The Essential Ellen Willis

I really needed this. I hadn’t been reading much theory-feminism-stuff since school ended, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. Ellen Willis reminds me of the second wave professors I had, who I didn’t always agree with, but respected their experience and knowledge. This book is a collection of essays spanning Willis’s career.

Willis started as a rock writer, which is so cool. I loved her piece on Dylan. It’s bold, especially now, when so much of what’s written about him accepted his brilliance without question. Willis thinks he’s a good songwriter, but a terrible poet, which is refreshing, and something I’m inclined to agree with. This piece is from right after John Wesley Harding came out. Willis’s argument is throughout his career Dylan wore all these different masks, he played all of these different figures, and whenever he changed people would get upset. She sees John Wesley Harding as Dylan not donning a specific persona, but admitting that he’s a person who plays songs and wears masks, which of course upset people too. It’s a very compelling theory, and I appreciated it as a way to understand the early/best part of his career. When she writes about music Willis almost always connects it back to her own experience, how the music has impacted her life, which I really appreciate.

That’s how I like my music writing, and Willis is at her best when writing about her own experience. Her essays about discovering feminism are very powerful. I wish I read this in school instead of the drier recollections of consciousness raising that had been assigned. Willis’s account brings the early days of second wave feminism alive, making them seem vital and new, brushing away the dust of common sense they’re usually seen under.

Her own experience is central in the article “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which was written in response to her brother’s decision to become involved with Orthodox Judaism. She follows in his footsteps, taking a visit to Israel, to experience a different sort of life while she examines her thoughts on religion and faith. Willis’s thoughts on perfectionism, drug use, feminism, family, and a thousand other make up a beautiful essay.

I appreciate her more academic writing, even if it doesn’t have the same sort of power. She writes about radical feminism, which is a category I’ve been thinking about lately. Nowadays when I see people talking about “radical feminism” they using it to talk about trans exclusionary radical feminism, which is obviously shitty stuff. But the distinction was originally between radical feminism and liberal feminism — that’s the divide I learned about when studying the development of second wave feminism. Radical feminism was used to describe a lot of different ideas, a lot of which are still revolutionary.

In my education questioning of the family structure was almost always presented as a very queer idea, which erases the way that early radical feminism called for the abolition of the family. In “The Family: Love It or Leave It” Willis uses the term “family chauvinism,” which is the perfect phrase to describe something I’ve been thinking about lately. Willis’s radical feminist critique of the family is something that still feels revolutionary.

Willis also illuminates feminist history, dissecting the feminist sex wars of the 80s in a clear, reasonable manner, that would have been helpful when I was learning about this era in school. She was in the middle of it, but still has a good grasp on the big picture. It helps that I mostly agree with her — she’s sex positive, and accepting of pornography.

The book gets weaker later on, as she takes on the Clinton administration and the war on terror. She seems less clear, and less passionate, or maybe I just don’t care as much about this stuff. One of the later highlights was a pair of articles about the war of drugs. I don’t know if I agreed with all of her analysis, but she brought up some things to think about in my continuing investigation of intoxication culture.

I’ll admit, I didn’t read the last section, which was three chapters of an unpublished book about why the left needs Freud. I don’t need Freud. If I’m not required to read about him for school I’m skipping it. One of the best parts about being graduated is that I don’t have to read anything about psychoanalysis if I don’t want to.

Ellen Willis was a feminist writer who managed to make a life doing something she wanted to do. She’s the kind of role model I need right now. At different points throughout her career Willis writes about the struggle to balance her politics, her desire for a comfortable life, and the burden of living in a capitalist patriarchy. Her writing spurned my thinking into new directions, and inspired me to write more, and made the world seem like a less terrible place. I really needed this book.

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