Barbara Ehrenreich: Groundbreaking Critic of U.S. Health Care

Barbara Ehrenreich died on September 1, 2022 at age 81. Coming from working-class roots, she was celebrated as an author, most notably for her 2001 Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which dealt with the working lives of low-wage women workers. Working at these jobs herself to understand them better, she wrote a powerful report about the many hardships faced by the people who do these jobs every day. But Barbara was much more than a public intellectual and an author of numerous hard-hitting books and essays of social and political commentary. She was a renowned socialist feminist activist, an early leader of the Democratic Socialists of America, and most important for me, a pioneering critic of our health care system.  

Along with Deirdre English, Barbara co-wrote the groundbreaking pamphlets, “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers” (1972) and “Complaints and Disorders:  The Sexual Politics of Sickness” (1973). The first focused attention on the historic role of women as healers and of their oppression and subjugation by an always threatened and threatening white male hierarchy throughout the ages. And the second focused on women’s care experiences in a class-based, racist, and sexist system. Barbara was also a staff member and on the editorial board of the Bulletin of the Health Policy Advisory Center (Health -PAC) which was published in the 1970s and 1980s and was an important resource for us, when we were young health care activists learning about the system while fighting to change it. Along with her then-husband, John Ehrenreich, she wrote the book The American Health Empire (as another Health-PAC document, 1971), which detailed the growing influence of corporations in the medical care system. A half century before the current destructive impact of private equity’s invasion of our health care system, Barbara was warning about the corrosive influence of the profit motive, sexism, and racism in the financing, organization, and delivery of  U.S.medical care.

On a personal note, I was fortunate to have known and worked with Barbara when she was a co-chair along with Michael Harrington of the Democratic Socialists of America. I served on the DSA National Board with her in the 1980s and observed and learned from her up close. I have fond memories of many conversations with her and remember her warmth, authenticity, humility, intelligence, and sardonic wit. She did not suffer fools gladly, though, and was even less tolerant of know-it-all men. Some of my favorite memories will be of Barbara cutting down to size some of the more arrogant male activists and leaders, long before “mansplaining” was a term.

In her own moving essay on Barbara’s passing, Deirdre English wrote in Mother Jones magazine, “Mother Jones said, ‘pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’ But Ben Ehrenreich [her son] wrote that Barbara ‘…wasn’t much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another and fighting like hell.’”

The last thing Barbara would want is for us to feel sorry for ourselves about her passing from this world. She would urge us to carry on, no doubt ending with a witty remark. We can best honor Barbara by continuing to do the long-term hard work to create a more accessible, high quality, equitable, and affordable health care system as part of the larger effort of creating a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.