Friday, March 1, 2013

Ellen Willis (1941 - 2006)

Thinking Seriously

In January 1969, Ellen Willis went to Washington to take part in a demonstration against the Vietnam War and for black liberation, which was staged to coincide with Richard Nixon’s inaugural as president. At the demonstration, women in the group had asked to make a statement about their subordinate position within the New Left and on behalf of their own liberation. When they tried to make what they described as a “moderate, pro-movement statement,” Willis reports, men in the audience “booed, laughed, cat-called and yelled enlightened remarks like 
‘Take her off the stage and fuck her.’” 
Instead of reprimanding the hecklers, (as was done during an unpopular speech by a black GI), male organizers hurried the women off the stage.

On her return to New York, Willis wrote an article entitled “Women and the Left”, in which she argued that the New Left was dominated by men and its theory, priorities, and strategy reflected male interests. Radical men would not take women seriously, she insisted, unless “we build an independent movement so strong that no revolution at all is possible without our cooperation.”

The article elicited criticism in the form of letters-to-editor, one of which Willis answered. Although the editor chose not to publish her reply, it is a cogent statement of the thinking of young women who would come to be known as radical feminists.

Here is a portion of that answer:

“Dear Wanda,
I was disturbed by your comments on my Guardian article, not because you disagreed but because you accused me of not thinking seriously…
You say ‘the basic misperception is that our enemy is man, not capitalism.’ I say, the basic misperception is the facile identification of ‘the system’ with ‘capitalism.’ In reality, the American system consists of two interdependent but distinct parts – the capitalist state, and the patriarchal family. Engels, in Origin of the Family,Private Property and the State, explains that the material basis of history is two-fold: the means of production of commodities, and the means of production of new human beings. The social organization for the production of commodities is the property system, in this case the capitalist state. The social organization for the production of new human beings is the family system. And within the family system, men function as a ruling class, women as an exploited class. Historically, women and their children have been the property of men (until recently, quite literally, even in ‘advanced’ countries). The mistake many radicals make is to assume that the family is simply part of the cultural superstructure of capitalism, while actually both capitalism and the family system make up the material subculture of society. It is difficult to see this because capitalism is so pervasive and powerful compared to the family, which is small, weak, and has far less influence on the larger economic system than vice versa. But it is important for women to recognize and deal with their exploited position in the family system, for it is primarily in terms of the family system that we are oppressed as women. Of course capitalism also exploits us, but the way in which it exploits us is primarily by taking advantage of, turning to its own purposes, our subordinate position in the family system and our historical domination by man, which stems from a time when the family system was all-powerful and the state did not yet exist. If you really think about our exploitation under capitalism – as cheap labor and as consumers – you will see that our position in the family system is at the root. This does not mean we shouldn’t fight capitalism. Unless the power of the corporate state is broken, there can be no revolution in the family system. Furthermore, to attack male supremacy (i.e. man’s class dominance in the family system) consistently inevitably means attacking capitalism in vulnerable areas. But if we simply work to destroy male supremacy on all levels, we will find that the resulting revolution is only vicarious…”

“I see men who consider themselves dedicated revolutionaries, yet exploit their wives and girl friends shamefully without ever noticing a contradiction.”

Kerber, Linda K. & DeHart, Jane Sherron, Eds. Women’s America: refocusing the past. Oxford University Press, NY, 1995. p.516-518

For your consideration:

Does Willis imply that capitalism exploits only women? Do you agree? Could women, as well as men, take advantage of the capitalist system?

Is the thought of a "revolution within the family system" encouraging? In other words, by individualizing the revolution within our own families can we see more hope for change than when we consider changing the whole of society? Does this contradict Willis' idea that the family is the weaker of the two 'subcultures'?

Within your own family experience, have "men functioned as a ruling class, women as an exploited class"?

NY Times Obituary
Published: November 10, 2006

Ellen Willis, the noted journalist, feminist and cultural critic, whose work ranged seamlessly through politics and religion, sex, film and rock ’n’ roll, died yesterday at her home in Queens. She was 64.
The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Stanley Aronowitz, the well-known sociologist and progressive activist. At her death, Ms. Willis was a professor of journalism at New York University. She also directed the journalism department’s cultural reporting and criticism program, which she founded in 1995.

As a writer, she was best known for her political essays, which appeared in The Nation, Dissent and elsewhere. She was also widely recognized for her rock criticism: she was the first pop-music critic of The New Yorker, and wrote regularly about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other publications.
In addition, Ms. Willis was a vital figure in the women’s movement of the late 1960s and afterward. She was a founder of Redstockings, a short-lived but highly influential radical feminist group begun in 1969. In the 1980s, she helped found No More Nice Girls, a street theater and protest group that focused on abortion rights.

At its core, Ms. Willis’s work was rooted in the three R’s, which for her were radicalism, religion and rock. But little escaped her scrutiny, and over the years, her writings embraced subjects as diverse as psychoanalysis, the O. J. Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and “The Sopranos.” To Ms. Willis, each of these was a strand in the contemporary social fabric, and her responsibility as critic was to map out the complex ways in which they interlaced.

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