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Thursday, Jan 23, 2014, 1:21 pm

Barbara Ehrenreich on Feminism, the Occupy Movement and More

By Mike Elk

Barbara Ehrenreich, pictured here at a New York City event, recently spoke in Washington, D.C. about the history and future of the progressive movement. (David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

Back in August, writer and investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at a fundraiser to save the Lamont Street Collective, a cooperative living house that has existed for nearly 40 years in the traditionally mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood of Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C.

Mount Pleasant has long served as a lefty enclave in D.C.’s political scene. But its rich history is being threatened by a flood of rich Washingtonians moving into the neighborhood. As the Lamont Street Collective’s landlords attempt to sell the house, the battle to save it has become emblematic of the neighborhood’s broader resistance to gentrification. On August 15, Ehrenreich appeared at the event to show her solidarity. Amid demonstrating support for the co-op, Ehrenreich spoke about feminism, inequality and what she sees as the future of the progressive movement. Walker Bristol transcribed her remarks.

Taking the shame out of abortion

It’s appalling what’s going on with abortion. On the right, [it seems like there’s] a race to be the first state to close all its clinics. As an activist myself, I always say we should quiver in the face of this stuff. We don’t have to hide behind the word “choice.” We can say the choice we want to be available is abortion. We also care about other things, like safe childbirth, prenatal care, care for infants—all of those things too—but we have to say that word, “abortion,” and not be ashamed of that.

And for the record, I’ve had two abortions in my life. This is something that made sense to me at the time, in large part because I had already had two children who I had to support and take care of. I think we have to be pretty bold in the face of this.

I also think there’s a tradition in the women’s health movement that we need to revisit: In the late '60s, before abortion was legalized anywhere in this country, some laywomen were performing abortions safely. If need be, we go back [to that]. We go underground. We can do it. We are not talking about rocket science. This bullshit in Virginia—that every abortion clinic has to meet hospital standards—has made abortion more intimidating. We have to assert that this is something women can do. 

Feminists challenging the status quo

[Feminists] want a very profound change. We don’t want just to make things fairer. For example, we don’t just want to eliminate stop-and-frisk because it’s racially discriminatory in the way it’s executed, but because that shouldn’t happen to anybody, period. We don’t wanna get a few women into billionaire positions in Silicon Valley; we want to end that corporate hierarchy. We envision the most profound changes.

And yet, I’m happy with the smallest reform. I figure: How do we build from this?

Unpaid interns

When you have all the left-wing publications relying on free intern labor, and you have to be an intern to get a foothold in the industry, that means that only rich kids can go down that path! Only they can get the foot in the door, because they have someone to support them while they work for free. And that is not good, for no other reason than that.

Career paths for young activists

I don’t have a career. Never did. It's been really important to do whatever I feel like doing at the time. And this has sometimes [meant] being a writer, sometimes being a speaker, or sometimes being a waitress. That’s what I do.

I keep trying to get this across. I was approached by a couple of sociology grad students last week at a meeting, and they were like, “How do we start our careers?” I said, “Forget your careers.” There are no careers. First of all, nobody’s going to hire you. That solves that problem, right there. There are no jobs. So do what needs to be done, and it will come along. Believe me.

I’ve been an activist for 50 years or more. It started in the anti-war movement in the ‘60s, then sort of segued into the women’s movement—especially women’s healthcare issues—then sort of moved on into more economic issues. I’m leaving out a few things, I’m sure.

For me, being an activist has meant writing, researching and going to way too many meetings. But it’s also been about going door-to-door, standing on the street corner with fliers and doing very grassroots things, too. So I think I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve formed in all that an idea of how to bring about social change.

In my experience, in my tradition—and I think I would include the civil rights movement in this tradition too—you start wherever you are. You start with two people, then three people, then a dozen; you hold outreach meetings. You get big enough, and then you can form a coalition with somebody else in the community, or on campus, or wherever you are. Over time, you build up, and you become something to reckon with, something that can actually make concrete changes—whether that’s done by lobbying, electoral politics or actions in the streets. This has just been the model: Be patient, start where you are, and build.

The neoliberal order forces change

Two or three years ago, [that slow-growing model] started to change. We began to see revolutions—massive movements—that seemed to come from nowhere. We’re talking about something that started with a Tunisian street vendor who committed suicide because of the way he was harassed by police in the street, which led to the Egyptian revolution. And as far as I can tell—and I welcome a long discussion on this—that Egyptian revolution inspired Occupy. 

