Barbara Macdonald was born in Pomona, California and grew up in La Habra, California. When she was 15, she left home and began to support herself as a domestic worker in Long Beach, California.
She attended Long Beach Junior College from 1931-1932 and Santa Ana Junior College from 1932-1937. She was nearly expelled from Santa Ana Junior College for being a lesbian. She later attended University of California, Berkeley, from 1938-1940 where she supported herself as a stunt parachute jumper. She had a brief marriage to John Macdonald in 1941, where she received her last name.
After graduating from Berkeley, she had a job at the WPA Vallejo Housing Authority. She later attended the University of Washington from 1950-1953 where she received her bachelors and a masters of social work. She moved to Wenatchee, Washington and had a job as a supervisor in Child Welfare Services. Macdonald would work as a social worker for most of her adult life.
Macdonald began to think differently about aging in the late 1970s. When she was at a march in New England in 1978, she began to fall behind. The marshal of the parade noted her age and told her to move to another part of the line because she couldn't keep up. The incident taught Macdonald that pride in strength is false pride because as people age, they become weaker. Macdonald decided not to feel shame at being physically weak and instead realized that she needed to fight against ageism.
In 1974, she retired as a social worker and during that same year, she met her partner, Cynthia Rich who was teaching a feminist workshop that Macdonald attended. Rich and Macdonald would be together for twenty-six years.
In 1983, Macdonald and Rich, published Look Me in the Eye: Women, Aging and Ageism . In 1985, Macdonald gave a pivotal speech at a national Women's Studies conference, where she continued to express her idea that ageism is an important feminist issue where old women are denied humanity and are reduced to stereotypes. She had fought for four years prior to get her speech realized at the conference and for the organizers to include the topic of aging.
Macdonald was invited to talk at many different organizations throughout her life, including universities, social worker organizations and to "lesbian and feminist audiences." She was also invited to speak on international panels at the Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) forum at the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing. Many of Macdonald's "finest speeches never made their way into print, and many of her best speeches and articles were never collected in a book."
Macdonald suffered from "debilitating memory loss" in the last four years of her life. She died of Alzheimer's disease.