Barbara Ehrenreich

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Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich in 2006
Ehrenreich in 2006
BornBarbara Alexander
(1941-08-26)August 26, 1941
Butte, Montana, U.S.
DiedSeptember 1, 2022(2022-09-01) (aged 81)
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
  • Social critic
  • journalist
  • author
  • activist
GenreNonfiction, investigative journalism
(m. 1966; div. 1977)
Gary Stevenson
(m. 1983; div. 1993)

Barbara Ehrenreich (/ˈɛərənrk/, AIR-ən-rike;[1] née Alexander; August 26, 1941 – September 1, 2022) was an American author and political activist. During the 1980s and early 1990s, she was a prominent figure in the Democratic Socialists of America. She was a widely read and award-winning columnist and essayist and the author of 21 books. Ehrenreich was best known for her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a memoir of her three-month experiment surviving on a series of minimum-wage jobs. She was a recipient of a Lannan Literary Award.

Early life[edit]

Ehrenreich was born to Isabelle (née Oxley) and Ben Howes Alexander in Butte, Montana, which she describes as then being "a bustling, brawling, blue collar mining town".[2] In an interview on C-SPAN, she characterized her parents as "strong union people" with two family rules: "never cross a picket line and never vote Republican".[3] In a talk she gave in 1999, Ehrenreich called herself a "fourth-generation atheist".[4]

"As a little girl", she told The New York Times in 1993, "I would go to school and have to decide if my parents were the evil people they were talking about, part of the Red Menace we read about in the Weekly Reader, just because my mother was a liberal Democrat who would always talk about racial injustice."[5] Her father was a copper miner who went to the Montana School of Mines (renamed Montana Technological University in 2018[6]) and then to Carnegie Mellon University. After her father graduated from the Montana School of Mines, the family moved to Pittsburgh, New York, and Massachusetts, before settling down in Los Angeles.[7] He eventually became a senior executive at the Gillette Corporation. Her parents later divorced.[citation needed]

Ehrenreich originally studied physics at Reed College, later changing to chemistry and graduating in 1963. Her senior thesis was titled Electrochemical oscillations of the silicon anode. In 1968, she started a Ph.D program for theoretical physics, but changed early on to cellular immunology and received her Ph.D at Rockefeller University.[7][8]

In 1970, Ehrenreich gave birth to her daughter Rosa in a public clinic in New York. "I was the only white patient at the clinic, and I found out this was the health care women got," she told The Globe and Mail newspaper in 1987, "They induced my labor because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home. I was enraged. The experience made me a feminist."[9]


After completing her doctorate, Ehrenreich did not pursue a career in science. Instead, she worked first as an analyst with the Bureau of the Budget in New York City and with the Health Policy Advisory Center, and later as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

In 1972, Ehrenreich began co-teaching a course on women and health with feminist journalist and academic Deirdre English. Through the rest of the seventies, Ehrenreich worked mostly in health-related research, advocacy and activism, including co-writing, with English, several feminist books and pamphlets on the history and politics of women's health. During this period she began speaking frequently at conferences staged by women's health centers and women's groups, by universities, and by the United States government. She also spoke regularly about socialist feminism and about feminism in general.[10]

Throughout her career, Ehrenreich worked as a freelance writer. She is arguably best known for her non-fiction reportage, book reviews and social commentary. Her reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times Book Review supplement, Vogue,, TV Guide, Mirabella and American Film. Her essays, op-eds and feature articles have appeared in Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Life, Mother Jones, Ms., The Nation, The New Republic, the New Statesman, In These Times, The Progressive, Working Woman, and Z Magazine.[10]

Ehrenreich served as founder, advisor or board member to a number of organizations including the National Women's Health Network, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse, the Nationwide Women's Program of the American Friends Service Committee, the Brooklyn-based Association for Union Democracy, the Boehm Foundation, the Women's Committee of 100, the National Writers Union, the Progressive Media Project, FAIR's advisory committee on women in the media, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and the Campaign for America's Future.[10]

