Barbara Ehrenreich on Feminism, the Occupy Movement and More

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 abor­tionIt’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 internsWhen 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 activistsI 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 changeTwo 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 boot­strapsThere’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 impactI 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 lead­ersITT: 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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