Barbara Ehrenreich’s Singular Crusade
On July 9, the Raleigh News & Observer printed a full-page advertisement representing the views of a coalition of conservative students and state legislators. The ad billed as an “open letter” to state residents – lashed top officials of the University of North Carolina, who preside over a summer reading program for incoming freshmen. UNC-CHAPEL HILL DOES IT AGAIN, the ad proclaimed. INCOMING UNC CHAPEL HILL FRESHMEN ‘EXPECTED’ TO READ BOOK BY RADICAL SOCIALIST. The “radical socialist” was the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, and the book – “a classic Marxist rant” that “mounts an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism,” according to the ad – was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Ehrenreich replied to her critics in The Progressive, where she writes a regular column. What North Carolina residents ought to worry about, she insisted, is the misery in their own state: “Sixty percent of North Carolina families with children,” she wrote, “do not earn enough to meet basic, bare-bone needs.” She told a story about how her ex-husband had once noticed North Carolina workers at a union organizing meeting “covertly pocketing packets of Saltines left from a previous event.” Concluded Ehrenreich: “It’s not a pretty picture: Well-fed suits engaging in chest-thumping attacks on an expose about poverty while at least some of their constituents are basing their meal plans around soda crackers.”
Polemical jousting comes easily to Ehrenreich, but she has earned the right to preach about those who survive on soda crackers. For years, Ehrenreich wrote pugilistic, acerbic commentary for many leading publications – including Time, where she had a monthly column in the 1990s – but those pieces were usually written from the comfort of her desk; she was an armchair commentator on wealth and poverty, subjects that were never far from her mind.
In 1998, over a lunch of salmon and field greens with Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham, Ehrenreich, ruminating on welfare reform, wondered how four million former welfare recipients would survive on $6 or $7 an hour. “Someone,” she averred, “ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.”
Lapham, with a half-smile, replied in an instant: “You”
It was the beginning of a journalistic experiment that led her to abandon her comfortable home near the ocean in the Florida Keys. Between 1998 and 2000, Ehrenreich, describing herself as a divorced homemaker, took a series of low-wage jobs: as a waitress, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart clerk, all of which furnished the raw material for Nickel and Dimed, an intimate, impassioned piece of reportage published by Metropolitan Books in 2001.
Ehrenreich is hardly the first journalist to delve into the world of the poor. Nickel and Dimea fits neatly into a literary tradition that includes Jack London’s The People of’the Abyss (1903) and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). London and Orwell, who provided stunning descriptions of England’s slum dwellers and coal miners, respectively, endeavored to shatter the complacency of middle-class readers – to show them, in Orwell’s words, “a world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about.” Like Orwell, Ehrenreich wanted to shock her readers, and shame them, and show them “a world apart” – a beleaguered service-sector work force that, amid the sonorous reveries surrounding the New Economy, remains a smoldering “tinderbox of unmet needs and desires.”
Nickel and Dimed is not the work of a novice, but of a seasoned writer who has never studied journalism, never embraced objectivity, never held a full-time job with a news organization, and never relinquished her disdain for authority. And now she has become something of a household name with a runaway bestseller that focuses not on the Middle East or the war on terrorism but on what she sees as a “state of emergency” right here at home: the grinding poverty that affects millions of low-wage American workers.
Nickel and Dimed has sold more than 800,000 copies, but Ehrenreich still lives like a graduate student. The place she calls home is a modest townhouse in the suburbs of Charlottesville, Virginia. Since she spends most of her time on the road – she is a popular speaker on college campuses – she refers to the townhouse as her “pit stop.” The living room is littered with book manuscripts she has been asked to blurb, and assorted copies of The Progressive, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and The American Prospect. A “Kucinich for President” bumper sticker lies on the coffee table, next to a J.Crew catalog.
Ehrenreich moved to Charlottesville in 2001 to be near her thirty-two-year-old daughter, Rosa, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and her granddaughter, Anna, now two. (She also has a son, Ben, who writes for L.A. Weekly.) When Ehrenreich is in town, she will often, in the late afternoon, get in her Honda Civic – which bears a “Proud to be An American Against War” bumper sticker – and drive to Rosa’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Charlottesville, a place Rosa shares with her husband, the Yale literary critic Peter Brooks, who is currently teaching at UVA. The large drafty house sits on a twenty-acre plot in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As we pull into the driveway, and park near the walnut trees, little Anna appears on the porch. Ehrenreich, who is ordinarily extremely reserved, unleashes an odd yelp – “Anna!” – and dashes out of the car to scoop up her tiny, blond-haired granddaughter.
