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Ellen Willis, 64; radical critic targeted foibles wherever she saw them, on the left or right

Times Staff Writer

In the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a chasm “the size of ground zero” opened between feminist author and cultural critic Ellen Willis and the burgeoning anti-war movement.

Willis was a radical, but she supported military action and found herself taken aback by young protesters “looking and sounding like preserved specimens of the ‘60s anti-war counterculture, with the same songs and peace-and-love slogans.”

“Everything about this bothered me: that 20-year-olds were using their elders’ language and style instead of inventing their own; that those blinky-eyed, reductive slogans had induced me and many other card-carrying members of the anti-war counterculture to roll our eyes even in 1967,” she wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Radical Society in April 2002.

As a cultural critic, Willis spared none; the posturing and foibles of her fellow leftists were as much a target of her criticism as those on the right. That willingness to critique with equanimity infused her writings on music, sex, politics, religion and movies and produced bold, sometimes unexpected results.

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Willis, a former columnist and senior editor for the Village Voice and the first pop music critic for the New Yorker, died of lung cancer Thursday at her home in Queens, N.Y., said her daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz. She was 64.

At New York University, Willis was founder and director of the cultural reporting and criticism concentration in the journalism department. One course, “The Cultural Conversation,” sought to help students “inculcate habits of thinking that are vital to informed and intelligent cultural reporting and criticism.”

“While conventional news writers are simply expected to put their own attitudes aside, cultural journalists must be conscious of their standpoint and its impact on their observation and judgment,” she wrote in a class syllabus. “Your credibility and the power of your literary voice depend a good deal on your ability to develop this capacity for self-reflection.”

Such self-reflection was a hallmark of Willis’ writing. She was born Dec. 14, 1941, in New York City and graduated from Barnard College in 1962. In 1969, she co-founded Redstockings, a short-lived but significant radical feminist group. When abortion was still illegal in most of the nation, the organization engaged in speak-outs and demonstrated in support of abortion rights.

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But writing was her most potent political tool. Her essays appeared in the Nation and other magazines.

“My own vision of what I want -- of why I want a movement -- has at its center the conviction that freedom and equality are symbiotic, not opposed. While it’s unlikely that social coercion -- governmental or otherwise -- will ever be entirely surpassed, my measure of a good society is the extent to which it functions by voluntary cooperation among people with equal social and political power,” she wrote in an essay that appears in her 1999 book “Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial.”

In a 1972 article in the Los Angeles Times, she takes on the notion of then-popular “open marriages.” “The remedy is not for couples to embark on a futile struggle to create free marriage in an unfree society, but for the public to demand practical changes -- an upgrading of part-time work, equal salaries and job opportunities for women, an end to the social segregation of mothers and children.”

Willis supported abortion rights and argued against anti-pornographers, extensions of her belief in an individual’s right to pleasure and freedom. Decades later, she supported war in Afghanistan for some of the same reasons.

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It was the province of a democratic left to critique government, to demand that it be accountable to its citizens, international bodies and agreements, she argued, “but our focus should be assessing the impact of U.S. policy, not taking its spiritual temperature and parsing its inevitably tangled motives; ask not that your country be sincere; ask that its actions further democracy and promote the welfare of the people they affect.”

In addition to “Don’t Think, Smile!” her published works include a 1981 collection of essays “Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade,” and “No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays,” published in 1992.

In addition to her daughter, who also writes, Willis is survived by her second husband, Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist and former candidate for governor of New York; a brother, Michael Willis of Johannesburg, South Africa; a sister, Penny Willis of Queens, N.Y.; and stepchildren Michael O’Connell and Kim O’Connell of New Jersey and Alice Finer and Hampton Finer of New York.

Willis allowed her daughter her own life and discoveries, never flinching when she wore “those ridiculous mini-skirts in ninth grade,” Willis-Aronowitz said on the Nation’s website.

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“Despite, or more likely because of, her roots in 1970s feminism, she always allowed me to be as girly, sexy, womanly, sporty, sensitive, dismissive, ditzy, studious, impulsive or careful as I ever wanted.... She taught me what a feminist was -- a woman who understood the concepts of joy, truth and curiosity without forgetting that her personal life was hers to shape.”

Beginning in the late 1960s, Willis freelanced and became a contributing editor for the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York.

She also worked at US magazine and Rolling Stone and in 1967 became the New Yorker’s first pop music critic. Rock music was for Willis, according to one reviewer, the elemental force of a generation born in the 1940s and ‘50s. It was her generation, and she wrote about it with a sense of familiarity. A review of the 2001 Bob Dylan album “Love and Theft” begins with Willis recalling her experience as a twentysomething high on LSD.

Through her exploration of a wide range of topics, she helped explain a generation and a nation to itself. Her analysis of pop culture wove history, politics and feminist theory in a way that gave heft to what otherwise might be dismissed as insignificant developments. She also managed to maintain a sense of hope.

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“My deepest impulses are optimistic,” she wrote in an essay that appears in “Beginning to See the Light.”

“In college ... my education was dominated by modernist thinkers who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries. I learned that lesson well.”

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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