Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Barbara Ehrenreich

I have more or less finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling and as I say, despite being somewhat dated – it came out in the late 1980s – this book really is worth reading, as it explains a great deal.

My early education was fraught with lessons about race and ethnicity. One needed fashions which would signal whiteness, not Mediterranean roots or immigrant status. They wore heels, we wore flats; they wore stockings or knee socks, we wore bobby socks; they had long hair, we had bobs; they wore eye makeup, we wore rouge and lipstick; they hinted at sensuality, we did not. That racial and ethnic identities were bound up with gender is quite clear here: it did not appear that men were in as much danger of falling out of whiteness as women.

It was very important not to be Southern. Southerners ate greens and grits, knew Jesus personally, said ‘pin’ for ‘pen,’ and did many other things we did not and could not if we were to be considered good, rather than bad white people. One grave offense of bad white people was membership in the working classes and having lower middle class tastes. So as to retain “upper middle class” status one must never, ever demonstrate any taste for working class items. At Chinese restaurants one must order only festive dishes, such as Peking Duck, and never everyday dishes, such as lo mein.

Thus did racial and regional markers shade into markers of class, the most important and most fraught of these categories. I remember long lectures on class identity. Members of white collar families were better people than members of blue and pink collar families, and this was not a matter of money but of tastes and mores. Families whose mothers did not work were superior to families whose mothers did. Doctors, lawyers, and professors were superior to businessmen and engineers, who were “in trade” and therefore truly vulgar.

Genteel people were “intellectual.” They drank milk and wine, not Coca-Cola and beer, and they had attended the symphony. Middle class or yet tighter economic circumstances might feel like poverty to such people, who were upper middle class by virtue of their souls’ contents if not their monetary situation. A genteel person must be sure to emulate the values of old, and never new money. And whether one had money or not it was important to operate as though one had it, not as though one needed to make it.

I did not understand why these lessons seemed so important to those imparting them, but the Ehrenreich book sheds some light on these matters. I also think one of the reasons so much effort was expended upon imparting this class identity was that it was expected to propel and enable us to marry up. We should learn ballroom dancing, horseback riding, tennis, sailing, so that if we were ever invited to do these things we could jump right in the saddle and fit in seamlessly with the rich.

Ehrenreich’s book seems to me – the lazy, recreational reader – to be better in the first than in the second half. This is partly because I am reading it to find out what went into my own education on class. It is also that the latter half is about what is to Ehrenreich, at the time of writing, “now,” and her interpretation of things from the eighties onward seems a little thin to me. But I find what she has to say about things through the seventies quite illuminating. I want to look again at that part of the book before saying I have finished this reading.


9 thoughts on “Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Barbara Ehrenreich

  1. Check out the comments thread on the previous post, Work Ethics, it is very relevant to this post.

    Incidentally, it made me wonder whether I had absorbed not middle class, but *upper* class values and prejudices while growing up.

  2. Very different from my upbringing. We had a frontier mentality. We were supposed to be toughened up, but still enjoy the things that brought vigour and pleasure. Horseriding was quite a big one, but so were other sports, especially swimming and diving. When I was 12 I read a national geographic story about someone who crossed the Australian desert using camels. It sounded very tough indeed, and because I wanted to be very tough, too, I began walking on all sorts of rough stones, intending to harden my feet, just in case a situation arose where someone compelled me to walk very far on foot in order to have an adventure.

  3. “I began walking on all sorts of rough stones, intending to harden my feet, just in case a situation arose where someone compelled me to walk very far on foot in order to have an adventure.”

    I always love this kind of attitude.

    I’d have loved to spend more serious time with my father’s family, humorous and frontier-like. We were brought up largely by my mother since she was the one at home, and it was her conversation which instilled this ideology. I do not know for sure what my father actually thought or felt, he spoke of these things less clearly.

  4. My heels used to become very thick and split at the back and sides. But this was nothing compared to the heels of a black worker. Those heels were thick indeed. Really deeply cracked.

  5. I’m almost always barefoot. Or I wear “slippas” (flip-flops). It does create a relaxed frame of mind.

    One of my favorite authors, Brian Aldiss, wrote a novel called *Barefoot in the Head.*

  6. I had a colleague who would go around the hall where the offices were in sock feet. It was an explicit call to maintaining a relaxed frame of mind, and a sign of rebellion.

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