Willis and Happiness

Barnard College Quiz Bowl team, 1959. (Ellen Willis in foreground, far left.)

This is the first in a series of essays on Ellen Willis by the n+1 Research Collective. See also the introduction to Willis’s No More Nice Girls (1992), copyright the Estate of Ellen Willis and courtesy of Emily Books.


Ellen Willis wrote a lot about music, but she wrote a lot more about failure. Although she is mostly remembered as a music critic, she was also a radical feminist, and radical feminism’s greatest intellectual historian. If we are going to understand what happened to women’s liberation—what pushed it underground, unraveled many of its achievements, and nearly erased it from cultural memory—Willis’s work is indispensable.

Willis’s writing career began in the late ’60s, around the time that she became active in feminist politics. In 1969, she co-founded Redstockings, one of the most influential of the radical feminist groups, and she was there for all of the great successes of women’s liberation. Her best writing, though, came after those successes, and concerns the long, brutal process by which the neoconservative right managed to dismantle much of what the women’s movement had built. What makes Willis unique is that she also understood how certain strains of feminism helped, sometimes, with that dismantling. For every piece she wrote about the hypocrisies of the Reagan Administration or the Moral Majority, there was a complementary essay about the anti-pornography feminists, the lesbian separatists, or the liberal women who had their consciousnesses raised without ever really being radicalized. Her friends sometimes found this annoying—why spend so much time yelling at your friends when Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly are on the loose? But you wish, looking back, that they had all just paid more attention. As the women’s movement came undone, Ellen Willis watched, and took careful notes.

Here is an example: Willis thought that one of feminism’s greatest mistakes was its failure to come up with a coherent account of sexual psychology. Without a wholehearted explanation—and defense—of human sexuality, the movement could offer no compelling response to the “pro-family” rhetoric that became so prevalent in the 1980s. This rhetoric used reality to discredit utopia. As women found themselves suspended somewhere between the world feminism had liberated them from and the one it had promised them, many realized they were unhappy with what the present had to offer. The right capitalized on this dissatisfaction. Women were told that feminism had deceived them, that their new jobs were making them miserable, and that true happiness could only be found where it had always been: at home, with a bunch of kids.

Why wasn’t feminism able to fight this conservative attack? In a 1981 essay called “Lust Horizons,” Willis tried to answer this question, arguing that when it came to sex, some feminists had taken what turned out to be pretty conservative positions of their own:

The ‘free love’ ideology of male leftists and bohemians was, [radical feminists] argued, nothing but a means of exploiting women sexually while avoiding commitment and responsibility; the ‘sexual revolution’ had not benefited women, but merely robbed us of the right to say no. If some women nonetheless preferred ‘free love,’ it was only because marriage under present conditions was also oppressive. The opposite possibility was not considered: that women really want free love—on equal terms that do not now exist—and prefer to let the state police their sexual relationships only because the present male-defined and dominated ‘sexual revolution’ has so little to do with either genuine love or genuine freedom.

Willis then described a second thread of radical feminist thinking about sex:

For another faction in the movement—which also surfaced right at the beginning—the standard of authenticity became one’s degree of antagonism toward men and male attitudes, particularly sexual attitudes. By this standard, marriage and ‘free love’ are equally repugnant. Heterosexual relations are by definition a violation of women’s true feelings; the only authentic choices are lesbianism or celibacy.

Then, ingeniously, she explained how these two different arguments were really coming from the same place:

These apparently opposed perspectives meet on the common ground of sexual conservatism. The monogamists uphold the traditional wife’s ‘official’ values: emotional commitment is inseparable from a legal/moral obligation to permanence and fidelity; men are always trying to escape these duties; it’s in our interest to make them shape up. The separatists tap into the underside of traditional femininity—the bitter, self-righteous fury that propels the indictment of men as lustful beasts ravaging their chaste victims. These are the two faces of feminine ideology in a patriarchal culture: they induce women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power.

This failure to fully repudiate Victorian ideas about the “fundamentally different” sexual and psychological natures of men and women weakened the women’s movement just where it needed to be strong. Conservatives struck precisely at feminism’s Achilles heel, insisting that women were having a hard time in the workplace because nature had never intended them to leave home at all. To working mothers who sent their children to daycare centers, the right said, “Fine, but the people who run these places are pedophiles, and they are raping your kids, and also forcing them to worship Satan in underground tunnels.” (This sounds absurd today, but that is literally what they said, and hundreds of people were sent to jail on these imaginary charges.) One of American conservatism’s great discoveries in the last forty years has been that rhetorical extremism really works. It works by ever-so-slightly altering what pass for average conditions in our political atmosphere: if you say really crazy things, people may not take you at your word, but you have created a rhetorical climate in which things that are only pretty crazy begin to seem a lot more palatable. So even as appellate courts began to throw out the satanic cult worship convictions, Republicans torpedoed the 1988 Act for Better Care Services, a comprehensive day care bill. As an alternative, they offered poor families, who often don’t make enough money to pay taxes at all, a $1,000 child care tax credit (the average annual cost of quality day care was more like $8,000). Working and lower-middle-class families, who need help with child care just as much as poor people, were offered nothing at all.

Willis fought these people off as well as she could, but she repeatedly ran up against what she described as “the classic blind spot of liberals,” namely, “their faith that all social conflicts can be settled by peaceful compromise”:

However bitter the differences, whatever the imbalance of power between opposing parties, one need only apply ingenuity and good will, reject “extremists on both sides,” and the lion will sit down with the lamb. No matter how many lambs get eaten, liberals never learn.

Reading that last sentence, I thought to myself, “OK, I can learn that it’s important to keep up the good fight. But what are the tools that would actually help you to win?” As far as I can tell, Willis would have two answers.