Between 1979 and 1981, she served as an adjunct associate professor at New York University and as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia and at Sangamon State University (Now University of Illinois, Springfield.) She lectured at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was a writer-in-residence at the Ohio State University, Wayne Morse chair at the University of Oregon, and a teaching fellow at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the New York-based Society of American Historians.[10]

In 2000, Ehrenreich endorsed the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader; in 2004, she urged voters to support John Kerry in the swing states.[11]

In February 2008, she expressed support for then-Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.[12]

In 2001, Ehrenreich published her seminal work, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Seeking to explore whether people can subsist on minimum wage in the United States, she worked "undercover" in a series of minimum-wage jobs, such as waitress, housekeeper, and Wal-Mart associate, and reported on her efforts to pay living expenses with the low wages paid by those jobs (an average of $7 per hour). She concluded that it was impossible to pay for food and rent without working at least two such jobs. Nickel and Dimed became a bestseller and admirers regard the book as "a classic of social justice literature."[13] Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project with one main purpose: support immersive reporting on the working poor, in the manner of Ehrenreich's own Nickel and Dimed.[14]

Filling in for a vacationing Thomas Friedman as a columnist with The New York Times in 2004, Ehrenreich wrote about how, in the fight for women's reproductive rights, "it's the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me" and said that she herself "had two abortions during my all-too-fertile years".[15]

In her 1990 book of essays, The Worst Years of Our Lives, she wrote that "the one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks."[16]

In 2005, The New Yorker called her "a veteran muckraker".[17]

In 2006, she founded United Professionals, an organization described as "a nonprofit, non-partisan membership organization for white-collar workers, regardless of profession or employment status. We reach out to all unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed workers—people who bought the American dream that education and credentials could lead to a secure middle class life, but now find their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control."[18]

In 2009, she wrote Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, which investigated the rise of the positive thinking industry in the United States. She included her own experience after being told that she had breast cancer as a starting point in the book.[19] In this book, she brought to light various methods of what Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann called "quantum flapdoodle".[20]

Beginning in 2013, Ehrenreich was an honorary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. She also served on the NORML board of directors, the Institute for Policy Studies board of trustees and the editorial board of The Nation. She has served on the editorial boards of Social Policy, Ms., Mother Jones, Seven Days, Lear's, The New Press, and Culturefront, and as a contributing editor to Harper's.[10]


Ehrenreich at a New York Times discussion


  • Ehrenreich, Barbara; Ehrenreich, John (1969). Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 9780853450863. (with John Ehrenreich)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1971). The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics. Knopf Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 9780394714530. (with John Ehrenreich and Health PAC)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara; English, Deirdre (1972). Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Feminist Press. ISBN 0912670134. (with Deirdre English)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara; English, Deirdre (1973). Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. Feminist Press at CUNY. ISBN 9781558616950. (with Deirdre English)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara; English, Deirdre (1978). For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women. Anchor Press. ISBN 9780385126502. (with Deirdre English)
  • Fuentes, Annette; Fuentes, Carlos; Ehrenreich, Barbara (1983). Women in the Global Factory. South End Press. ISBN 9780896081987.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1983). The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. Anchor Press/Doubleday. ISBN 9780385176149.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara; Hess, Elizabeth; Jacobs, Gloria (1986). Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex. Anchor Press/Doubleday. ISBN 9780385184984. (with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs)
  • Block, Fred L.; Cloward, Richard A.; Piven, Frances Fox (1987). The Mean Season: Attack on the Welfare State. Pantheon Books. ISBN 9780394744506. (with Fred L. Block, Richard A. Cloward, and Frances Fox Piven)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1989). Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. Pantheon Books. ISBN 9780394556925.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1990). The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed. HarperPerennial. ISBN 9780060973841.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1995). The Snarling Citizen: Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374266486.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1997). Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. DIANE Publishing Company. ISBN 9780756754389.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Macmillan. ISBN 9780805063882.
  • Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. 2003. ISBN 9780805069952. (ed., with Arlie Hochschild)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2005). Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Macmillan. ISBN 9780805076066.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2007). Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Macmillan. ISBN 9780805057232.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2008). This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-8840-3. OCLC 182737659.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009). Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-8749-9. OCLC 317928923. (UK: Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World)
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything. New York: Twelve. ISBN 978-1-4555-0176-2. OCLC 856053601.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2018). Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. New York: Twelve. ISBN 978-1-4789-6126-0. OCLC 1039523821.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2020). Had I Known: Collected Essays. Twelve. ISBN 978-1-4555-4369-4.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (1993). Kipper's Game. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ISBN 9780374181550.



