This is a photo of Ruth with the tiny sign she and I took turns holding as we joined what seemed like thousands of other people marching down Wall Street earlier. We left before the cops started beating people with batons. I can’t find the quote from No More Nice Girls that we wrote on this tiny sign for the life of me right now (Ruth! Please post it) but this one seems just as apropos:
“I’m a political person, a political radical. I believe that the struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence is not just an individual matter. The social system that organizes our lives, and as far as possible channels our desire, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort. The moment a movement coalesces can be, should be, itself an occasion of freedom, pleasure, transcendence, but it is never only that. Radical movements by definition focus attention on the gap between present and future, and cast their participants, for the present, in the negative role of opposition. Fighting entrenched power means drawing battle lines, defining the enemy. In the ’60s and after, the strains of radicalism I identify with have defined the enemy as all forms of domination and hierarchy—beginning but not ending with sex, race and class—and from this point of view, as a French leftist slogan from the May ‘68 upheavals put it, “We are all Jews and Germans.” Which doesn’t mean we’re all equally victims and oppressors, or that differences don’t matter, just that there are few of us who haven’t abused power in some contexts, suffered powerlessness in others. And that all of us, oppressors and victims alike, have had to make our bargains with the system—bargains often secret even from ourselves—for the sake of survival and yes, for those moments of freedom, pleasure and transcendence that give survival meaning.”
“For many men, freedom to separate sex from relationship without guilt or hypocrisy has always been what sexual liberation is about. But the conventionally masculine dream of pure lust is, I’m convinced, as conservative in its way as the conventionally feminine romanticism that converts lust to pure emotion—or, for that matter, as the patriarchal values that subordinate passion to marriage and procreation. All are attempts to tame sex, to make it safe by holding something back. For the objective risks of sex would not terrify us half so much if they did not reinforce a more primal inner threat. To abandon ourselves utterly to sensation and emotion—to give up the boundaries and limits that keep us in control—would be, for most of us, like cutting loose from gravity and watching the earth spin. Dissolution of the ego is the death we fear; the real sexual revolution, the one no virus can keep us from imagining, is the struggle to face that fear, transcend it, and let go.”
We asked some writers to read this book and respond to it. This essay by Sady Doyle was the first one we got! If we didn’t ask you it’s probably because we haven’t gotten around to it yet, so don’t be insulted. If you read the book and have something to say about it, email us.
No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essaysopens with Ellen Willis’s declaration that she is from New York, and that New York is not America (try to imagine any contemporary progressive saying that aloud). The collection contains “Escape from New York,” one of the better essays you’ll ever read about the hazards of conversations on cross-country bus trips. In an inadvertent homage to Willis, I wrote the following essay mostly on a bus. I was on the way home from Virginia to New York. And it was in Virginia, on this trip, that I had two conversations that illuminated what it is to be a public feminist today.
The first was with an older gentleman, maybe in his late 40s, in line to get a burrito. He was getting a degree in divinity; he wanted to do work overseas. What did I do? Was I a student? No, I was just in town to speak at the college. What was I speaking about? Um, feminism.
He physically recoiled. Eyes widened. Repeated the word “feminism,” with some alarm.
“Can you tell me some of the positives of tha — I mean, the negatives — I mean, can you tell me why you think I might see some negatives, to feminism?”
I sure could. But it wasn’t a burrito-line type of conversation.
The next incident was with a younger guy, early 20s, on an outdoor bench waiting for the Greyhound. He smoked, I smoked, we had a rapport going. He asked me why I was in Virginia, I said I’d had to give a speech. What about? Uh, sexual assault.
Again, the widened eyes. Again, the recoil — this time, he actually slid a few inches away from me on the bench.
“So, uh,” he said, “am I sexually assaulting you right now?”