Ehrenreich herself was born Barbara Alexander in Butte, Montana, in 1941. Both of her parents were New Deal Democrats – “which is what blue-collar people were at one point,” she allows. Her father spent his early years as a copper miner, but attending school at night enabled him later to go to Carnegie Mellon. He went on to a successful career in the private sector, and was an executive for the Gillette Corporation at the time of his retirement. His was an unusual journey; few men escaped the mines of Butte. “He had some feelings of guilt (about having left men behind,” Ehrenreich says.
Ehrenreich’s mother, who was rather more political than her husband, offered her children two bits of wisdom: “Never vote Republican and never cross a union picket line.” Both her parents drank heavily, and her mother was plagued by depression. The circumstances of her mother’s death are murky; she may have committed suicide. “We don’t entirely understand how much was somewhat accidental and how much she consciously wanted to die,” Ehrenreich says calmly. “But she was healthy and she died.”
The family moved frequently when Ehrenreich was growing up. She went to high school in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Los Angeles, where she was a self-described “geek, nerd, dork,” a reader of Dostoevsky and Conrad, two of her favorite writers. She attended Reed College, drawn by the school’s bohemian reputation, and studied chemistry and physics; she then went to graduate school at Rockefeller University, where she earned a doctorate in cell biology in 1968.
The Vietnam War put an end to Ehrenreich’s budding career in science. One day in 1966, in a lab at Rockefeller, a fellow grad student lamented, “Damn, Barbara, they’re going to draft me! Let’s write a letter to the president.” Ehrenreich was quickly drawn into the world of antiwar activism in New York, and it was there that she met her first husband, John Ehrenreich. She got involved with a group known as Health PAC, which, from a small office in lower Manhattan, worked to expand health-care options for low-income New Yorkers. Ehrenreich contributed articles to Health PAC’s newsletter, and discovered a passion for writing and editing. In 1969 she and John published Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad. The book – which was dedicated to “the Vietnamese people” chronicled the effervescent student movements in Italy, Germany, England, and the United States.
In 1970 Ehrenreich gave birth to Rosa – who was named after Rosa Parks and Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary, as well as a great-grandmother – at a public clinic in New York. “I was the only white patient at the clinic,” Ehrenreich told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1987. “They induced my labor because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home. I was enraged. The experience made me a feminist.”
In the early 1970s, Ehrenreich turned her attention to the ways in which medical care had come to function as an instrument of social control. She produced two influential booklets with Dierdre English – Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers and Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness along with a book, For Her Own Good. These works were founding documents in the women’s health movement, and they laid the groundwork for Ehrenreich’s reputation as one of the preeminent feminist writers of her generation.
Ehrenreich’s mature literary voice – brisk, witty, mordant – took some time to develop; some of her early journalistic output is indistinguishable from cant. In 1974 she went to China as part of a delegation sponsored by the defunct New York newspaper The Guardian. Getting there wasn’t easy: they had to craft biographical essays for vetting by Chinese officials. In May 1974, Ehrenreich arrived in Canton at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, which she interpreted as a large-scale exercise in democratic participation.
In one Chinese town, the Americans gathered for ceremonial tea and were welcomed by a senior military official, who said to them: “When you go back to the United States, it is your job to create the armed revolution!” Ehrenreich chuckles when telling this story. The article she wrote for the September 1974 issue of Monthly Review, a New York-based Marxist journal, did not espouse anything like armed revolution, but it did put forth a rosy view of events in China, and it makes for uncomfortable reading today:
The disappearance of the Little Red Book is by no means a repudiation of Mao’s thought – quite the opposite. The Red Book was a shortcut to Mao Tsetung Thought; today there are no shortcuts. In the Movement to Criticize Lin Piao and Confucius everyone is urged to read the basic texts of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought for themselves. Peasants, formerly illiterate old people, young students, workers, are reading and discussing “The Critique of the Gotha Program,” “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” . . .
