I first met Barbara Ehrenreich about 50 years ago. I was a member of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and Barbara came to talk with a group of us about her pamphlet on women healers, “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses,”’ which later became a book. It was one of the first explorations in Second Wave feminism of women’s relationship to the health care system.
Barbara was dynamic and thoughtful at the same time. She brought a feminist perspective to all her work. A few years after that encounter I heard her speak at the 1975 Socialist Feminist Conference. The conference was initiated by the New American Movement (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations) and planned by representatives of the socialist feminist women’s unions around the country. Pacifica Radio has a recording of her talk.
She published an essay, What is Socialist Feminism in Working Papers on Socialism & Feminism published by the New American Movement (NAM) in 1976. She closes the article with this: “[T]here are crucial aspects of capitalist domination (such as racial oppression) which a purely feminist perspective simply cannot account for or deal with – without bizarre distortions, that is. There are crucial aspects of sex oppression (such as male violence within the family) which socialist thought has little insight into – again, not without a lot of stretching and distortion. Hence the need to continue to be socialists and feminists. But there is enough of a synthesis, both in what we think and what we do for us to begin to have a self-confident identity as socialist feminists.”
When NAM and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee merged to form DSA, Barbara became a co-chair of DSA alongside Michael Harrington. She represented the organization in her writing and speaking. She is best known for her book Nickel and Dimed for which she spent time in different locations around the United States working as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, nursing home aide, and at other low-paid “women’s jobs.” Throughout her career as a writer she talked about income inequality, sexism, and the forces that keep working people down.