The first one is easy. It is that in the fight for social equality and freedom, you have to begin by recognizing the basic unity of human experience, by assuming that men and women do not have meaningfully different psychological natures. Willis knew this was an assumption, not a verified fact, and said so. But better to err on the side of reasonable doubt, she thought, than treat tainted evidence as truth. Pop psychologists and pop biologists who tell you about all the endorphins that rush through a woman’s brain when she holds an infant, or about how the blood inflates a man’s penis when he sees a really good NFL tackle? These people are not to be trusted, nor is anyone else who claims that what is, is natural. The “natural” has always been used to justify traditional cultural values, as though culture and biology could ever be completely pried apart. What we call human nature is the product of human culture. If our culture changed, perhaps we would, too.

Willis’s second answer is more difficult because it is strange, at least to contemporary readers, and because it seems in some ways to contradict the first. But it is also at the very center of her writing. You really can’t miss it. In her best essay, “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism,” Willis wrote that the women’s movement’s “failure to develop a coherent analysis of either male or female psychology” was a disaster, one that indicated “a willed ignorance rooted in terror.” Ellen Willis was a Freudian, which may seem akin to being an alien on the planet that was 1970s American radical feminism. “Radical feminists as a group were dogmatically hostile to Freud and psychoanalysis,” she wrote, “and psychoanalytic thought—especially its concept of the unconscious and its emphasis on the role of sexual desire in human motivation—had almost no impact on radical feminist theory.”

Willis believed, however, that psychoanalysis was “not a defense of patriarchal culture but an analysis of it.” She thought her colleagues refused to make use of that analysis because they were frightened by what they might find:

To analyze women’s behavior psychoanalytically was to risk unmasking all our secret strategies for coping with the traumatic linking of our sexual organs to our class inferiority, and with the resulting unconscious feelings of irrevocable violation, shame, global terror, and dangerous rage.

Willis knew very well that this idea—that radical feminists had rejected Freud because they couldn’t handle the truth—was “the kind of circular argument that drives anti-Freudians crazy.” But Willis believed that the explanatory power of Freud’s best ideas was simply too great to ignore. “It’s precisely through women’s attempt to manage their unconscious conflicts that femininity is reproduced,” she wrote. She believed this was the key to understanding how anti-pornography feminists and evangelical social conservatives could have found themselves working toward the same goal, despite the political distance between them: “For instance, one typical feminine strategy is to compensate for the humiliation of sexual ‘inferiority’ with self-righteous moralism and asceticism. Whether this is rationalized as religious virtue or feminist militance, the result is to reinforce patriarchal values.”

Since the 1970s, Nancy Chodorow, Juliet Mitchell, and other academics have been largely successful in convincing skeptical Anglo-American feminists that Freudian and psychoanalytic theory can be of great and necessary use. Still, in America it often seems as if there persists a general suspicion of Freud and his work, a suspicion I sometimes find myself sharing. Yet Willis is so consistently intelligent about other subjects, so clear-eyed and practical, that her committed Freudianism makes me wonder if I haven’t been the victim of a certain historical blindness. First-wave feminism and psychoanalysis were both products of modernity’s early days—Emma Goldman attended the only lectures Freud ever gave in the US, in 1909, and pestered him with questions about female sexuality—and they have followed one another, haltingly, strangely, but consistently, for the last hundred years. How are we to account for this relationship, as ambivalent as it is persistent, and its recurring dynamics of attraction and repulsion? It is as though feminism knows that Freud, for all his flaws, has something useful that can’t be had anywhere else.

Maybe Shulamith Firestone—co-founder of Redstockings—put it best. In The Dialectic of Sex, she called Freudianism “the misguided feminism.” While Firestone disagreed with many of Freud’s conclusions (and premises and methods and attitudes), she recognized the real genius of his founding insight: “Freudianism is so charged, so impossible to repudiate, because Freud grasped the crucial problem of modern life: Sexuality. Freudianism and Feminism grew from the same soil.” But Freud and feminism diverged when it came to the family. Freud accepted the family as a given, the fixed foundation of modern life. Radical feminism, however, pushed past it, and tried to image other ways in which small groups of people might arrange themselves. Expanding on the work of Wilhelm Reich, Willis argued that children were damaged by parental condemnation of their earliest genital desires, and that these early humiliations caused not just personal but widespread social misery. Real sexual liberation, then, would entail liberation from the family as well, and it would also lead to widespread social upheaval. By extension, feminism cannot only work for economic and political equality (although it obviously must work for those things). It must also work to transform the whole fabric of social relations and personal experience. These are the truly radical, truly utopian ideas to which Willis devoted her life.

Willis died working on a book that called on the Left to reorganize itself around this Freudian understanding of human behavior. I haven’t seen the manuscript, so for all I know the book is a letdown, but I have to say that I find the very idea of this book galvanizing. Willis really thought that happiness was within reach. What’s more, she thought that happiness was in reach for everybody, and said so. Who does that? Until recently, when people began to gather in Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, I had never seen that idea expressed in public. Until recently, when I read Willis’s books, I had never seen someone articulate that idea, and argue for it, and explain it, in a way that didn’t seem embarrassing. Now, having moved past embarrassment, I am beginning to learn that one of the best things about radical ideas is that you really can draw strength from them, every day. They make changing your life seem not only worthwhile but possible.

One final thing: Willis understood, thirty years ago, that the work radical feminists were engaged in would not be completed in their lifetimes. Some activists don’t figure this out until late in life, but I think Willis knew the whole time. What I am moved by most, in her writing, is the sense I get that she was trying to make maps for the feminists who would come after her, even though she didn’t know who they would be, or when, if ever, they would arrive.

I think many of those maps are worth following.

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