11  at  11:40 AM
  16. Ellen Willis’s piece on the Velvet Underground in the book Stranded is terrific; made me care about the band, which is more than any other writer (or, indeed, the albums themselves) had ever been able to do. In fact, that essay was one of the ones that convinced me to edit a sequel to Stranded, which I did. It’s called Marooned, and it’s coming out from Da Capo next summer, along with a new reissue of the original.

    Posted by pdf  on  11/11  at  12:21 PM
  17. I let out a scream when I heard one of my heroes died, and I’m very disappointed that Michael is the only blogger I can find who’s penned a memorial.

    Posted by Rick Perlstein  on  11/11  at  01:08 PM
  18. I hope a lot of people follow your recomendations and actually read her work. Her critique of pornography censorship is fairly intricate and a lot more balanced than many commentators manage with such a controversial subject.  It is painful to see her legacy instrumentally invoked in ways that are inaccurate at best.  The smart students always do the reading!

    Posted by Ann Bartow  on  11/11  at  01:17 PM
  19. I’m sorry to hear this news. Whenever I saw Ellen Willis’ byline, in the Voice or elsewhere, I would smile and settle down for a great read.  I’m going to go to the library and the bookstores today to see if I can find something of hers.

    Posted by Joanna  on  11/11  at  01:36 PM
  20. Actually, there’s another brief tribute to Ellen here, with a link to a .pdf of her 2003 essay on Israel and the left.  Very worth savoring alongside her laser-smart rock criticism and anti-antiporn socialist feminism.

    Glad to hear that people are revisiting (or just visiting!) her remarkable work.  Y’all won’t be disappointed.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/11  at  02:39 PM
  21. Well we on the west coast in the 60’s didn’t hanker much to the East Coast rock critiques.  We being so hip and cool, filled with our heroes in the Oracle and Rolling Stone (when it was a SanFran publication only).  Paul Krassner thought Ellen was most worthy and published some of her essays and criticisms in Ramparts (which we read faithfully for a while); we began to take notice.  He hadn’t heard yesterday morning so i emailed your link and received this response:

    thanks for sending that.  In the ‘60s, Ellen was in a class I taught at the Free University in NY—“Journalism and Satire: How to Tell the Difference”—where she met Bob Christgau and they ended up living together, sharing between them around 3-5 columns on rock music.  She was smart, principled, and progressive.

    I suppose we are all getting much older than we would like to think we are (at least us hippies from the 60’s); i curse you arrow of time.

    Posted by  on  11/11  at  04:04 PM
  22. Hey Michael,

    Thanks for this great tribute post. I’ve been cataloging them because Willis is also someone I admired a great deal—profoundly shaping many of my views as I was becoming a socialist feminist.

    Posted by Bitch | Lab  on  11/11  at  04:26 PM
  23. I blogged a brief note yesterday, with a few links. Willis was one of my heroes too, one of the writers who gave me that great sense not only that I wasn’t crazy after all—I was a feminist and not the only one on earth—but that there was room for me on the planet and it was in the direction of all the really exciting stuff.

    (I can’t insert code from this machine; just follow the link at my name there.)

    Posted by Ron Sullivan  on  11/11  at  06:06 PM
  24. Your blogroll appears to be broken.

    Posted by  on  11/11  at  10:18 PM
  25. Thanks for the great talk at the MMLA on Friday. As a PhD student, I appreciated your very relevant discussion of blogs as communication tool/strategy. Also your film clips, especially the one from Toy Story, struck a nerve--hysterically funny and also frightening. I felt lucky to have you talk at the conference--says something good about the conference organizers that they chose someone as hip as you to give the main lecture.

    Posted by  on  11/12  at  11:25 PM
  26. Sad isn’t a big enough word for the loss of Ellen Willis. I finally got myself to write something about her, as if putting it off might mean she’s not dead, and at that I mostly could only point to something else I wrote about her.

    Captcha is “needs” as in “what the world needs now is more Ellen Willis.”

    Posted by George  on  11/13  at  12:29 PM
  27. "I credit Howard Dean and his “fifty-state strategy” for my blogging success.  Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with it.”

    And I’m pretty sure you were only Rahm Emanuel’s third or fourth pick to run the Michael Berube blog this year.

    Posted by Bulworth  on  11/14  at  03:20 PM
  28. Yeah, Rahm even tried to run some guy against me in the primary.  Now he’s taking credit for all my readers.  Go figure.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/14  at  07:16 PM
  29. "Start with Don’t Think, Smile!  Notes on a Decade of Denial.  Your assignment is to write a 5000-word review by the end of the year.  Go.”

    Is that the end of the calendar year or academic year?

    Posted by Adam  on  11/20  at  08:23 PM
  30. Drat, Amazon.com won’t send me a hardcover version until after the new year.

    Posted by Adam  on  11/20  at  08:45 PM





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