Barbara Ehrenreich
By: Amanda French | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Barbara Ehrenreich

2009 photo by the National Organization for Women from now_photos at Flickr.com

BARBARA EHRENREICH’s (born 1941) most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), is an early example of the stunt memoir, a well-researched essay on the working poor, and a rousing leftist call to arms (or at least empathy); but the best thing about it is that in addition to chronicling the difficulties of trying to live on $7 an hour, Ehrenreich really gets into the work itself. She and her co-workers slip the customers more croutons on their salad than they’re supposed to, worry that the half-bucket of water the maid service dictates isn’t enough to get the floors clean, and get proprietary over the organization and tidiness of the White Stag and Jordache areas in the Wal-Mart. Even when doing “unskilled” labor in humiliating working conditions for a humiliating wage, and even, or especially, when corporate policy stands in the way, waitresses, maids, and retail staff take pride in their work. Ehrenreich should take pride in her work, too. Although she earned a Ph.D. in cellular biology in 1968, she became a tireless feminist and union activist, and she was a well-known contributor to The Nation for many years. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, she wrote very funny and trenchant things about the hyper-feminization of breast cancer discourse. Thank heavens Ehrenreich survived both the cancer and the kitsch: she still has a lot of cultural and political work to do, and there’s no one better fit to do it.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Peggy Guggenheim.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).

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Amanda French is a Research Assistant Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. She likes to write now and then about how the study of literature and history is being changed by technology, or sometimes just about literary history.