Barbara Ehrenreich Was an Unabashed Socialist

The writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who died earlier this month, believed in a humanistic Marxism. Nowhere was this conviction more on display than in her writings on the sexism and cruelty of America’s for-profit health care system.

Barbara Ehrenreich in Chicago, Illinois, 2005. (Phil Velasquez / <cite?Chicago Tribune / MCT)

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of countless essays and over a dozen books, most notably Fear of Falling (1989) and Nickel and Dimed (2001), was one of America’s most trenchant critics of the miseries endured by the working class and the pathologies of the middle class. In the latter book, subtitled On (Not) Getting By in America, she chronicled her experience working a range of low-paid jobs as a waitress, housekeeper, and retail worker in Key West, Maine, and Minnesota. Taking the position of both journalist and participant she ran the risk of cosplaying as working class. This was a danger which she managed to sidestep because, unlike similar attempts to find out what blue collar life was “really like,” Ehrenreich’s was rooted in a Marxist humanism which insisted that the correct politics followed from an accurate understanding of people’s experiences.

In 1977, she, along with her husband and longtime collaborator, John Ehrenreich, coined the term PMC (professional managerial class). Motivated by frustrations at what she in a 2018 interview described as the “contempt” for many working class people held by leftists with college backgrounds, she insisted that, though fighting for socialism required cooperation between these different strata, the Left should be attentive to the differences in perspective which social backgrounds create.

Unequivocally, she maintained that such differences did not close off the possibility of politics, in some respects, it opened alternative perspectives. For instance, Ehrenreich at times took issue with the Left’s knee-jerk deference toward union leadership which, she argued, often came at the expense of the rank-and-file members.

A Product of the Postwar Era

Ehrenreich’s brand was a no-nonsense unstylized commitment to writing about the operations of late-twentieth-century American power, with labor always in sight. She wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects over five decades; but behind them all was a theoretical reflexiveness always motivated by the problem of what it takes for the middle class to not lose sight of the importance of the working class. Motiving this undertaking was the possibility of a more radical vision of America, one in which hope for labor might triumph over the banalities and violence of the corporate vision of the United States.

Ehrenreich was born in 1941 in Butte, Montana, where her family worked for generations in the nearby copper mines. Her father, who attended night school and later Carnegie Mellon University, would leave the world of blue-collar work to become a senior executive at the Gillette Corporation; such were the promises of postwar America. After he graduated, the family moved to Pittsburgh, New York, and Massachusetts, before they settled down in Los Angeles.

Ehrenreich herself followed the path of social mobility laid out by her parents. She studied physics at Reed College and went on to pursue a doctorate in cellular immunology at Rockefeller University. There she became involved in anti-war activism and the student movement, which she chronicles in her first book, cowritten with her first husband, John Ehrenreich, Long March, Short Spring, which weaves together the voices of the international student movements that erupted across the globe in 1968 without trying to force a general narrative.

The Ehrenreichs, less interested in the visions of the leaders of the movement than in the people that enacted that vision, set out with the aim of speaking to as many ordinary students as they could. The result was a story of how radicalism is produced in the university, and how it is rapidly co-opted by a system kept afloat by its close connection to business.

Against the Medical-Industrial Complex

Ehrenreich did not, however, confine herself to debates about the value and future of the academy. It was with the birth of her first child, Rosa, in 1970, that she underwent a political and personal transformation. Toward the end of her pregnancy, undergoing a pelvic examination at a hospital in New York, she recalls the condescending response that she faced by the head of the obstetrics department when she spoke knowingly — as a woman with a PhD in biology — of her own body. When Rosa was born, the physician induced labor so that the staff could go home; what she realized was that the medical profession often dismissed the concerns of women, regardless of their class position and education.

These experiences prompted Ehrenreich to get involved with the emergent feminist health movement, which changed the landscape of medical care in the 1970s for women. The grassroots movement campaigned for better health care and criticized the increasing medicalization of health. “I lost faith in conventional medicine,” she would write later in her career, “which, I had come to see, is more a collection of rituals than anything evidence-based.”

This new concern led to her cowriting, with her long-term feminist collaborator Deirdre English, the underground best-selling pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. This little book offered a more legible and condensed version of the history that Silvia Federici sketches out in Caliban and the Witch, and the wave of articles published in Ms. magazine on women’s health and feminism, which established Ehrenreich’s name.

Where many second wave feminists centered their analysis and organizing around what Betty Friedan would coin “the feminine mystique,” Ehrenreich continued to be interested in the class mystique. In her book, she revealed the class analysis that, though obscured, was at the heart of Friedan’s polemic. She also showed that sociology and feminism continued to take the middle-class subject as its default position, erasing the working class from view.

In 1976, Ehrenreich published “What is Socialist Feminism” in WIN Magazine, formerly Nonviolent Activist and publication outlet of the War Resisters League. It later became the signature statement of the Working Papers on Socialism and Feminism anthology by the New American Movement (NAM), of which Ehrenreich was a leader in the New York division. In the paper, Ehrenreich, who became a familiar figure in the socialist feminist circuits of the 1970s, argues for a “socialist feminist kind of feminism and a socialist feminist kind of socialism.”