We also saw what happened in Bahrain, in Syria and Spain. In June 2013, we had Turkey and Brazil. That whole model of gradualism—of going from six people to 12 people and so on, and then maybe getting to the point where you actually have a newsletter—that’s been thrown into question in my mind. Things are happening by contagion, as it were, globally. Some have not turned out so well at all. I mean Syria, and possibly Egypt, is very worrisome, of course. I’m not gonna go into that, but changing a government is a big thing to do.

Of course, part of what’s going on is the internet and social media, allowing activists to get the word out. But there’s another thing that’s happening now that’s inspiring these sorts of things, and that is [what] my sociologist friend Francis Fox Piven calls “neoliberal predation.” All over the world, there has been a mentality on the part of what we call the 1 percent that the whole world’s going to hell, so let’s get what we can while we can, by any means possible.

No more bootstraps

There’s no ladder out of poverty here. There’s no welfare state reaching out a hand. You can start with a very small problem, like a debt. Somebody goes after you. You get a court summons, or perhaps you fail to appear—because maybe that court summons was just never delivered, or you changed your address, or you don’t have a fixed address. Now, there’s a warrant out for your arrest. Then when they pull you in, you’re gonna have to pay the court costs for the processing of your problem, and now—and this is so bizarre that I have a hard time even saying it—more jails around the country are charging room and board for your stay on the premises. So once you start to spiral down, you can go really fast with nothing to stop you. And all along the way, there are going to be these forces to accelerate your fall.

There is a growing class worldwide of college-educated people who are unemployed or underemployed. In Brazil, the people protesting the street were members of that class. So were people in Occupy, blue-collar people, chronically homeless people and so on.

We can connect the dots about what that has to do with the so-called neoliberal predation, but in this country one of the ways it’s manifested itself in our lives is that college education has been a way of manufacturing debtors. And I’m all for education, learning, and all that, but when you go to college, you’re being trained to be a debtor. You’re being inducted into a lifetime of debt.

Nickel and Dimed’s lasting impact

I get letters all the time [about Nickel and Dimed] from people who say, “This is my life.” They have never seen those experiences in print treated as something important. Now, on the other hand—and I feel no need to defend myself on this—I’ve also had a response from someone, a more blue-collar member of my family, who said, “Well I read your book Nickel and Dimed, Aunt Barb, and what’s new? What the news in it? Everybody knows this.” I said, “Mike, you know, that’s fine. I wasn’t writing it for anybody.” I wasn’t saying that I’m waiting for this kind of audience or that kind of audience. I actually can’t do that.

But I think it’s hard to measure its impact. I’m very proud that it was able to feed into the living wage movement, which was just lifting off at the time that the book came out. The book didn’t inspire the movement—that was already happening—but it was adopted by the living wage groups and by some unions.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Santa Fe, N.M., which recently raised the city minimum wage to more than $10.50 an hour. Not enough to live on, but you know, that’s way above $7.25, the federal minimum. And the fact that they used Nickel and Dimed in that campaign—that I was able to go there and speak in their fight to raise the minimum wage—I’m very proud of how [the book] fed into that in some way.

Top-down union leaders

ITT: What do you think of union presidents who make six-figure salaries and top-level deals?

Barbara: It was C. Wright Mills who wrote about this so brilliantly in the ‘50s: the idea that the unions had to be majestic and the union guys had to look like businessmen to show that they’re strong too. No. They’re whipped. They’ve been very badly whipped.

There are bright spots right now, like fast-food workers, and the emergence of the organizers at Our Walmart. But it is unseemly now to have any [illusion] of majesty,of wealth, associated with a movement that is being so beaten and whose members are being improperly and inadequately represented within their own institutions.

ITT: Do you worry about possibly corrupt institutions leading the fight for workers?

Barbara:  You know, one thing I say when I’m talking to workers who are considering unionizing or something is to say, “Remember, you don’t have to go to an existing union.” You can form an association that you run—it won’t have any big building, but it’ll be you. You have the right to do that. American Airline flight attendants: they’re an association. [A] lot of clerical workers down at the University of California-Berkeley: they’re all their own independent association. Don’t rule that out. And I say, if you do go into something [like a major union], you’ve got to your eyes open. You might have to form a caucus inside of it. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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