Barbara Ehrenreich died last week, from the aftereffects of a severe stroke. She was 81, and we’d 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 and hard-working and prolific. In her career of more than 50 years, she wrote or cowrote 20 or so books and countless essays. Who will explain us to ourselves now, and with such sly wit and flair?
Few writers have done so much to inspire social movements, and Barbara inspired many of them. Witches, Midwives and Nurses (1972), Complaints and Disorders (1973), and For Her Own Good 1978), all co-authored with Deirdre English, were crucial texts for the burgeoning women’s health movement. Nickel and Dimed—her 2001 account of trying to live on the minimum wage allotted waitresses, cleaners, and other typical low-wage women workers—was an instant classic of immersive journalism that foretold the rise of service workers activism, with the emergence of the Fight for Fifteen and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The Economic Hardship Project she founded in 2012 let workers 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, braiding race, class, and gender together—with the emphasis on class. That side of second-wave feminism has been all but lost now, but as Barbara’s writing partner and longtime friend Deirdre English 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 last phase of her writing, sparked by her bout with breast cancer, brought a bracing skepticism to the cult of positive thinking, the wellness industry, and the quest to postpone mortality beyond what seemed to her reasonable. No pink ribbons for her! And no scented candles around the bathtub either. Barbara could be a bit brisk, perhaps the legacy of her difficult working-class childhood. When a rhetoric of self-care emerged among liberal women after the election of Trump, she thought it was time to roll up our sleeves: “Get it together, girls,” she said in an interview.
Barbara resisted personal solutions to collective problems, whether it was hiring a nanny instead of fighting for affordable day care, or soothing individual injuries with expensive rituals or consumer luxuries. Instead, she urged us to seek out collective joy, the subject of Dancing in the Streets—festivals, marches, demonstrations, parties. Despite the rather discouraging times we live in, she remained a fighter to the end. “When Roe v. Wade was overturned,” Deirdre reminded me, “she exhorted her online study group to get busy figuring out how ‘we’ would provide abortions for women who would be needing them!”
Barbara accomplished so much, but what I love most about her work is that it was never boilerplate. She always found a way to take her argument to a deeper level, whether it was the historical facts she discovered in research, or concepts she developed to describe things that had gone unnamed—“professional managerial class,” a term she developed in 1977 with her then-husband the psychologist John Ehrenreich, is a byword today—or simply what she walked out her front door to find. And there was always empathy—for the people who are overlooked, whose struggles are disregarded, who have to fight for food and shelter and a half-way decent life, for every shred of dignity and recognition. Rebecca Solnit posted this brilliant quotation 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 pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.
One of the last times I saw her, Barbara was distressed that she wasn’t writing. She was already unwell—she was having trouble with her hands, and the ideas weren’t flowing. I said she shouldn’t worry even if she never wrote another word. She had written an astonishing number of brilliant, beloved books and her place in literature was secure. I may have misjudged her a bit. Barbara wasn’t concerned about her literary reputation—she wrote to make social change. Still, I hope she believed me about her books lasting, because it was certainly true.