The essay contains not a word about the purges, executions, and show trials that characterized the Cultural Revolution; most of those events had preceded her visit by a few short years. Ehrenreich admits today that she was “not very aware” of those aspects of Mao’s rule. “I did notice, the one time we went to the university in Beijing, the faculty seemed really nervous,” she says. “Later I realized they must have been having a rough time.”
In the early 1970s, Ehrenreich joined the New American Movement (NAM), which arose from the ashes of Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was a melting pot of New Leftists and former communists, and the group engaged in strike support and union organizing, political strategizing and consciousness-raising. Ehrenreich has fond memories of those years: “It was fun. You’d stay up really late at night talking to people about political issues.” But, she adds, “there was a lot of crazy shit, too, in that time.” On one occasion, “two Long Island friends denounced me at a meeting in the 1970s. It was like a formal denunciation, like they’d learned this from reading about the Chinese Communists.”
By the latter part of the 1970s, theoretical questions about left-wing strategy and the shortcomings of classical Marxist theory – were very much on Ehrenreich’s mind. In 1977, in the journal Radical America, she and John published an essay entitled “The Professional-Managerial Class,” which was so controversial on the Left that it generated a book-length symposium, published in 1979. The essay was a portentous work of high theory in the Marxist tradition, and it stands as the Rosetta Stone that helps to translate the subjects she has written about through the years. “Why was the Left,” the Ehrenreichs asked in the symposium, “especially the white Left, which emerged from the ’60s, so overwhelmingly middle class in composition . . . ?”
It was an intriguing question. If not the proletariat, what class spawned young left-wing militants? The “professional-managerial class” (“PMC” for short), which the Ehrenreichs defined as “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production” – teachers, social workers, psychologists, writers, managers, engineers, foundation employees, etc. The essay endeavored, in a Sisyphean way, to remove the obstacles – condescension and elitism among them – that had historically impeded solidarity between working-class people and the PMC. The essay concluded that building a mass movement which seeks to “alter society in its totality” would depend “on the coming together of working-class insight and militancy with the tradition of socialist thinking kept alive by ‘middle-class’ intellectuals.”
That mass movement never materialized, and Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency. But Ehrenreich worked to keep socialist thinking alive. She did so with her journalism and her activism. In 1983 she became co-chair – alongside Michael Harrington – of Democratic Socialists of America.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Ehrenreich focused her energies on journalism, fine-tuning her prose style for publications like 7 Days (a short-lived Manhattan weekly), Ms., and Mother Jones, where in 1980 she shared a National Magazine Award for a piece on how drug companies dumped faulty contraceptives on poor nations. In 1983 she published The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, which garnered a favorable review in the New York Times Book Review. Shortly after that, Ehrenreich was standing in the kitchen of her home in Syosset, Long Island, surrounded by domestic chaos, when the phone rang. It was A.M. Rosenthal, editor of the Times. “I want you to do some writing for us,” he growled. Shortly thereafter, she began to contribute pieces to the paper’s Sunday magazine.
Money remained a continual problem. When she met her second husband, Gary Stevenson, in the late 1970s, following her divorce from John, he was earning $4.50 an hour as a warehouse employee. “We were really very borderline,” Ehrenreich says. She moved to a modest section of upscale Syosset in the early 1970s, drawn by a teaching job and the excellence of the local public schools. “There were things the kids could not have,” she recalls. “The saddest thing is that when the kids were really small we couldn’t afford the hundred dollars to join the community pool in Syosset in the summer. We couldn’t do that. And so we would go to the playground and we could hear all the kids splashing around.”
In 1989 Ehrenreich published Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, a book that expanded her work on the “professional-managerial class.” But if the original PMC essay gazed wishfully toward cross-class solidarity on the left, Fear of Falling gloomily depicted a professional-managerial class increasingly enamored of yuppie values and vulgar materialism. Much of Ehrenreich’s rhetorical firepower in the 1990s would be directed against those values and that materialism.
A book she began after Fear of Falling – Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War – remains closest to her heart. A hugely ambitious attempt to probe the human inclination toward violence, Blood Rites resulted from ten years of deep reading in history, anthropology, psychology, and archaeology. The bibliography overflows with sources like Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People and articles like “How Might Early Hominids Have Defended Themselves Against Large Predators and Food Competitors?” from the Journal of Human Evolution. “I was obsessed,” Ehrenreich explains, “boring all my friends with what I was learning, and I couldn’t stop. I was discovering new things.” Ehrenreich moved to the Florida Keys in 1994, and at one point had a terrifying encounter while swimming. “I kind of got sucked out by a riptide. I was having trouble and thinking, You must live! You have more to do on this book?’