For Ehrenreich, to ask what is the more powerful determinant in society — class or gendered exploitation, as if the two categories could be neatly parceled out and laid out on table of analysis — is to ask the wrong question about Marxism, an enquiry that can yield only “mechanical” answers. This was not merely a criticism of reductive forms of Marxism. Feminism, for Ehrenreich, must, too, acknowledge in its analysis of power the coercion of market dependency and private property: these form the social background in which male violence, explicit or implicit, takes place. Espousing a much bolder vision of socialism than that put forward by many contemporary leftists, primarily concerned with increasing the working class’s share of the collective pie, Ehrenreich wrote in her essay on feminism that, “we aim to transform not only the means of production,” she writes, “but the totality of social existence.”

Health continued to be a defining lens through which Ehrenreich sought to grasp class and gender. With John, she would coin the term medical-industrial complex in an article for the New York Review of Books in 1970. In her 2001 article “Welcome to Cancerland,” she once again uses her own body as a focal point to analyze the death cult of cute pink femininity around which a billion-dollar cancer industry has erected itself. “Almost all of the eye-level space has been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality,” she notes of the cancer waiting room. Sat in the waiting room she remarks to herself, “femininity is death.”

In Ehrenreich’s final book, Natural Causes (2018), she takes aim at the cult of wellness and the American obsession with the body-as-self. In it, she continued her line of skepticism about the medical profession, exposing the inanity of health sages and fitness gurus. Toward the end of the book, she unpicks the illusions that the cult of the body will protect us from the unknown. Briefly, Ehrenreich confesses, she was seduced by the communal possibilities and “enticing regressiveness” of a gym membership. But instead of play, companionship, and “the lost muscular license of youth,” all she finds are the demeaning military-style exercises that were introduced to control and humiliate bodies, alloyed to a PMC-inflected psychological warfare.

In this final book, Ehrenreich reflected on finality — of the need to push the self out of the center ground of action so that a more communal vision might come into view.

It is one thing to die into a dead world . . . . It is another thing to die into the actual world, which seethes with life, with agency other than our own, and, at the very least, with endless possibility. For those of us . . . who . . . have caught glimpses of this animate universe, death is not a terrifying leap into the abyss, but more like an embrace of ongoing life.

A humanist Marxist who always disavowed the dismissal of the meaning-making features of human existence by some sections of the New Left, Ehrenreich was guided by the principles of what makes a free life in America, and what kinds of freedom make life worth living.

It was these two principles that underpinned her often controversial writing on abortion and emotional labor. In “Owning Up to Abortion,” a 2004 New York Times op-ed, Ehrenreich acknowledges that the arguments about the seemingly firm legality of abortion obscure a broader emotional obligation forced onto women to feel guilt for choosing to not give birth. Today, returning to these essays, which call attention to the fragility of postwar progressivism, can feel cruelly prescient in the context of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

In the 1970s, women might have the right to control their bodies, Ehrenreich argues, but not the freedom to feel emotions without self-disgust. “It’s time to get past the guilt,” she writes. The right to make choices for oneself can, of course, bring anxiety and agony. Worse than “bad faith,” she wrote quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, is a fundamental denial of freedom in its truest sense, and all the responsibility that it entails: women must speak up for their rights, she concludes, because the “freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.”

Through the decades, the centrality of labor never slipped out of view for Ehrenreich. Again and again, she took us back to the question of what a capitalist economy does to our sense of selfhood. How did it effect the person scrubbing the floors, making the bed, working the machine? Anger and frustration runs through Nickel and Dimed, motivated by a simple question: Why is it so hard for the people at the top to recognize their dependency on the labor of others?

Throughout her life she continued to be interested in youth and in the newly emerging movements for social change. Her work is shot through with the generosity of working for the next generation. It insists on the value of the vision which spurred ’68 and refuses the melancholia which engulfed much of the Left in the postwar years.

In the preface of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies Vol 1, a text that locates the origins of Nazism in gendered violence, she advanced her own vision of socialism. This vision was of a world that is “the inversion of the fascists’ dread. Here, the dams break,” she writes, with an ecstatic fluency:

Curiosity swims upstream and turns around, surprising itself. Desire streams forth through the channels of imagination. Barriers — between women and men, the “high” and the “low” — crumble in the face of this new energy. This is what the fascist held himself in horror of, and what he saw in communism, in female sexuality — a joyous commingling, as disorderly as life. In this fantasy, the body expands, in its senses, its imaginative reach — to fill the earth. And we are at last able to rejoice in the softness and the permeability of the world around us, rather than holding ourselves back in lonely dread. This is the fantasy that makes us, both men and women, human — and makes us, sometimes, revolutionaries in the cause of life.