None of the obituaries I have read of feminist fighter, activist, and writer Barbara Ehrenreich come close to capturing her significance to the movement, apart from the one penned by her lifelong friend Deirdre English for Mother Jones. Nearly all others give center stage to her powerful best-seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), a stirring undercover account of the appalling poverty, stress, and disrespect faced by the working poor, especially women. Written at the beginning of twenty-first century, it remains a shocking description of the obscene inequality characterizing our times. It is a book that any person of progressive leanings will applaud.
However, by the time Nickel and Dimed was published, Ehrenreich had already had a long career stretching back to the heyday of women’s liberation, when she’d left her indelible mark on the movement by battling to preserve within it the revolutionary socialist current initially at the heart of Western feminism. First and foremost she was, and remained, the archetypal socialist feminist. Like Sheila Rowbotham in the UK, Barbara helped shape its meaning, as part of an “internationalist anti-racist, anti-heterosexist feminism.” In her germinal essay “What is Socialist Feminism?” (1976), she explains that socialist feminists are distinct from classical Marxists in that they aim “to transform not only the ownership of the means of production, but the totality of social existence . . . women who seemed most peripheral [to Marxists], the housewives, are at the very heart of their class—raising children, holding together families, maintaining the cultural and social networks of the community.” She maintained this distinctive stance in all she said and did until her dying breath, having just turned eighty-one.
The very first time I met her, in the late 1970s, she was visiting me in North London at the Islington Community Press, where I helped produce an alternative local paper, committed to supporting the colorful diversity of radical grassroots struggles. “We must form an international conspiracy of feminist guerrillas,” Barbara laughed. Captivated by her witty, thrilling company, I soon visited my exciting new acquaintance in her home in Syosset, Long Island, meeting her charming children Rosa and Benjy, and her militant Teamster second husband Gary Stevenson. Later I would also stay in her lush home in Sugarloaf Key, Florida. I also had the huge pleasure of welcoming Barbara to my own home on several visits she made to London to promote the launch of her many books over the years. “How come you’ve kidnapped the sexiest men in London and got them holed up here servicing you?” she quipped, with characteristic exaggeration, surveying my collective household in the 1980s. Men sharing domestic responsibilities with women really met with her approval, since she feared that feminism might assist men in avoiding housework and caring responsibilities—that men would suddenly feel freer to abandon newly “independent” women.
This was a topic she tackled in one of her earlier books, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983). There she argued that even before women’s liberation, some men were cheerfully resisting domestic ties and duties, envious of the life they saw in Playboy, in whose pages women were still submissive, nurturing, and responsive, yet also financially independent. By the 1980s, with the arrival of recession and welfare cutbacks in much of the West, Barbara feared that feminism might have “freed men first,” leaving more women only a divorce away from chronic poverty, left trying to support themselves and their children without men’s higher wage. Always a personal inspiration, I often seemed to be following in Barbara’s footsteps: by the end of the decade, I was writing my own book about men after feminism, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (1990), although in it I didn’t fully share Barbara’s robust cynicism of men, since in the left libertarian households I knew household chore rotations and shared childcare were sacrosanct.
Within her career, The Hearts of Men was an outlier, however: Barbara’s heart always remained largely focused on women, especially the most oppressed and exploited. The point of her socialist feminism was not to waste her time berating men; she was happier poking fun at what she saw as the residual pathetic “rubble of patriarchy.” In one of her late articles for The Baffler, “Patriarchy Deflated” (2018), she encouraged any woman to “laugh out loud at every instance of male and class-based pomposity,” while pondering “what a world shaped by the female pursuit of pleasure might look like.”