Blood Rites was published, to enthusiastic reviews, in 1997, the same year Time allowed her contract to lapse. Time, partly on the strength of her essay collection, The Worst Years of Our Lives, which spent a week on the New York Times bestseller list, had offered her a monthly column in 1991. By 1997, however, a new regime, led by Walter Isaacson, was in place at Time, and her pieces were being rejected on a regular basis – “with the explanation that ‘it didn’t work for Walter.'” Her friends still lament the loss of her platform at Time. “I wish they weren’t so chickenshit,” says Peter Biskind, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. (Isaacson points out that “any new managing editor that comes in, he’s going to bring in new writers. I like Barbara and I respect her work”)
But Ehrenreich remained an occasional contributor to Time and, in November 2000, shortly after the presidential election, she wrote an essay entitled “Don’t Blame Me: I Voted for Nader as a Genuine Protest. If Gore Loses, He Did It All on His Own.” The essay was part of a loud journalistic drumbeat Ehrenreich mounted on Ralph Nader’s behalf, a campaign that upset many of her close friends, some of whom remain acutely sensitive to the aftershocks. Ehrenreich still maintains her Florida home, and Biskind went to visit her last winter. “Driving in her car with a Nader bumper sticker in Florida was a little bit, you know, heavy.”
These days, Ehrenreich, who cast her vote for Nader in Florida, offers what amounts to a half apology. “Bush did campaign as somebody quite different from what he is now,” she says, a bit defensively. If she knew then what she knows now, she admits, “Then I’d have voted for Gore.”
In all the places she worked during the research for Nickel and Dimed- Key West, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine – her goal was the same: to match income to expenses. “My challenge,” she says, “was not to become upwardly mobile, but just to see if I could make ends meet. If you can’t do that, you’ll never acquire the kind of stable existence that is required for upward mobility.” So Ehrenreich entered a parallel universe where her coworkers slept in cars, where the few affordable motels were frequently squalid, where talking – and even drinking water – were forbidden on the job.
Given Ehrenreich’s background as an essayist and critic, Nickel and Dimed was her first stab at reportage, and she found that she enjoyed it. “It’s a more heightened way of living, when you have to take in everything and look for absurdities and inconsistencies. I’d be pretty excited to write down my notes.” Her decision to craft a first-person narrative was a crucial one, for it transformed the book into what is essentially a memoir of her time in poverty. “Affluent people can read it and have me as a guide,” she says. “They’re looking through my eyes. They can see me make mistakes and do dumb things.” Robert Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and a close observer of the low-wage workplace, puts it a little differently: “It personalizes the plight of the poor in ways that bare statistics don’t.”
For Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed is something of a literary triumph. Her essays, while frequently incisive and hilarious, seem one-dimensional when read in large doses. And while her books are absorbing and original, the writing isn’t always stylish. Nickel and Dimed, however, shows us a veteran journalist at the very top of her game. The book has a sturdy architecture: four tight, compact chapters in which the prose achieves a perfect balance between wit, anger, melancholy, and rage. Her decision to write in the first person pays off again and again, as in this passage comparing writing and waitressing:
Not that I have ever felt 100 percent competent in the writing business, where one day’s success augurs nothing at all for the next. But in my writing life, I at least have some notion of procedure: do the research, make the outline, rough out a draft, etc. As a server, though, I am beset by requests as if by bees: more iced tea here, catsup over there, a to-go box for table 14, and where are the high chairs, anyway?”
Ehrenreich is superb on the capricious and demeaning aspects of low-wage work:
When, on a particularly dead afternoon, Stu [the manager] finds me glancing at a USA Today a customer has left behind, he assigns me to vacuum the entire floor with the broken vacuum cleaner, which has a handle only two feet long, and the only way to do that without incurring orthopedic damage is to proceed from spot to spot on your knees.
Her descriptions of the work itself often have a jarring, peculiar originality, as in a passage describing her toiletcleaning duties as a maid: “Let’s talk about shit, for example . . . For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains . . .”
