Q&A: Nona Willis Aronowitz on Family Life and Feminism With Her Mom, Ellen Willis

Photo: Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

One of the pleasures of The Essential Ellen Willis (a new anthology out this week) is watching the journalist and critic figure out how feminism translates into daily life, both for herself and for other women. Willis is intellectually rigorous and deeply idealistic, but also very fun — and her combination of curiosity, wit, skepticism, and enthusiasm grounds her work firmly in the real world.

Not many people are better positioned to describe the lived feminism of Ellen Willis (who died in 2006) than Nona Willis Aronowitz, her daughter. Having previously edited Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of Willis’s rock writing — she was the first pop music critic at The New Yorker — Aronowitz wanted to compile a more comprehensive look at Willis’s diverse interests, from music to sex to politics to parenthood. Aronowitz says she hopes The Essential Ellen Willis will highlight the connections between her mother’s work and the work of contemporary writers, some of whom (including Cut columnist Ann Friedman) have contributed commentary to the anthology.

Over lentil soup in Clinton Hill, Aronowitz talked to the Cut about her feminist upbringing and editing her mom’s work.

(Read an excerpt from the book, Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen, here.)

What was it like to engage with your mom in this way — through collecting and editing her writing?
Basically, it was a way for me to continue having some sort of conversation with her — it was a way that I could continue exchanging ideas.

You can follow her journey of figuring out who she is through her work. All of the work she did in her 20s was either about rock culture, or about feminism, the women’s movement. And those are the two things that happened to her in the ‘60s: She became a feminist and she became a rock-and-roll fan. And both of those things changed her life.

A lot of the pieces that I decided to include veer toward the personal, and it was really fascinating to get to know her as a person who was my age. Throughout this anthology, I learned that she had gotten an abortion. I learned that she had gotten raped. I learned all of these really personal things about her that I didn’t know, that she’d never talked to me about.

As a journalist who’s the daughter of a journalist, how do you think about the relationship between your mom’s work and yours?
I really started out wanting to do what she did. I thought that I wanted to be a film critic — and my first internship I flagrantly got because her student was the film editor of the Village Voice. But then, as the years went on, I became much more interested in reporting outside my own world.

Also, it’s just not as easy to make money with the kind of pieces she was doing. The kind of stuff she was doing would only be appropriate for the Awl or the New Inquiry or n+1, and that’s not a way to make a living. The whole reason I got into reporting is those were the jobs that were available to me.

What kinds of conversations did you have with her when she was alive about your work?
She died when I was 22, so I barely had become a journalist. She’s not really read any of my journalism, which is crazy to think about.

I was an American-studies major at Wesleyan, and I became really obsessed with American counterculture — all of these things that she had lived through and commented on. And I used her as a resource all the time. She would sort of slyly give me certain relevant pieces of hers.

What was your sense of what she did for a living when you were a kid?
I definitely knew that she was a writer because there were thousands of books in the house, and there were multiple filing cabinets bursting with papers and all of these legal pads with her writing.

The first time I ever discovered that she wrote about sex and pleasure was when I found this magazine called Caught Looking. It was this really cool onetime publication of feminist writers writing about porn, juxtaposed with lots of pornographic images. I was like 7 years old. I’d show my friends, like, Oh my God, there’s this sex book that I found. And I sort of figured out that she’d written something in there — I could kind of read it, kind of not — and it was the first time I realized, Wow, my mom actually writes about sexy topics! Racy topics. That was my first introduction to porn. It wasn’t some cheesy Channel 35 or Playboy situation. It was a critical journal full of smart feminists.

How has your dad (sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz) been involved in your work anthologizing and editing her writing?
He really trusts me with it. He was a close adviser. He knew her in a way that nobody ever did — they talked so much about their work.

They met for the first time in the late ‘60s when my dad was teaching a Free University class, then they saw each other at a couple of parties in the late ‘70s. I think they both kind of had a crush on each other. Rosalyn Baxandall — who’s an awesome radical feminist — was a mutual friend. She let my dad know, If you asked Ellen Willis out, she’d say yes … So they had lunch. And they kind of had to move fast, in terms of having me.

Several of her pieces before I was born sort of intimate that she’s never going to have children — she doesn’t say that for sure, but by the time she’s in her late 30s, she basically says, I probably won’t, and there’s a reason for that. And then all of a sudden she does, and she writes about parenting.

Were you aware growing up that she was dealing with all these questions — about work-life balance, about how to be a feminist and have a family?
Totally. She talked about that stuff all the time. She always wistfully talked about the fact that she always wanted to live communally but it never worked out. She talked to her friends a lot about how she was surprised she ended up in a nuclear family. She also constantly reminded me that she and my dad were really lucky to have such flexible schedules. She was always saying, Not everyone can spend so much time with their kids.

What was your understanding of feminism like, growing up?
I think I was always feminist, and I never thought of it as a weird or a scary word. I don’t remember her telling me about feminism in the same way you don’t remember your parents explaining, like, how to go to the bathroom. It was so basic: That’s what we do.

My dad cooked and did the dishes, and my mom straightened up — they really divided the labor 50-50. And every other morning they would wake up to help me get to school. So that was my first model of gender equity, I think.

That’s impressive — to break it down morning by morning.
A very famous story in my family was that my mom basically didn’t have a kid up until my dad because she didn’t think she could find a guy who would be willing to do that. And then as soon as she suggested a child to my dad and laid down the law and saw if he would be willing, he very casually said, “Okay, sure. Let’s do it.” And she was like, “Really?”

Feminism and Family Life With Ellen Willis, Mom