Susan Zakin: We've Lost Our Compass
Barbara Ehrenreich's voice was one you recognized right away, whether you found it in Harper's, Mother Jones, The New York Times Book Review, or in one of her own books. She articulated your half-formed impressions, things you knew, but didn't know you knew. That ability to grasp a societal shift when the rest of us were still trotting to catch up, and, more importantly, to fully comprehend the ramifications, made her one of our era's great public intellectuals.
Then there was the writing. The tone was conversational, yet the clarity of thought was breathtaking. The fact that she was funny made even the harshest truths less painful, leavening our outrage with a certain brio. If we were lucky, we carried that brio with us into our lives.
Dierdre English, the former editor of Mother Jones magazine, and documentary filmmaker Steve Talbot became friends with Ehrenreich in the 1970s, when they were twenty-somethings living in a semi-commune while teaching at what became the State University of New York at Old Westbury. That was when bright young people got opportunities to do crazy, inventive, world-beating work instead of serving time as baristas, or, with better pay, serving their tech overlords.
America was once like that. Really.
English gives us a timeline of Ehrenreich's writing that is a dendrochronology of our American lives. As I read her lovely obituary in Mother Jones, I saw Ehrenreich's influence everywhere, on my own thinking, on the practice of female doctors and medical staff, and most recently, on America's newly reborn union movement.
Her writing career started with a 1972 booklet co-authored with English that helped re-legitimize midwifery, and as Steve Talbot points out, included the frighteningly prescient Falling, a warning about the strain on the country's middle class. (Was Falling really written back in 1989?) Her most well-known book, Nickel and Dimed, is an account of the lives of America's underpaid frontline workers, published in 2001, a dozen years before French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century hit the headlines with the same message.
Ehrenreich came by her working class sympathies honestly. She was a daughter of Butte, Montana, the quintessential colony-in-all-but-name of the industrialized east coast, where her father's family worked in the copper mines. After seeing the starkness of the open pit mines, she came away with the vision to recognize social ills that have only intensified since she wrote about them. And she broke America's real taboo. She talked about class.
When you look at any list of public intellectuals, the number of women on it is infinitesimal. Barbara Ehrenreich should certainly be on the list but as an avowed leftist, although one refreshingly immune to didacticism, she was destined to be a heroine for the cognoscenti.
We would do well to recognize the loss of Barbara Ehrenreich by passing on her words to new readers. Here is a chorus of voices: two of her oldest friends, and a few selections from her writing, including a review of an unjustly neglected book by one of the Journal's favorite writers and friends, Steve Erickson.
Will the circle be unbroken.
Steve Talbot: Let Us Now Praise Famous Women
Barbara Ehrenreich was the kind of no-nonsense, down-to-earth, unsentimental, wisecracking person who would not abide solemn oratory about her passing. I can see her growing restless and rolling her eyes at the very mention of her stature and legacy.
But the truth is that Barbara was a major figure on the democratic left, in the women's health movement, and as a bracingly honest and provocative public intellectual.
She was proud of her working class roots. Her dad had been a copper miner in Montana. She was a life-long, instinctive supporter of the poor, working people, progressive unions, and a vulnerable middle class (see her book, Fear of Falling). It's perfectly in character for her that her best-known and widely influential book, Nickel and Dimed, was her personal investigation of what it was like to try to survive on low-paying jobs.
Barbara was many things: a rationalist, a humanist, a scientist with a PhD. from Rockefeller University, a fervent feminist, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a professor, an activist, and perhaps above all an intellectually curious, incredibly hardworking, prolific author.
I met Barbara and her husband and fellow activist/author John Ehrenreich in the early 1970s when we were working at what was then a new branch of the State University of New York, the College at Old Westbury. The college was an experiment in affirmative action and progressive education that included a faculty that was as diverse, socially conscious and contentious as any in the country. For two years we lived in a communal house in Oyster Bay, Long Island. And it was there that Barbara and Deirdre Elena English began writing about the history of women's health care, starting with two wildly successful "underground" booklets, "Witches, Midwives and Nurses" and "Complaints and Disorders," that became the basis for their book, For Her Own Good.
Barbara was naturally modest, but she was phenomenally smart and could be as tough as nails when it came to fighting the good fight. As serious a person as she was, Barbara was also a devoted friend, loved a party and had a great, sarcastic sense of humor.
Her daughter Rosa Brooks, a human rights lawyer and professor and author, and her son Ben, a journalist and novelist, carry on her spirit. As Ben said of his mother:
"She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another, and by fighting like hell."
Photo credit: Dierdre English
In her last years, homebound during the bleak reign of Covid and suffering various maladies, Barbara Ehrenreich did what she always did: she organized an activist collective. This one was a bi-weekly Zoom study group with assorted comrades, such as former writing partners like myself, other sisters from feminism, a bunch of labor organizers, as well as her ever-caring and loyal ex-husbands, (though now married to others) John Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson. During one meeting, as our group oscillated between bashing Republican right-wingers and belittling do-little Democrats, one member complained, “We are always saying what we are against. But we have to say what we are for.” Silence. Till Barbara pronounced decisively, “Well, we are mostly against things.”
