Ellen Willis, 1941–2006

A personal tribute to the legendary writer, feminist, academic, and Village Voice editor

When news began to circulate of Ellen's death last Thursday morning from metastasized lung cancer (for the record, she never smoked), the reaction was startling. Within hours, personal tributes were popping up in e-mails and blogs all over the net, along with more formal but sometimes heartfelt notices on the websites of publications Ellen wrote for, including The New Yorker, The Nation, Dissent, and this paper, where she joined me on staff as a fellow senior editor in 1979 and stayed through the '80s (returning to write a column in the mid '90s). Even The New York Times, which tends to snub the American left as well as the livelier, pleasure-loving brand of radical feminism, weighed in with a graceful obit by Margalit Fox, who clearly knew and appreciated Ellen's work.

photo: Harvey Wang/Courtesy Ellen Willis's family

Most of the tributes in the immediate wake of her death came from colleagues, former students, writers she had edited years ago, and even people who'd only known her briefly. The one that brought it all home for me came from Lauren Sandler, an editor at Salon who had been Ellen's student. In an e-mail, Sandler wrote, "Ellen's death has shaken into me a sense of why I do this, what the purpose is, where my outrage and passion lie, as well as my drive to celebrate life and sharpen my thinking and the thinking of others. Which all comes back to her, of course. I have no idea who I would be without her."

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