Authors: Deirdre English

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American feminist and critic

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, 1973 (booklet; with Barbara Ehrenreich)

Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, 1974 (booklet; with Ehrenreich)

For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women, 1978 (with Ehrenreich)

Biography

The career of Deirdre Elena English reflects the activist ethics of the 1960’s and 1970’s in which it began: No matter how eclectic the subjects, her writing, teaching, and editing all stem from the same concerns and work toward the same goals. Primarily known as a feminist, English also serves as a critic and conscience in areas such as harmful activities of corporations and shortcomings of the American government. She comments on topics from the history of medicine to gender and sex in the works of Robert Crumb.{$I[A]English, Deirdre}{$I[geo]WOMEN;English, Deirdre}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;English, Deirdre}{$I[tim]1948;English, Deirdre}

English’s early life prepared her to be both politically aware and comfortable in many intellectual areas. Her mother, Fanita English (née Blumberg), was a psychotherapist and writer; her father, Maurice English, was a poet and publisher. Deirdre graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1970 and received her master’s degree in social welfare (M.S.W.) from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1975.

From 1971 to 1975, English taught courses in American studies and women’s studies at the College at Old Westbury, part of the State University of New York system. In 1972 she co-taught a course titled “Women and Health” there with Barbara Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D. in biology. They wrote in the authors’ note in For Her Own Good:

Perhaps because we are not professional historians (or social scientists of any kind), we approached this material in a spirit of fresh discovery. We had the feeling that we were uncovering a long-suppressed story. One which had the power to explain many things about our own present-day experience as women.

English and Ehrenreich began self-publishing their research in 1972 as an illustrated booklet, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers; they mailed out copies from a kitchen-table office. The demand was surprisingly large and outstripped the authors’ abilities to print and mail copies. The Feminist Press in Old Westbury, New York, published that booklet in 1973, and a second booklet by English and Ehrenreich, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, in 1974. Despite the lack of any advertising, the two publications spread widely and with strong effects: They became texts for courses from women’s studies to nursing and were reviewed and excerpted in publications from academic journals to The Village Voice. Five foreign editions have been published.

Meanwhile, English had begun writing for Mother Jones, a leftist-progressive magazine founded in San Francisco in 1974, and for Socialist Review. She also produced and directed socially aware short films: D.C. III in 1971, which won first prize at the Film Festival for Peace in Vietnam in 1972; and The Year of the Tiger in 1974. That same year, she and Ehrenreich began expanding their two booklets, with the help of the burgeoning women’s health movement. English became an instructor in women’s studies and psychology at National Congress of Neighborhood Women’s College, Brooklyn, in 1976; she continued to write pieces with both academic and popular appeal, such as a chapter in Seizing Our Bodies: The Politics of Women’s Health, edited by Claudia Dreifus and published by Vintage Books in 1977.

For Her Own Good: One Hundred FIfty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women was published by Anchor Press in 1978, culminating the work of English and Ehrenreich on that topic. The book combines meticulous research, profound insight, and witty, accessible writing. It draws together work from many fields, from literature to the history of medicine, to derive acute observations about gender, social class, and the transformation of healing from an art to a commodity. The afterword allows the authors to assess briefly the issues of their time and outline better alternatives for the future.

After relocating to the West Coast, English edited Mother Jones magazine from 1980 to 1986. She took over just as the magazine hit its stride, with major national attention to its exposés of dangerous design in the Ford Pinto and of sales in developing nations of products deemed unsafe in the United States. English states, about herself and Ehrenreich in a “sidelight” to the entry about her in Contemporary Authors, “we don’t think of ourselves only as writers, but as women who want to help bring about change–in the medical professions, and in the publishing industry, too–that might help to do women in general some real good.”

English’s contributions to various periodicals have been steady and influential, including pieces in magazines such as Ms., The Nation, and Vogue, and in newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. Many of these pieces are reviews that go beyond the immediate work in question, examining the political and social issues around it. She also became known as a commentator on radio and television and in film, appearing in the movie Crumb (a 1994 documentary about the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his family) and contributing regularly to KQED in San Francisco. As of 2002, English served on the faculty of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, where she taught classes on long-form writing and was one of four directors of the Editing Workshop, a rigorous course in revising one’s own writing.

Deirdre English, along with her coauthor Barbara Ehrenreich, played a major part in a movement that not only changed the way people viewed relations between men and women but also provoked intellectual investigation of gender, class, social, and political outlooks and biases previously taken for granted. She and her peers came from established leftist-progressive stock, preparing the ground for political concern in postmodern times.

BibliographyHollibaugh, Amber L. “Talking Sex: A Conversation on Sexuality and Feminism [1981].” My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. An interview in which Hollibaugh, English, and Gayle Rubin question one another on sex, violence, pornography, and feminism.Robbins, Sonia Jaffe. Review of For Her Own Good, by Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich. The Village Voice, February 5, 1979. Review gives background information about the book’s authors.
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