Barbara Ehrenreich obituary | Society books

While having lunch one day in the 1990s with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s magazine, and discussing whether it was possible to live on the lowest wages, Barbara Ehrenreich, who has died aged 81, leaned across the table and told Lapham: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it.”

Lapham smiled, perhaps thinking about the exploits of earlier US writers, Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, and George Orwell with his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London. He suggested the person who should do it was her.

It seemed an interesting idea for Ehrenreich, who had a fair share of academic honors, and a PhD in molecular biology, but was at the time carving out a new kind of radical journalistic career. Lapham warmed to the idea that she should try living on the wages available to the unskilled in prosperous America.

Out of 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. Proposing to spend one month in different locales, she presented herself to potential employers as a divorced homemaker re-entering the workforce. Then aged 57, she was rather older than the other women who were also seeking work as house cleaners, waitresses or shop assistants. Her PhD would not exactly help, and so it had to be suppressed.

She knew that she was only 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 that 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 which made her “special” was her inexperience.

What emerged from her research was an impressive and heartfelt analysis of the dilemmas confronting American women as she encountered them working in deadend jobs for $7 an hour, and an appreciation of why they did not fight for higher pay and better conditions for themselves and their fellow workers. She came to understand why poor, undereducated women, often carrying heavy debt burdens, could not risk their families being placed in a worse financial position by being summarily sacked for demanding more money or seeking representation by a union.

Born and brought up 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 (nee Oxley) and Ben Alexander. Her father studied at the Montana School of Mines and took a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He was a copper miner who became a senior executive at the 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 started on her PhD at Rockefeller University in New York City. With her husband John Ehrenreich, whom she married in 1966, she authored an account of the worldwide student movement, Long March, Short Spring (1969). It 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 would have a son, Ben), finding herself the only white patient in the public clinic. Her labor was induced, she felt, because the doctor wanted to go home. That experience made her a feminist.

She found work in New York as an analyst in the city’s Bureau of the Budget and moved to an assistant professorship at the Old Westbury campus of the State University of New York. The move from being a graduate student to a proper academic job, baby in arms, brought Ehrenreich into contact with other women similarly trying to balance parenting, academic research and full-time teaching.

Increasingly she turned towards the experience women had of the American health system. It became her primary research interest, and a collaboration with Deirdre English, a feminist journalist and academic, proved fruitful.

For the remainder of the 70s, Ehrenreich began to carve out a presence at conferences, and she was able to place essays, op-eds and feature articles in leading American newspapers and magazines, especially those, such as Mother Jones, with a radical readership . On campus and at events sponsored by the US government, she felt increasingly confident with her marketable mix of scholarship, advocacy and activism.

The women’s health movement was attracting wider interest, and Ehrenreich’s For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Experts’ Advice to Women (1978) was detailed and written with passion.

Ehrenreich wrote or co-authored more than 20 books, on a wide range of topics. Virtually no feminist advocacy group founded in the 70s 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 among the editorial board, which included Ehrenreich, Eric Foner, Lani Guinier, Tom Hayden, Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner, that the left’s stalwarts engaged with the most pressing issues 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 US, The Other America (1962), was designed to comfort the already comfortable and blamed those who were most disadvantaged by the US welfare system.

Ehrenreich argued that there was a double message in Harrington’s book: “we” – always the presumptively affluent readers – needed to find some way to help the poor, but that opened the floodgates to the idea forcefully urged by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in an influential report in 1965, that the heart of the problem lay in the “Negro family”, “clearing the way,” Ehrenreich argued, “for decades of victim-blaming”. Her relations with Harrington were difficult.

It was also in the Nation that in 2000 Ehrenreich published the essay Vote for Nader, which became one of the signal moments in the civil war between the American left and the Democratic party centrists, whose candidate, Al Gore, was in the process of losing his presidential bid to George W Bush.

In 2007 Ehrenreich donated an extensive archive of her career as an author, including correspondence and notebooks, to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library of the History of Women in America, in the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

She was divorced from 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.

Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and activist, born 26 August 1941; died September 1, 2022

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