Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll

Ellen Willis, circa 1970, peruses issue number 3 of No More Fun and Games, A Journal of Female Liberation, published by Cell 16 in Boston, 1968-1973Ellen Willis, circa 1970, peruses issue number 3 of No More Fun and Games, A Journal of Female Liberation, published by Cell 16 in Boston, 1968-1973
by Pat Harrison

The papers of cultural critic Ellen Willis, 1941-2006, are now at the Schlesinger Library

In 1968, after Ellen Willis had published a single article about music—the story of Bob Dylan’s early career—the New Yorker hired her to be its first rock critic. Willis had worked on her Dylan piece, “Before the Flood,” published in the countercultural magazine Cheetah, for five months, and it showed. Her views were complicated, ambiguous, and illuminating. She was already writing as a cultural critic and not limiting herself to music. “Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement,” Willis wrote. “The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of the Beatles and Allen Ginsburg. (In contrast, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were creatures, not masters, of their images.)” Insightful stuff, especially from a 26-year-old.

The Schlesinger Library acquired Willis’s papers in 2008, after Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor in Harvard’s history department, contacted Willis’s widower, Stanley Aronowitz, a distinguished professor of sociology and urban education at the City University of New York. Processing of the Willis papers was made possible by gifts from the Radcliffe College Classes of 1950 and 1968.

Among the 10 boxes of Willis’s papers are correspondence, diaries, drafts of articles, artwork her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz made as a child, short stories, unfinished novels, and an original copy of the Cheetah issue containing the Dylan piece. There’s also a brief note that Simone de Beauvoir sent to Willis at Rolling Stone—where she was a columnist from 1976 to 1978—regretfully declining a request for an interview.

In 1969, while Willis was writing for the New Yorker, where she remained on staff until 1975, she and other New York feminists founded Redstockings. The name came from combining “bluestockings” (for intellectual women) with a color that signaled their leftist politics. Redstockings’ manifesto and principles, contained in Willis’s papers, may sound over-the-top to contemporary readers (“All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women”), but they are true to their time. Willis eventually focused more on feminism, family, and politics than on rock music in her writing.

Interest in Willis was renewed in the spring of 2011, when the University of Minnesota Press published a collection of her articles edited by her daughter. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music contains 59 of Willis’s essays, most of which originally appeared in the New Yorker.

To celebrate the book’s publication, Aronowitz organized a conference in April 2011 titled “Sex, Hope, & Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis.” The conference was held at New York University, where Willis had taught journalism beginning in 1990 and founded its Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Speakers included Robert Christgau, a reigning rock critic of the 1960s and 1970s, and Daphne Brooks RI ’11, an English and African American studies professor at Princeton University. Brooks had explored Willis’s papers during her Radcliffe fellowship.

She noted that Willis was more engaged with white male musicians such as Dylan and the Rolling Stones than with black artists and feminists. But she also pointed out several instances when the cultural critic broadened her scope, including a profile Willis wrote during college of the black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, for Mademoiselle.

Willis was only 64 when she died of lung cancer, in 2006, but her voice lives on in her work. Younger feminists are becoming aware of her through Aronowitz’s book and the three collections of essays published during Willis’s lifetime—Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll (Knopf, 1981); No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (Wesleyan University Press, 1993); and Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon Press, 1999).

Feminists of any age might welcome Willis’s commentary on contemporary culture right now.

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