In 1980, Ehrenreich shared the National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting with colleagues at Mother Jones magazine [21] for the cover story The Corporate Crime of the Century,[22] about "what happens after the U.S. government forces a dangerous drug, pesticide or other product off the domestic market, then the manufacturer sells that same product, frequently with the direct support of the State Department, throughout the rest of the world."[23]

In 1998 the American Humanist Association named her "Humanist of the Year".[24]

In 2000, she received the Sidney Hillman Award for journalism for the Harper's article "Nickel and Dimed", which was later published as a chapter in her book of the same title.[25]

In 2002, she won a National Magazine Award for her essay "Welcome to Cancerland: A mammogram leads to a cult of pink kitsch", which describes Ehrenreich's own experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and describes what she calls the "breast cancer cult," which "serves as an accomplice in global poisoning – normalizing cancer, prettying it up, even presenting it, perversely, as a positive and enviable experience."[26][27]

In 2004, she received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship,[28] awarded jointly by the Puffin Foundation of New Jersey and The Nation Institute to an American who challenges the status quo "through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, socially responsible work of significance".[29]

In 2007, she received the "Freedom from Want" Medal, awarded by the Roosevelt Institute in celebration of "those whose life's work embodies FDR's Four Freedoms".[30]

Ehrenreich received a Ford Foundation award for humanistic perspectives on contemporary society (1982), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1987–88) and a grant for research and writing from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1995). She received honorary degrees from Reed College, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, the College of Wooster in Ohio, John Jay College, UMass Lowell and La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.[22]

In November 2018, Ehrenreich received the Erasmus Prize by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands for her work in investigative journalism.[31]

Personal life and family[edit]

Ehrenreich had one brother, Ben Alexander Jr., and one sister, Diane Alexander. When she was 35, according to the book Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents, her mother died "from a likely suicide".[32] Her father died years later from Alzheimer's disease.[32]

Ehrenreich was married and divorced twice. She met her first husband, John Ehrenreich, during an anti-war activism campaign in New York City, and they married in 1966. He is a clinical psychologist,[33] and they co-wrote several books about health policy and labor issues before divorcing in 1977. In 1983, she married Gary Stevenson, a union organizer for the Teamsters.[5] She divorced Stevenson in 1993.[10]

Ehrenreich had two children with her first husband. Her daughter Rosa, born in 1970, was named after a great-grandmother and Rosa Luxemburg.[34] She is a Virginia-based law professor, national security and foreign policy expert and writer.[35] Ehrenreich's son Ben, born in 1972, is a novelist and a journalist in Los Angeles.[36]

Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the release of her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This led to the award-winning article "Welcome to Cancerland," published in the November 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine. The piece inspired the 2011 documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc..[37]

Ehrenreich lived in Alexandria, Virginia,[38] where she died at a hospice facility on September 1, 2022, from a stroke, six days after her 81st birthday.[13] Her New York Times obituary called her an "Explorer of Prosperity's Dark Side" for her commentary of inequality in the United States.[39]