It’s very easy to become for a public feminist to become an isolated or embittered person. The price you pay — the widened eyes, the reaction that is clearly not contempt or even anger, but fear — is often too high for people who enjoy being liked. Which leaves those of us who are brave enough or masochistic enough or secure enough to deal with being treated like evil sorcerers at the Q-Doba. New York may not be America, but people do it there, too, albeit more quietly: It’s usually just the fixed stares, and the backing away, without the questions. At a certain point, you start longing for those, rude as they are: At least asking questionspresumes that the two of you can interact. In New York, one man began to speak to an invisible point located roughly six inches above my head, as if to communicate that I was literally too far below him to enter his range of vision.
Ellen Willis was unapologetically feminist — in her own words, radical. Willis was prone to making all kinds of statements about the inherently soul-destroying nature of traditional families, the need for unrestricted abortion, and non-assimilationist feminist politics. You wouldn’t expect a woman like this to be widely celebrated, in a cultural moment when the idea of feminism is mostly greeted with queasy, don’t-yell-at-me distrust. But Willis is; she’s the only feminist theorist I can name who is just as likely to be exalted by Pitchfork as by Slate’s DoubleX. Kathleen Hanna, maybe, is a rough analogue. But Kathleen Hanna is also — it should be pointed out — a goddamned rock star. People like those. Cultural theorists, not so much. So: Why Willis?
Well. Because she deserves it, first of all. Throughout No More Nice Girls, her voice is lively, engaged, smart, passionate; her essays remain attuned to context and nuance, without once devolving into wishy-washy equivocation. Then, there’s her excellent work as a rock critic, which has obviously gained her a wider ground of influence and devotion. But there’s also the fact that, to an eerie degree, she managed to anticipate and reflect what people need from a feminist writer at the moment. Willis died in 2006; the essays in this collection, No More Nice Girls, date from the early 1990s at the latest. Yet they manage to be exactly what many of us want from feminism in late 2011.
Ellen Willis was cool. Maybe that seems like an odd thing to stress now, when so much of being feminist entails feeling pressured into some vaguely humiliating, I’m-not-a-regular-feminist-I’m-a-COOL-feminist performance; you can only ask what the haps and the cool jams are so many times before you begin to feel that acting like a schoolmarm is the ultimate rebellion. But Willis’s cool is effortless. Her casual references to rock shows, her use of “fuck” as a verb, her evocations of the pleasure principle as central to political life, her revelation that while pushing her daughter through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in a stroller (that daughter being the excellent feminist writer Nona Willis Aronowitz) she thought “this would be a beautiful place to trip:” This was a woman who was engaged with the culture, and the counterculture, whose life and work were irrevocably entwined with them, not to gain her leverage or marketability, but because it was who she was. This is something we need in our present moment, an affirmation that feminism is not inevitably out-of-touch, lifeless, anti-aesthetic or one-dimensional; Willis spoke like a woman who had lived, and lived well, and that quality has given her work its enduring glow.
That affirmation of joy is not incidental. Willis’s insistence on the importance of freedom and pleasurewas a central tenet of her thought. In her prologue, Willis argues that “the power of the ecstatic moment — this is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone — is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor.” This emphasis on reclaiming a human identity is, necessarily, an emphasis on the identity of the individual, and so it courts what’s currently considered a crime in some feminist circles — the crime of “individualism.” (Willis uses the word “libertarianism,” which is even more likely to rile folks up; it’s not much like the party-times conservative, weed-hookers-and-Atlas-Shrugged philosophy we’re used to, but Willis does tend to believe that the state exists to serve its people, not the other way around, and that states are better off when they doesn’t legislate or interfere with the people’s bodies or pleasure.) Willis acknowledges that this perspective might only really be available to the privileged — it’s hard to be resolutely individual when conditions seem to prohibit anything but the barest survival; when the goodwill of the ruling class informs, not your mere happiness, but whether you’ll be able to eat — and describes her own struggles with that fact in some detail.
