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Tablet Magazine: Ellen Willis’ Radical Jewish Sex-Positive Rock ’n’ Roll Politics of the Future

By Ariella Cohen
Tablet Magazine

Willis_Essential coverIn the introduction to The Essential Ellen Willis, a new collection containing 50 essays by the beloved critic, her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz describes the focus of her mother’s work as a “personal Venn diagram [of] rock music, woman’s lib, and grand, deliberately non-Washington politics.”

The book opens with an autobiographical essay describing Willis’ coming-out as a radical feminist writer and moves deftly through her archive, touching on everything from her nuanced appraisal of rocker Patti Smith whose androgynous image, she feels, plays into punk rock’s misogyny (“Beginning To See the Light”) to the war on drugs (“The Drug War: From Vision to Vice”), which she sees as a symptom of the confusion that has pushed American politics to the right and inspired large numbers of people to vote against their economic and social interests. The book brings together Willis’ essays on liberation and pleasure, Judaism, and gender, class, culture, and politics in a single sprawling volume organized chronologically by decade (1960s to the aughts).

Quite appropriately, it’s a wild ride. But what made Willis—who died in 2006 at the age of 64—truly unique was her dedication to steering clear of easy or prescriptive solutions and often ending her essays with questions rather than answers.

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The Essential Ellen Willis