Barbara Ehrenreich died last week from a serious stroke. She was 81 and we had been friends for too many decades to count. I know it’s a cliché, but I can’t believe she’s gone. She was brave; she was funny; she was brilliant. She was also disciplined, hardworking and prolific. During her career spanning more than 50 years, she has authored or co-authored some twenty books and countless essays. Who’s going to explain to ourselves now, and with such devious wit and flair?
Few writers have done so much to inspire social movements, and Barbara has inspired many. Witches, midwives and nurses (1972), Complaints and troubles (1973), and For his own good 1978), all co-authored with Deirdre English, were pivotal texts for the nascent women’s health movement. Nickel and Dimed— her 2001 account of attempts to live on the minimum wage allotted to waitresses, cleaners and other typical low-wage workers — was an instant classic of immersive journalism that predicted the rise of service worker activism, with the emergence of Justice for Janitors, Fight for Fifteen and the National Alliance of Domestic Workers. The Economic Hardship Project she founded in 2012 empowered workers to tell their own stories, just in time for the collapse of local investigative journalism.
Barbara wrote about toxic masculinity before Jordan Peterson and incels, and white middle-class economic anxieties before Trump. She was intersectional before there was a word for it, weaving race, class and gender together, emphasizing class. That side of second-wave feminism has all but been lost now, but as Deirdre English, Barbara’s writing partner and longtime friend, told me, “We were fighting for a women’s movement that was for all women, and Barbara never forgot that – the class consciousness of early feminism.
The final phase of her writing, sparked by her battle with breast cancer, brought invigorating skepticism to the cult of positive thinking, the wellness industry, and the quest to push mortality beyond this. which seemed reasonable to him. No pink ribbons for her! And no scented candles around the tub either. Barbara might be a bit lively, perhaps the legacy of her difficult working-class childhood. When self-care rhetoric emerged among liberal women after Trump was elected, she thought it was time to roll up her sleeves: “Rally together, girls,” she said in an interview.
Barbara has resisted personal solutions to collective problems, whether hiring a nanny instead of fighting for affordable childcare, or soothing individual wounds with expensive rituals or consumer luxuries. Instead, she urged us to seek collective joy, a subject of Dancing in the streets— celebrations, marches, demonstrations, celebrations. Despite the rather discouraging times we live in, she remained a fighter until the end. “When Roe vs. Wade was overthrown,” Deirdre reminded me, “she urged her online study group to get busy figuring out how ‘we’ would provide abortions to women who needed them!
Barbara has accomplished so much, but what I love most about her job is that it’s never been a one-size-fits-all. She always found a way to take her argument to a deeper level, whether it was the historical facts she uncovered in research or the concepts she developed to describe things that hadn’t been named – “professional management class”, a term she developed in 1977 with her then-husband, psychologist John Ehrenreich, has become synonymous today – or simply what she walked through the door input to find. And there was always empathy – for people who are neglected, whose struggles are ignored, who have to fight for food and shelter and a halfway decent life, for every ounce of dignity and acknowledgement. Rebecca Solnit posted this brilliant quote from Nickel and Dimed on Twitter, which I think expresses what was great about Barbara both as a writer and as a human being:
When someone works for less than he can live on – when, for example, he goes hungry so that you can eat cheaper and easier – then he has made a great sacrifice for you, he has given you a gift of a part of your life. his abilities, his health and his life. The “working poor”, as they are approvingly called, are in fact the main philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others are cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other houses are shiny and perfect; they endure deprivation to keep inflation low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, an anonymous benefactor, to everyone else.
One of the last times I saw her, Barbara was upset not to write. She was already sick – she had problems with her hands and the ideas weren’t flowing. I said she shouldn’t worry even though she never wrote another word. She had written an astonishing number of brilliant and beloved books and her place in literature was assured. I may have misjudged her a bit. Barbara didn’t care about her literary reputation – she wrote to bring about social change. Still, I hope she believed me for the duration of her books, because that was certainly true.