Sociologist and best-selling author
A discussion of her books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, in conjunction with the Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students (ACES) research symposium
March 25, 2009 · 7:30 pm · Rosebud Theatre (University Center)
Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941, when Butte was still a bustling, brawling, blue collar mining town. Her father was a miner, and the other men in her family were either miners or railroad workers (the women were homemakers). What distinguished her father is that he managed to get a degree from the Butte School of Mines and thus embark on the career that took the family from Butte to Pittsburgh PA, New York, various places in Massachusetts and finally Los Angeles.
By the time Ehrenreich was in her mid-teens, her family had achieved middle class status, and she was able to go to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She started out majoring in chemistry but after a couple of years decided she would only get to the bottom of things with physics. She did well enough to get into grad school at Rockefeller University in theoretical physics. But within a year she realized she was gravely under-prepared and switched to molecular biology, and from that to cell biology.
Meanwhile, she'd gotten caught up in the anti-Vietnam war movement and was beginning to question whether she wanted to spend her life in a laboratory. After finishing her PhD in cell biology, she gravitated into activism, joining a tiny nonprofit in New York City that advocated for better health care for the city's poor. One of things the group did was put out a monthly bulletin, and Ehrenreich found herself enjoying doing investigative stories for it. There was no decision to become a writer; that was just something she started doing.
What prepared her for writing? Probably the main thing was that she'd always been a big reader. By reading "the classics" while she was growing up and good fiction ever since, she developed an ear for the language and what can be done with it. Then, too, science played a role: One thing she learned in her dilettantish bopping around from one scientific discipline to another is that she can learn almost anything if she tries hard enough. So she's never been afraid to take on any assignment that came her way.
With the birth of her first child in 1970, she underwent a political, as well as a personal, transformation. She'd never thought much about her gender, but the prenatal care she received at a hospital clinic showed her that PhD's were not immune from the vilest forms of sexism. Bit by bit, she got involved with what we then called the "women's health movement," advocating for better health care for women and greater access to health information than we had at that time. This new concern led to the "underground bestseller," a little pamphlet called Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, co-authored with her friend Deirdre English.
A couple of years later she quit her teaching job at the State University of NY, Old Westbury and become a full-time writer. Financially rough times followed. Her partner at the time was a blue collar worker making about $6/hour (though he rose within a few years to become a union organizer) and she was lucky to earn a few hundred dollars for an article. Her big break was a feature story for Ms. magazine on the myth that feminism causes heart disease—a subject well-suited to her science background. It became a cover story, and more assignments followed. In the eighties she had columns in Ms. and Mother Jones, which provided some small, but reliable, income between assignments.
Her work life settled into three tracks, which continue to this day: (1) Journalism, generally essays and opinion pieces, now blogs. (2) Book-length projects on subjects which may not make any money but fascinate her and give her life some intellectual continuity. Before Nickel and Dimed, her books included For Her Own Good: 200 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (with Deirdre English), The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Kipper's Game (a science fiction novel), and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. (3) Activism on such issues as health care, peace, women's rights, and economic justice.
In 1998, Ehrenreich veered off from essay-writing for the reporting that led to the book Nickel and Dimed. This was a totally new experience for her as a writer. She had never done much reporting before, and certainly not in the first person. But she found that she loved that kind of writing, at least enough to do a second reported book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, based on her experiences as an undercover white-collar job seeker.
Each of these books changed her life in important and unexpected ways. Nickel and Dimed plunged her into the nascent living wage movement, traveling to union rallies, picket lines and organizing meetings around the country. Once terrified of public speaking, she became comfortable addressing crowds through a bull horn, with no notes at all. She got arrested at a protest with Yale workers; she joined picket lines with hotel workers in Santa Monica and janitors in Miami; she leafleted for a living wage in Charlottesville and marched with ACORN in Michigan.
Bait and Switch inspired her to do something totally new: try to build an organization for unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white-collar workers. Her research on the book showed her that college-educated workers are extremely vulnerable to downward mobility, and often end up in the kinds of low-wage jobs she had done for Nickel and Dimed. With some help from the Service Employees International Union, a group of people she met while on her book tour, launched United Professionals in 2006 (unitedprofessionals.org). The organization is still small and struggling, but hoping to build a response to the "war on the middle class" that is undermining so many lives.
Meanwhile, curiosity has kept pulling Ehrenreich in different directions. She's just published Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, a scholarly book that she began many months before she started the research for Nickel and Dimed. It's a sweeping book about festivities and ecstatic rituals: their roots in human evolution and the history of their repression by elites from ancient times to the present. She's now researching for a book on what she calls "the cult of cheerfulness," which requires Americans to "think positively" rather than to take positive action for change.