  1. ^ "The CMU Pronouncing Dictionary". Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  2. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara. "About Barbara". Archived from the original on June 23, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  3. ^ "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class: Barbara Ehrenreich Interview Transcript". Booknotes (C-SPAN). Interviewed by Lamb, Brian. October 18, 1989. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  4. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara. "My Family Values Atheism: Acceptance speech upon receiving the 1999 Freethought Heroine Award". Freedom From Religion Foundation. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Edwards, Ivana (October 17, 1993). "Barbara Ehrenreich's Writing Attracts an Attentive Audience". The New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  6. ^ McDermott, Ted (May 24, 2018). "Montana Tech officially renamed Montana Technological University". The Montana Standard. Retrieved November 29, 2018.
  7. ^ a b "Ehrenreich, Barbara. Papers of Barbara Ehrenreich, 1922–2007 (inclusive), 1963–2007 (bulk): A Finding Aid". December 16, 2011. Archived from the original on December 16, 2011. Retrieved December 16, 2020.
  8. ^ The School of Life. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  9. ^ ProQuest 734005592
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Papers of Barbara Ehrenreich, 1922–2007 (inclusive), 1963–2007 (bulk): A Finding Aid". Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Archived from the original on December 16, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  11. ^ Nader's Top Endorsers From 2000 Urge "Swing States" Support for Kerry Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Common Dreams, September 14, 2004
  12. ^ "Unstoppable Obama", February 14, 2008
  13. ^ a b Schachar, Natalie (September 2, 2022). "Barbara Ehrenreich, Explorer of Prosperity's Dark Side, Dies at 81". New York Times. Vol. 171, no. 59535. p. B12. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 2, 2022.
  14. ^ "About". Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Archived from the original on September 21, 2015.
  15. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara (July 22, 2004). "Owning Up To Abortion". The New York Times. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  16. ^ Andrews, Robert (1993). The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 3. ISBN 9780231071949. The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks..
  17. ^ "Books Briefly Noted: Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich". New Yorker. September 2005. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  18. ^ "About United Professionals". United Professionals. Archived from the original on October 10, 2008. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  19. ^ "Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich". Association for science and reason. February 13, 2011. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  20. ^ Cohen, Patricia (October 9, 2009). "Author's Personal Forecast: Not Always Sunny, but Pleasantly Skeptical". Reviews. The New York Times. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  21. ^ "National Magazine Awards Database of Past Winners and Finalists". American Society of Magazine Editors. Archived from the original on May 26, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  22. ^ a b "Columnist Biography: Barbara Ehrenreich". The New York Times. July 1, 2004. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  23. ^ Dowie, Mark (1979). "The Corporate Crime of the Century". Mother Jones. Archived from the original on October 6, 2012. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  24. ^ "Humanist of the Year". American Humanist Association. Archived from the original on May 22, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  25. ^ "Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism". Sidney Hillman Foundation. Archived from the original on May 3, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  26. ^ "Harper's Magazine Awards and Honors" (PDF). Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  27. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara (November 2001). "Welcome To Cancerland". Harper's Magazine. Archived from the original on June 9, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  28. ^ "Barbara Ehrenreich At McGill, Thursday, Nov. 18, 6:30". McGill University. November 14, 2010. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  29. ^ "Puffin Foundation: Puffin Nation Award For Creative Citizenship". Puffin Foundation. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  30. ^ "Four Freedoms Award: Celebrating those whose life's work embodies FDR's Four Freedoms". Roosevelt Institute. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  31. ^ "Press release: 2018 Erasmus Prize awarded to Barbara Ehrenreich". Stichting Praemium Erasmianum. March 1, 2018. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  32. ^ a b Gilbert, Allison; Kline, Christina Baker, eds. (2006). Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents. Seal Press. pp. 269. ISBN 978-1-58005-176-7.
  33. ^ "Bitters and Cream (personal site)". John Ehrenreich. Archived from the original on September 10, 2011. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  34. ^ Sherman, Scott (June 2003). "Class Warrior: Barbara Ehrenreich's Singular Crusade". Columbia Journalism Review. Archived from the original on February 9, 2013. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  35. ^ "Rosa Brooks". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on August 21, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  36. ^ "Meet The Los Angeles Writer Who Beat The New Yorker, GQ, And The Atlantic". Business Insider. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
  37. ^ Szklarski, Cassandra (January 31, 2012). "NFB doc examines the politics of marketing disease". CTV News. Canadian Press. Archived from the original on January 1, 2013. Retrieved January 31, 2012.
  38. ^ Ehrenreich, Barbara. "Huffington Post Biography". The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  39. ^ Dreier, Peter (September 7, 2022). "Barbara Ehrenreich Made Socialist Ideas Sound Like Common Sense". Jacobin. Retrieved September 8, 2022.

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