A striking feature of immersion narratives like London’s People of the Abyss and Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier is the extent to which compassion and sympathy co-exist uneasily with revulsion and disapproval. Jack London possessed a deep empathy for the slum dwellers of turn-of-the-century England, but he still allowed himself to describe them as “stupid and heavy, without imagination.” Orwell, recalling his stay in a squalid lodging house in the industrial north of England, confessed: “On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me.” Passages of this sort tell us something about the immutability of class boundaries; but they also stand as examples of reportorial honesty and, in Orwell’s case, narrative sophistication.
Nickel and Dimed, too, is streaked with contradictory sentiments. Ehrenreich, for instance, writes with considerable feeling about Gail, a “wiry middleaged waitress” who can’t afford a security deposit for an apartment, so she sleeps in her car. “When I moved out of the trailer park,” Ehrenreich writes, in the closing lines of her waitressing chapter, “I gave the key to number 46 to Gail and arranged for my deposit to be transferred to her.”
But in many other places, Ehrenreich’s compassion degenerates into spite. An Alzheimer’s patient who threw milk on Ehrenreich is “a tiny, scabrous old lady with wild white hair who looks like she’s been folded into her wheelchair and squished.” A woman whose home is cleaned by Ehrenreich’s crew is “an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements.” At Wal-Mart the sight of an obese woman fills Ehrenreich with disgust. “Those of us,” she writes, “who work in ladies’ are for obvious reasons a pretty lean lot . . . and we live with the fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths.”
More illuminating, perhaps, is the anger Ehrenreich directs at some of her co-workers, especially the other maids in Maine, who are bereft of class consciousness and self-esteem. Indeed, the docility and fatalism of the working poor is a primary theme of the book: “For the most part,” she writes, “my coworkers seem content to occupy their little niche on the sheer cliff face of class inequality.” Even when injured on the job, they prefer to talk about recipes instead of retribution. There is a harrowing moment when “Holly,” a maid on her crew, falls into a hole and hurts her ankle; Ehrenreich insists that she get an X-ray immediately – and even calls for a “work stoppage” – but all Holly can do is whimper and go back to cleaning bathrooms on her injured ankle.
Holly’s passive response to her injury – she is, first and foremost, terrified of losing her job – leaves Ehrenreich in a red-hot fury: “All I can see is this grass fire raging in the back of my eyes.” At the end of the day, on the car ride home, Ehrenreich can think of nothing but the accident, but Holly, still reeling from the pain, “starts up one of those pornographic late-afternoon food conversations she enjoys so much. ‘What are you making for dinner tonight, Marge? … Oh, yeah, with tomato sauce?'” Marge, another maid, is previously described as someone “who normally chatters on obliviously about the events in her life (‘It was the biggest spider’ or ‘So she just puts a little mustard right in with the baked beans . . .’).”
These expressions of anger and frustration are the most honest and unsettling portions of Nickel and Dimed, honest because Ehrenreich – whose original PMC essay envisioned a working class that could “alter society in its totality” – despises blue-collar apathy, superstition, and conservatism; and unsettling because they remind us that the works of our most humane chroniclers of the poor – Jonathan Kozol, Katherine Boo, the late Michael Harrington possess a generosity of spirit that is not always evident in Nickel and Dimed.
Some reviewers have likened Nickel and Dimed to Harrington’s The Other America, but Ehrenreich herself resists the comparison. The Other America, published in 1962, was rapturously received in the Kennedy White House, and the book eventually did much to inspire the War on Poverty of the 1960s. “There was nothing magical like that” happening with Nickel and Dimed, she explains, owing to a very different political climate in Washington. “My moment of maximum influence was in the summer of 2001 when it first came out and I was invited to Washington to speak to a lunch of Democratic senators.” She also met with some progressive members of Congress. “I had all these Democratic senators and congresspeople listening to me, and nodding, ‘yes, yes, we must do something!’ I said to myself, ‘Wow, I am so influential!’ But then came 9/11 and they forgot all that.”
The book has inspired a lively discussion among poverty experts, academics, and journalists. The Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans asserts that Nickel and Dimed is “probably the best-selling book about poverty of the last quarter century.” In an otherwise critical review in The Washington Post, the Harvard scholar Katherine Newman, the author of a recent book on fast-food workers in Harlem, affirmed that “it forces the reader to realize that all the good-news talk about welfare reform masks a harsher reality.” Others, like the former Clinton administration official Peter Edelman, insist that Nickel and Dimed is raising public consciousness about low wages, rental housing costs, and other problems that afflict workers in the service sector. But Ehrenreich doesn’t seem eager to discuss the policy implications of her book, perhaps because her own view of government has evolved or regressed – over the last decade.
