Ellen Willis and her cohort struggled for their rights; our generation inherited them. The liberties that women devoted their lives to winning and protecting are now largely taken for granted – Roe v. Wade was decided more than a decade before I was born, no-fault divorces are a fact of life, and it’s unlikely that I’ll lose the right to vote. In the essay “Looking for Mr. Good Dad,” Willis describes the difficulty of communicating with a generation that’s “too young … to remember what women’s lives were like before the libertarian ferment of the 60s.” I can’t imagine how it feels to fight for one’s beliefs and see them normalized in the same lifetime.
But while the vocabulary of Willis’ feminism has trickled into mainstream (read: internet) writing and thinking, the structural changes that she calls for are dissociated from individual responsibility and action.
Emails from organizations like Planned Parenthood flood my inbox when a vote is up in the Senate, but after signing the requested petition it’s too easy to ignore the issue and take abortion access for granted. Instead of (and only rarely in addition to) activism, our generation has blog posts.
Sharing our stories and experiences has never been easier, but too often these take the form of what Willis called “documentary confessions” – describing or confessing a problem without explicitly calling for change:
Who among us does not believe that the truth will make us free? That looking unpleasant realities in the face is the first step to understanding and perhaps changing them? Yet in practice self-exposure does not necessarily lead to understanding, or understanding to change. Often, at the end of a “documentary confession,” one is left feeling confused and a bit cheated, wondering what, exactly, is the point.
It’s important to remember that Willis was also very much in favor of women sharing their stories. Consciousness-raising was a key element in the formation of radical feminism. The difference is that while the internet has enabled hugely popular consciousness-raising communities, in the form of commenter communities, they generally stop short of fulfilling the second half of C.R.’s purpose – a movement to political or social action. Not that we should stop airing our grievances and invoking feminism, but blog posts that examine and document instances of sexism, violence and rape and conclude only with some version of “I can’t believe that happened!” shortsell our power as women to organize and make change.
That’s not to say that everyone who writes online lacks followthrough. Heather Armstrong, the popular “mommyblogger” who created the site Dooce, goes beyond self-exposure to action in how she has very publicly taken women’s health as her cause and mobilized her readership towards it. The website Hollaback enables teams around the world to help their communities end street harassment through a combination of blogging and on-the-ground action. And sex columnist Dan Savage has excelled the radicals of Willis’ day who argued over whether sadomasochism was an acceptable sexual taste or a repressed perversion (“Nature’s Revenge”), by making the idea that that all sexual preferences are normal (and also that there’s no such thing as normal) mainstream.
The emphasis on activist political engagement that permeates No More Nice Girls is the best lesson that we can take from it. Reclaiming the political–and while we’re at it, the aesthetic–as urgently personal would upturn the ironic detachment with which we consume modern-day culture. As Willis reminds us in the penultimate sentence of the book, “What if we really started taking this seriously – for everyone?”