The Books (& a review)
It's Class, Stupid
Fear of Falling
In her introduction, Ehrenreich made clear exactly what Fear of Falling was going to debunk: myths about America's middle class and the upward mobility Americans assumed would always be there.
If the focus on one class seems unnecessarily narrow, I would point out that most books, and especially those which make large claims about the American character and culture, are in fact about this class and about it alone. We are told, periodically, that “Americans” are becoming more self-involved, materialistic, spineless, or whatever, when actually only a subgroup of Americans is meant: people who are more likely to be white-collar professionals—lawyers, middle managers, or social workers, for example—than machinists or sales clerks. Usually, this limitation goes without mention; for, in our culture, the professional, and largely white, middle class is taken as a social norm—a bland and neutral mainstream—from which every other group or class is ultimately a kind of deviation.
"It Smells Too Much Like Fear"
Nickel and Dimed
To write Nicked and Dimed, Ehrenreich went undercover, working frontline jobs and trying to live on the wages she earned. If you hear echoes of Katie Porter grilling Jamie Dimon in Congress in 2019, remember this book was written in 2001.
I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it’s not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.
Unlike many low-wage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I don’t think this affected my chances of getting a job, given the willingness of employers to hire almost anyone in the tight labor market of 1998 to 2000, but it almost certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered. In Key West, I originally sought what I assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found myself steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of my ethnicity and my English skills. As it happened, waitressing didn’t provide much of a financial advantage over housekeeping, at least not in the low-tip off-season when I worked in Key West. But the experience did help determine my choice of other localities in which to live and work. I ruled out places like New York and L.A., for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird.
I had other advantages—the car, for example—that set me off from many, though hardly all, of my coworkers. Ideally, at least if I were seeking to replicate the experience of a woman entering the workforce from welfare, I would have had a couple of children in tow, but mine are grown and no one was willing to lend me theirs for a monthlong vacation in penury. In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.
If there were other, subtler things different about me, no one ever pointed them out. Certainly I made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype of low-wage working women. I wore my usual clothes, wherever ordinary clothes were permitted, and my usual hairstyle and makeup. In conversations with coworkers, I talked about my real children, marital status, and relationships; there was no reason to invent a whole new life. I did modify my vocabulary, however, in one respect: at least when I was new at a job and worried about seeming brash or disrespectful, I censored the profanities that are—thanks largely to the Teamster influence—part of my normal speech. Other than that, I joked and teased, offered opinions, speculations, and, incidentally, a great deal of health-related advice, exactly as I would do in any other setting. Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldn’t, uh, tell—the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me even once that I was special in some enviable way—more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me “special” was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.
"Into the Void"
Review of Steve Erickson's American Nomad
In 1996, Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's founder, sent novelist Steve Erickson on the campaign trail. Ehrenreich could fully appreciate the way Erickson captured the deeply American - and deeply scary - nativist tub-thumping of Republican contenders like Pat Buchanan, who captured the fear and loathing that Donald Trump would later capitalize on.
For a while he carries off the pretense of being a more or less normal campaign correspondent. If he isn't exactly having fun yet, as his fellow journalists keep wanting to know, that's because of Mr. Wenner, who comes across as being a bit capricious and egomaniacal even for a national magazine editor. Besides, there is what you might call Mr. Erickson's ''impostor syndrome'' -- his niggling fear that everyone can tell he's not a real journalist but a representative of ''the Enemy,'' whatever that may be these days.
Fortunately, neither handicap seems to have dimmed his eagle eye for the ambient madness, rage and yearning of the Presidential election season. He understands the cheap redemption white America sought in Colin Powell and how, when another high-profile African-American was acquitted of murder, white America decided to blow off redemption and stick with resentment and guilt. He notices creepy little details, like Steve Forbes's habit of making slashing gestures behind the lectern, where no one can see them, ''as though the force of his conviction was something to be obscured and hidden, a secret passion, like renting pornographic videos.'' At best, Mr. Erickson functions like some high-tech psycho-medical sensing device inserted into the ravaged soul of American politics, observing, for example, of Lamar Alexander that ''anyone boring enough that he had to wear a flannel shirt and slap an exclamation point after his name to make himself interesting was either sane to the point of inertia . . . or so metaphysically, bone-chillingly demented as to evoke the Void.''
A Doughty Westerner Confronts Mortality
The subject may have been dark, but Ehrenreich didn't shrink from that harshest of realities: death. Just as she lived, she did it her way.
Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise—not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me. Ideally, the determination of when one is old enough to die should be a personal decision, based on a judgment of the likely benefits, if any, of medical care and—just as important at a certain age—how we choose to spend the time that remains to us.