While having lunch one day in the 1990s with Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine, and discussing the possibility of living on the lowest wages, Barbara Ehrenreich, who died at the age of 81, leaned over the table and said to Lapham, “Someone should do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go ahead and try it.”
Lapham smiled, perhaps thinking of the exploits of earlier American writers Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, and George Orwell with his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London. He suggested that the person who should do it was her.
It seemed like an interesting idea for Ehrenreich, who had a fair share of academic accolades and a doctorate in molecular biology, but was at the time carving out a radical new kind of journalistic career. Lapham warmed to the idea that she should try to live off the wages available to the unskilled in prosperous America.
From that lunch came Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage USA (2001). It proved to be a bestseller and the following year Granta published a UK edition with an introduction by Polly Toynbee, whose books following a similar path in Britain appeared in 1971 and 2003.
Ehrenreich’s quest began in Key West, Florida in 1998 and ended in Minneapolis in the summer of 2000. Offering to spend a month in different locations, she introduced herself to potential employers as a divorced housewife re-entering the labor market. Then 57, she was a little older than the other women who were also looking for work as cleaners, waitresses or shop assistants. His doctorate wouldn’t exactly help, and so he had to be removed.
She knew she was just visiting the world that others inhabited full time. But she made it clear in her book that hers was not an attempt to “experience poverty”. She was certain there would be no Shazam moment when she revealed her “true” upper-middle-class self. She had advantages, of course: she was white, a native English speaker and she had a car. But she learned that the only thing that made her “special” was her inexperience.
What emerged from her research was an impressive and heartfelt analysis of the dilemmas facing American women as she encountered them working dead-end jobs for $7 an hour, and an appreciation of why they did not fight for higher pay and better conditions for themselves and their colleagues. workers. She came to understand why poor and undereducated women, often heavily in debt, could not risk their families being placed in a more difficult financial situation by being summarily fired for demanding more money or seeking representation. by a union.
Born and raised in Butte, Montana, a blue-collar mining town, she came from a family whose gospel had only two rules: never cross a picket line and never vote Republican. Barbara was the daughter of Isabelle (née Oxley) and Ben Alexander. Her father studied at the Montana School of Mines and earned a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He was a copper miner who became a senior executive at Gillette Corporation. By the time the family had settled in Los Angeles, her parents had divorced.
Barbara studied physics and chemistry at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, graduating in 1963. Five years later, she began her doctorate at Rockefeller University in New York. With her husband John Ehrenreich, whom she married in 1966, she wrote an account of the global student movement, Long March, Short Spring (1969). This was followed by another co-authored study, The American Health Empire (1970).
In 1970, she gave birth to a daughter, Rosa (two years later, she had a son, Ben), finding herself the only white patient in the public clinic. Her labor was induced, she thought, because the doctor wanted to go home. This experience made her a feminist.
She found work in New York City as an analyst at the City Budget Office and was appointed an assistant professor at the Old Westbury campus of the State University of New York. The transition from graduate student to full-fledged academic work, baby in arms, brought Ehrenreich into contact with other women similarly trying to balance parenthood, academic research, and full-time teaching.
More and more, she turns to the experience that women have of the American health care system. This became her main research interest and a collaboration with Deirdre English, a feminist journalist and scholar, proved fruitful.
For the rest of the 1970s, Ehrenreich began to carve out a presence at conferences, and she was able to place essays, editorials, and feature articles in major American newspapers and magazines, especially those, like Mother Jones, with a radical readership. . On campus and at US government-sponsored events, she felt increasingly confident with her marketable mix of scholarship, advocacy, and activism.
There was wider interest in the women’s health movement, and Ehrenreich’s For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Experts’ Advice to Women (1978) was detailed and passionately written.
Ehrenreich has authored or co-authored over 20 books, on a wide range of topics. Virtually no feminist advocacy group founded in the 1970s could do without her presence. When Michael Harrington formed the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, he invited Ehrenreich to serve as co-chair.
It was in the pages of The Nation, and on the editorial board, which included Ehrenreich, Eric Foner, Lani Guinier, Tom Hayden, Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner, that the stalwarts of the left tackled the most urgent matters of the day. And it was in the pages of The Nation that Ehrenreich published Rediscovering Poverty (2012), in which she argued that Harrington’s influential and much-admired work on poverty in the United States, The Other America (1962), was designed to comfort people who are already comfortable. and blamed those most disadvantaged by the US welfare system.
Ehrenreich argued that there was a double message in Harrington’s book: “we” – always the presumed affluent readers – needed to find a way to help the poor, but this opened the floodgates to the idea forcefully advocated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in an influential report. in 1965, that the heart of the problem lay with the “Negro family,” “leading the way,” Ehrenreich argued, “for decades of victim-blaming.” His relationship with Harrington was difficult.
It was also in The Nation that Ehrenreich published the essay Vote for Nader in 2000, which became one of the defining moments of the civil war between the American left and the centrists of the Democratic Party, whose candidate, Al Gore, is losing his presidential bid to George W Bush.
In 2007, Ehrenreich donated extensive archives of her writing career, including correspondence and notebooks, to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library of Women’s History in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in London. ‘Harvard University.
She divorced John Ehrenreich in 1977. A second marriage, in 1983, to Gary Stevenson, ended in divorce 10 years later. She is survived by Rosa, Ben, three grandchildren and two siblings, Benjamin and Diane.