Remembering Ellen Willis, Rock ‘n’ Roll Feminist Superhero

When 64-year-old feminist writer Ellen Willis died of lung cancer on Thursday, Nov. 9, she was remembered as a journalist, professor, activist and superhuman.

“Among our circle of friends, she was known as the ‘higher life form,’” said Richard Goldstein, the former editor of The Village Voice.

But to many, she will chiefly be remembered as a pioneering rock critic—one of the first women to crack a genre that Mr. Goldstein called “more macho than the sports pages.”

“Ellen Willis is a bit of a forgotten pioneer, because unlike her close male peers, like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, she didn’t continue doing music criticism,” said Ann Powers, the music critic for the Los Angeles Times. Ms. Powers also said, “I know that Joe Levy, the music editor of Rolling Stone, went to the library, went through The New Yorker, Xeroxed her pieces and distributed them to his friends. He really felt her legacy has been forgotten and wanted to direct people to it.”

She wrote prolifically—for Rolling Stone, The Voice, The Nation—and published a number of books, including Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls and Don’t Think, Smile! The subjects she wrote about ranged from women and shopping to Lou Reed, to the Middle East, to The Sopranos.

At The New Yorker, Willis broke another barrier to become the first pop-music critic at the magazine, under William Shawn. She began in 1968, at the age of 26.

New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones now stands in her shoes. “Ellen Willis’ work is sort of a major unreleased album in rock criticism,” he said. “This is not a minor body of work. There may have been a mistaken impression of The New Yorker as being square—that’s completely untrue. They got it right when they had Ellen.”

“Ellen didn’t have any signature of being a woman writer, but certainly her way of looking at the music was different in that she had a tremendous respect for pleasure and desire,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Then she added to this a kind of rigor which didn’t necessarily come from a vulnerability to the rock mystique that a number of male critics had. Her opinions weren’t formed by analysis covering up an identification with the musicians. I don’t mean to say her gender was the reason why, because her mind was more rigorous that almost anyone’s I knew.”

Her friend and former lover, Robert Christgau, said: “I’ve never met anyone in my life who generated as many ideas in a day as Ellen.”

Mr. Christgau had known Willis since they attended the same junior high school in Corona, Queens. Willis was from Bayside, the daughter of a police lieutenant. She graduated from Barnard College in 1962, and soon after began writing about music. “One idea which has been attributed to me, I know originated with Ellen,” said Mr. Christgau. It’s “the idea that the artist’s persona is their fundamental creation.”

Willis’ husband Stanley Aronowitz, the sociologist and 2002 Green Party candidate for Governor, said by phone from their home in Queens that his wife perceived pop music as more than just entertainment. “Music was a form of cultural criticism and commentary,” he said. “In the case of Janis Joplin, she said, ‘Look, this is a boy’s genre, and here’s this woman who comes in and flaunts her subjectivity and makes her own personality. She’s not simply playing with the band, Connie Francis style …. This is a feminist act.’”

Willis founded Redstockings, a radical feminist group that advocated abortion rights, with Shulamith Firestone in 1969, and by the mid-70’s she’d turned her attention more toward feminism and politics than music. Mr. Goldstein pointed out that the evolution was a natural one: “Ellen was a huge believer in ecstasy as a liberalizing force,” he said. “In the 60’s, music was an ecstatic art; in the 70’s, it became an industrial art. The politics of the 70’s were about other forms of ecstasy. Second-wave feminism begins with the sexual revolution and the liberation of female sexuality. It’s grounded in desire.”

Barbara O’Dair, now the executive editor of More magazine, was a young junior editor at The Village Voice in the late 80’s when she met Willis, then a senior editor at the paper. “I couldn’t reconcile loving the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols without getting her perspective,” Ms. O’Dair said. “She had such passion for pleasure … I loved that she was pro-sex and not anti-porn. Porn, in her view, stood for freedom of expression and freedom for women … She was the godmother of the pro-sex movement.”

But she wasn’t without a critical eye when it came to porn. In 1973, writing about Deep Throat for The New York Review of Books, she wrote: “Movies like Throat don’t turn me on, which is, after all, what they are supposed to do. It baffles and angers me that men can get off on all those bodies methodically humping away, their faces sweatless and passionless, their consummation so automatic they never get a chance to experience desire.”

Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, wrote of her mother on The Nation’s Web site on Nov. 10: “She taught me what a feminist was—a woman who understood the concepts of joy, truth and curiosity, without forgetting that her personal life was hers to shape …. Because if there was ever a person with a sense of self, Mom was it.”

Willis, who resisted marriage for a long time, had lived with Mr. Aronowitz since 1981, and had Nona in 1984. The couple married in 1998, “in a plain civil ceremony, because of health insurance,” Mr. Aronowitz said. “Nona didn’t come to the wedding because she’d rather go to school.”

“She called her husband and daughter ‘the nukes,’ as in nuclear family,” said Mr. Goldstein. “It was a terrific marriage, an inspiration of a marriage.”

The couple lived in Washington Square until they moved to Queens this year, and they owned a house in the Catskills since the early 90’s, where Willis loved to spend the summers swimming and walking. “She was a reader,” said Mr. Aronowitz. (Mr. Goldstein said their home “looked like the Strand bookstore.”) “First, she would read novels—popular novels, mysteries and thrillers, but also any contemporary novel that had characteristics of 19th-century huge family novels. Secondly, and I used to kid her about this, she read every book of pop psychology that ever came out for a while—how-tos. And she loved reading Abby and Ann. At one point, she thought she might become an advice columnist to the lovelorn.”

Willis founded the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University’s Journalism School in 1995; at her memorial service at Riverside Chapel, many of the 500 mourners in attendance were students, bidding her a hero’s farewell.

As for Willis’ own heroes, Mr. Aronowitz said, she had “two and a half.” “The first two were Freud and Wilhelm Reich. She was deeply interested in psychoanalysis. The half was Marx—Marx himself, and his basic material insights.”

Throughout her life, Willis combined her obsessions in essays on pop culture. “She was deeply respectful of pop culture—something proper intellectuals disdain,” Mr. Goldstein said.

In a Nation essay, “Dreaming of War,” which appeared on Oct. 15, 2001, a month after Sept. 11, she railed against those who suggested that something good might come of the attacks and pinpointed the role of popular culture in American life.

“The boundaries of political debate had steadily narrowed, not because we were fat and happy but because it was taboo to challenge in any serious way the myth that we were fat and happy,” she wrote. “The notion that there might be any need for, or possibility of, profound changes in the institutions that shape American life—work, family, technology, the primacy of the car and the single-family house—is foreign to the mainstream media that define our common sense …. Popular culture carries the burden of our emotions about race, feminism, sexual morality, youth culture, wealth, competition, exclusion, a physical and social environment that feels out of control.”

Willis concluded the piece, now five years old: “Let’s not compound our losses with deluded bombast about what we have to gain.”