She outlined those views in a 1997 essay for The Nation entitled “When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist.” She argued that progressives must put an end to their “emotional co-dependency on government,” a reflexive impulse that is counterproductive in an age of conservative hegemony: “We’re not going to get anywhere,” she lectured her readers, “with a progressive agenda consisting of wonderful new government initiatives.” Ordinary people no longer trust the government, she insisted. For her, the last straw was “the repeal of welfare” in 1996.
To some extent, that sense of despair propelled her into Nader’s camp. “Her attitude is, ‘To hell with the two-party system, you have to go after the big economic interests and advocate directly for the poor and the working class,'” says the political analyst (and NAM veteran) Ruy Teixeira. “She’s fundamentally a class-oriented populist, who doesn’t really focus on what’s feasible or effective in politics. That’s why she supported Nader.”
If government is unwilling to guarantee a modicum of social justice for the poor, what, then, is to be done? In Ehrenreich’s view, aspirations for social change lie in grass-roots efforts like feminist health centers, tenant squats, cooperative enterprises, and aggressive trade unions. In May of 2001, following the publication of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich engaged in an online dialogue with the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who inquired about her “action plan for low-wage America.” She ticked off a list of government-sponsored initiatives, but with an air of hopelessness. Then, noting how unlikely government action is in this era, Ehrenreich urged readers to send checks to organizations like ACORN, which organizes welfare recipients and low-wage workers. Ehrenreich has given some of the proceeds from Nickel and Dimed to Jobs with Justice and the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, which do similar work.
Groups like ACORN and Jobs with Justice embody an old American tradition of working-class militance, and it makes perfect sense for Ehrenreich to support them. But it has to be noted that Ehrenreich generally writes for America’s “professional-managerial class,” not its working class. In a scorching April 2000 piece for Harper’s that emerged from her undercover work as a housecleaner in Maine, Ehrenreich – who lamented that employment of a maid was “nearly universal” among her friends – contended that paid housework should be abolished because it constituted nothing less than a betrayal of feminist principles: “Someone who has no qualms about purchasing rugs woven by child slaves in India or coffee picked by impoverished peasants in Guatemala,” she wrote, “might still hesitate to tell dinner guests that, surprisingly enough, his or her lovely home doubles as a sweatshop during the day.” The essay itself is many things – a furious polemic in the spirit of William Hazlitt or H.L. Mencken; a Swiftian “modest proposal”; a finger-wagging exercise in self-righteousness and wrongheadedness; and a somewhat chilly amalgamation of her socialist-feminist-utopian principles. Most of all, though, it is a rhetorical hand grenade aimed at the “professional-managerial class,” in whom she once invested some of her deepest hopes and dreams, but to whom she has now directed some of her most astringent and corrosive prose.
A few weeks ago, Ehrenreich drove to Kinkos to pick up some bound copies of the first draft of her next book, tentatively titled Obscene and Savage Rituals: The War Against Festivity. It’s a book that, in its scope, ambition, and intellectual rigor seems modeled on Blood Rites, though it has nothing to do with war; it deals with communal ecstasy. “It’s historical,” Ehrenreich explains. “It’s about the destruction of festivities, the stamping out of festivities. It starts in the ancient world, but much of the stamping out – big time, anyway – occurred in the last four centuries.”
Listening to her cool, analytical summary of the book, and glancing at the hundreds of scholarly citations that anchor the bibliography, one gets a sense of Ehrenreich as a giddy first-year graduate student who hasn’t yet descended into cynicism. She’s a quintessential bookworm, a ferocious autodidact – someone who, whatever her missteps and transgressions, commands our respect and attention. In three decades of journalistic labor, she has enlarged our knowledge of women’s health, the middle class, the origins of war, the male psyche, corporate chicanery, and political folly. American journalism has a way of absorbing and neutralizing its mavericks and nonconformists, but Ehrenreich remains the person she always was: ferocious feminist, irascible idealist, stubborn socialist.
Scott Sherman is a contributing editor to CJR. His profile of Seymour Hersh appeared in the July/August 2003 issue.
Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov/Dec 2003
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