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Ellen Willis was born in Manhattan, New York and grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. Her father was a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department. Willis attended Barnard College as an undergraduate and did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley where she received a degree in comparative literature.
In the 1960s and 1970s she was the first pop music critic for the New Yorker and subsequently wrote for the Village Voice, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Slate, and Dissent (where she was also on the editorial board). She was the author of several books including Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade (1982), No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1992), and Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (1999).
In 1969, with Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Willis co-founded Redstockings, a radical women’s liberation group that pioneered consciousness raising (CR) and organized the first public speakouts on abortion, then illegal in the U.S.
After an infamous 1969 counter-inaugural and anti-war rally in Washington where male leftists shouted (at one of the two feminist speakers) things like “Rape her in a back alley,” Willis wrote about the need for feminists to break from SDS: “A genuine alliance with male radicals will not be possible until sexism sickens them as much as racism. This will not be accomplished through persuasion, conciliation, or love, but through independence and solidarity; radical men will stop oppressing us and make our fight their own when they can’t get us to join them on any other terms” (The World Split Open by Ruth Rosen, Viking, 2000).
The next year Willis started a women’s liberation group in Colorado, while working on an antiVietnam War project near a military base. In 1975 after most of the early CR groups, including Redstockings, had disbanded in the wake of the burnout and backlash that followed the ebbing of the 1960s radical tide, she got together with feminist friends to form a new group, which analyzed attacks on feminism as they emerged.
Willis said about the unexpected exhilaration women involved in CR groups felt: “What I was impressed with was that people were talking about substantive things; it wasn’t like the usual political meeting. And I also felt immediately accepted. If I made a comment, people listened to it, as if I were really in the group, which I wasn’t used to in New Left groups. I was used to feeling like an outsider” (The World Split Open).
In 1969 she wrote in her essay “Women and the Myth of Consumerism,” “Women are not manipulated by the media into being domestic servants and mindless sexual decorations, the better to sell soap and hair spray. Rather, the image reflects women as they are forced by men in a sexist society to behave…. The real evil of the media image of women is that it supports the sexist status quo.”
Throughout the 1970s she worked to halt the erosion of abortion rights, both through her writing and by joining with others to form several reproductive rights resistance groups.
In the 1980s Willis articulated a position that she defined as “prosex feminism” and helped found the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) to counter the puritanism she deplored in the anti-pornography movement.
In 1995 as an NYU professor of journalism, she founded the only cultural reporting and criticism program in the U.S.
In 2000 she organized radical feminists into the online discussion group History in Action, with members on several continents. She remained an activist, demonstrating against the Bush administration’s policies with the group Take Back the Future and was part of the Feminist Futures study group.
Carol Hanisch, who had worked in the civil rights movement in the South and then become a central organizer and writer in the New York women’s liberation movement, said about Willis: “Her writing was always forthright and serious, unencumbered by pretentious cuteness or fawning. Her forte was in exploring dark corners and adding her own light so all could see more clearly. In those crucial years, we struggled to make the left more feminist and to keep the women’s liberation movement genuinely radical.”
Willis died on November 9, 2006 from lung cancer.