But then, that very individualism feels like a necessary corrective to the feminist reality in 2011, which produces consensus and community – or something that, at first glance, resembles them — faster than ever. Willis was right on with her predictions when it came to the rise of the right, and the marginalization of progressive voices in media — “the First Amendment may protect our right to rant,” she intones ominously, “but only if we can do it without money and without space” — but what she couldn’t have foreseen was the explosion of cheap spaces online, and the corresponding rise in the number of voices and conversations. Feminists now communicate with each other faster, louder, and more often than ever before. But our very skill at hammering out a collective idea of what feminism “is,” or what it “has to be,” can submerge individual voices, and can forge a kind of fundamentalism that knows how to follow all the current rules, but not how to create new visions. Willis’s individualism, her resolutely Willisian take on everything she saw, counterbalances the current pressure to be a mere extension of a vast movement, and not a distinct person within it.
In fact, some of the funnest and most instructive parts of No More Nice Girls come early, as Willis charted the growth of mid-20th-century feminism, and the bloody schisms within it. She dives headfirst into the Sex Wars (coming down resolutely on the “pro-sex,” anti-anti-pornography side of the divide — in fact, “pro-sex” was a term she coined); she details the feminist movement’s struggles with its own racism, and points out this exciting new writer named bell hooks; she revisits some of the most ruthless battles feminists have ever fought against each other, and does so without flinching.
What one comes to appreciate about Willis, in these essays, is her delightful prickliness. It’s not that she refuses to take sides; she takes them. But she reserves the right to piss off both sides when it suits her. Predictably, for a writer so focused on pleasure, she’s merciless to Andrea Dworkin, deploring her vision of “the battle of the sexes [as] a Manichaean clash between absolute power and absolute powerlessness, absolute villains and absolute victims.” But she also casts a doubtful eye on pro-sex advocate Pat Califia’s claims for the apolitical nature of BDSM: “Does the need to act out fantasies of debasing oneself or someone else really require no further explanation? Does it have nothing to do with buried emotions of rage or self-hatred? Nothing to do with living in a hierarchical society where one is ‘superior’ to some people and ‘inferior’ to others, where men rule and women serve?” Similarly, in her history of radical feminism, Willis details the long-standing feminist tendency to cannibalize or punish particularly talented, well-known, or accomplished women: Ti-Grace Atkinson quit her feminist collective when it was decided that all duties would be assigned by random lot, rather than by skill, including speaking to the media. Willis also admits to regretting her own tendency to go along with this. But then, just a few pages later, she reports being “incensed” by Gloria Steinem’s “disdainful who-are-these-people dismissal” of a radical feminist article which implied she was an undercover CIA operative sent to destroy feminism from within. I’m of the opinion that, once someone has taken it to the you-are-a-CIA-plant place, not a whole lot of courtesy is owed. But then, Willis contradicts my opinions fairly often — about as often as she concurs with them. It’s why I trust her.
There’s more to appreciate about the book; the aforementioned “Escape from New York,” a sprawling, perfectly detailed personal essay about the twin dangers of loneliness and too much human connection, is a stand-out, as are her essays on drug culture, drug wars and sobriety. But, in the end, it’s Willis’s dedication to being a fully realized woman, an individual, while remaining responsible to and connected with the ever-changing, often alarming culture in which she lives, that makes this such an immediate, compelling read. You argue with Willis, while you read the book; you tell her about your own experiences with the subjects she’s covering; you have a long, strangely urgent internal conversation with her about the state of feminism today. Her voice is that relevant, and that real.
The kid at the bus station calmed down, after the alarming revelation that I spoke about sexual assault. There were a few silent minutes. But eventually, he bit his lip, raised his cigarette as if giving a toast, and forgave me.
“All kinds,” he said. “Takes all kinds, right?”
“Yep,” I said.
When you read No More Nice Girls — which you should, which I hope you will, which I think you have to — that sentiment seems like a very good place to start.