Jen Girdish

Writer, editor, reformed shut-in.

Ellen Willis, my mom, and the option to be a bad ass


My mother always told me that when she went to college, women had three career options: secretary, teacher, or nurse. Because she liked books, she became a teacher.

She then spent the next thirty years incredibly bitter about a choice that didn’t seem like her own.

She spent most of the nineties hunting for the career she never got to choose. She hopped from seminary, to writing bits of short stories, to starting her own quilting business. I worried that she’d never find what she was really looking for because it was too late.

By the time I was in college, she stopped trying, got remarried, and became a full-time fundamentalist Christian. She’s now part of a community that gives her less options than she had when she graduated college.

I recently finished Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the essay collection of the first pop music critic at the New Yorker, a woman who was 7 years older than my mother. I’ve never read rock music and feminism through quite so clear a lens. Ellen Willis’s essays focus on music in the 60s and 70s through her deeply personal and critical filter. I have a notorious, self-perpetuating blind spot when it comes to the 60s and 70s rock music, and if anything could inspire me to give the Rolling Stones a fair shot, it’s somewhere in these essays.

But what I keep churning around in my brain is in the introduction written by Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. Aronowitz writes about the moment she realizes her mother’s work had helped her shape her own writing.

“It was then that I realized I’d absorbed it all: the stacks of records, the visits to the Village Voice on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, those filing cabinets in my mom’s office crammed with Rolling Stone articles. I realized more than ever—my mom is a serious bad ass! Emboldened by my mother’s approval, I wrote more.”

The first time my still-learning brain put together that there were women my mother’s age who became something outside of a teacher, secretary, or nurse, I was fourteen. Or maybe fifteen. I read something in the newspaper about Katha Pollitt—a woman I hadn’t heard of before, but she seemed to write things about being a woman in publications outside of Cosmo that people respected—and I noticed her age. It was exactly the same as my mom’s. Then, I realized that the woman who wrote Sleepless in Seattle—a movie that my mom could quote at command—was even older than my mom. The jig was up.

How did I not notice that these bad ass women existed before? Did I assume these women had found their careers later in life, or that they were exempt because they weren’t specially born in 1949, or that there was a council of men who allowed a few women to do things, to keep up morale? Or maybe—because I wanted to be a SERIOUS WRITER as long as I could remember—I didn’t notice these other women because I didn’t think any career other than a writer mattered.

The only female authors my mom exposed me to were either contemporary young adult mavens or ones who had been dead for years—we read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and L.M. Montgomery. Did I assume that women writing as SERIOUS profession died out?

My mom had lied to me—she must have. If Katha Pollitt was out there, what else was my mom hiding to mask the shame she surely felt over her own weakness? Why wasn’t she tough enough to break through her perceived career straightjacket? Even if she had been wrong, why wasn’t she trying to teach me about these things? Why didn’t she try harder to be a bad ass?

I was mad at her for weeks. I’d thump my Keds around our hard wood floors with all the torment that an only child could muster. I practiced my scales on the piano as forte as I could. I’d make a point to list the careers of friend’s moms at any opportunity. “Alison’s mom is an editor at a knitting magazine. Dana’s mom is a chemist.”

Even now, every time I meet or read about a bad ass woman that’s close to my mom’s age, I feel that twinge of betrayal all over again. Ellen Willis was born in the forties, and she also liked books.

But Willis was from New York, and my mom grew up in a Southwestern Pennsylvanian town that didn’t have a stoplight. No one lied to my mother—the sixties just hadn’t made it to West Alexander, PA yet.

But the thing is, my mom was really good at being a reading specialist. All of her students adored her, she tutored kids whose parents would drive them forty minutes to get to our house, she was on a thousand committees. I was her only difficult student. She was the bad ass of reading specialists.

Sometimes, I imagine what my mother had felt when she realized that she could’ve been something else, that someone like Willis was her peer. I bet it’s a similar feeling when I remember that Karen Russell is a year younger than me, and I realize that I’m closer in age to Fiona Apple than Lean Dunham.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think I could be a writer, but I’ve inherited some of my mom’s hesitation at being a bad ass. I know that women can do anything—have it all, or some of it, or more than we had—but often I don’t translate that into *I* can do anything. I always make myself an exception—I’m not that talented, my idea isn’t good enough, I’m too busy watching Friday Night Lights.

My husband and I have conversations about the children question, and if we do have, them what we will give them: the finest dinosaur toys, near sightedness, and a belief that the Velvet Underground was more important than the Beatles. But if I do have a daughter, I want to give her the understanding that women can do anything—and that’s not just in theory. We are all capable of being bad asses. And that means she can be, too.