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An outspoken feminist, journalist, and socialist-party leader, Barbara Ehrenreich crusades for social justice in her books. Although many of her early works were shaped by her formal scientific training—she holds a PhD in biology—her later works have moved beyond health-care concerns to the plight of women and the poor. In addition to her numerous nonfiction books, Ehrenreich is widely known for her weekly columns in Time and the Guardian.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Science to Social Justice
Barbara Ehrenreich (nee Barbara Alexander) was born August 26, 1941, in Butte, Montana, to a working-class atheist family with a longstanding ethic of independent thinking. Her first marriage, to John Ehrenreich in 1966, produced two children, Rosa and Benjamin, and ended in divorce. She married her second husband, Gary Stevenson, in 1983.
Ehrenreich’s education prepared her for a career in the sciences: she received a BA in chemical physics from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1964, and in 1968 she completed a PhD in cell biology at Rockefeller University in New York City. During her time at Rockefeller, in the middle of the tumultuous 1960s, Ehrenreich became involved in Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Subsequent to finishing school, Ehrenreich’s career choices gradually led her into a life of social activism: she worked at the Health Policy Advisory Center in New York, taught health sciences at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, was a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities and then the Institute for Policy Studies, and by the early 1980s was co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Ehrenreich’s first book, cowritten with her then-husband John Ehrenreich, was published in 1969. Called Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad, it inaugurated Ehrenreich’s forty-year writing career devoted to social justice and feminism. While still working for the Health Policy Advisory Center, Ehrenreich published a scathing critique of the American health “empire,” exposing its inefficiency, inhumanity, and self-serving policies. Then, turning from the population in general to women in particular, Ehrenreich, with coauthor Deirdre English, unveiled the male domination of the female health care system in Complaints and Dis-orders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973) and For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (1978).
Becoming a Famous and Controversial Writer
first made an impact with her controversial book The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983), a full-fledged leap into feminist polemic. Describing The Hearts of Men as a study of ”the ideology that shaped the breadwinner ethic,” Ehrenreich surveys the three decades between the 1950s and the 1980s, arguing that male commitment to home and family collapsed. Rather than feminism being the cause of the disintegration of the family, she writes, it can be blamed on men’s abdication of their traditional role as breadwinner while still insisting that women maintain their role as submissive nurturer. The Hearts of Men led Ehrenreich to further topics concerning women and feminism. She followed it in 1986 with Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex, coauthored with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs, in which the authors report on and applaud the freer attitudes towards sex that women adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Soon Ehrenreich shifted her focus to class issues— which are often intimately tied to women’s issues—where it has more or less remained. Her next work to attract critical notice, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989), examines the American middle class and its attitudes towards people of the working and poorer classes at a time when the disparity in income between classes had reached its greatest point since World War II. She continued her exploration of 1980s cultural malaise in The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, a series of reprinted articles about what some consider to be one of the most self-involved and consumeristic decades in American history.
In June 1998 Ehrenreich embarked on what was to become perhaps her best-known project. ”I leave behind everything that normally soothes the ego and sustains the body—home, career, companion, reputation, ATM card—,” as she explained in a 1999 Harper’s article, ”and plunge into the low-wage workforce.” To do this, the author created a new persona—Barbara Ehrenreich, divorced homemaker with some housekeeping experience—and set off on a tour of the country in an attempt to sustain herself working in entry-level jobs, in the way that millions of other Americans are forced to. In Ehrenreich’s case, this meant waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms in Key West, Florida; working at a nursing home in Portland, Maine; and becoming a Wal-Mart ”associate” in Minneapolis. In all, Ehrenreich spent two years living the life of the American working class, and what she discovered was turned into the best-selling 2001 expose, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
With women and work being two of Ehrenreich’s major themes, she turned her focus to the often-overlooked intersection of the two: the plight of working immigrant women. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (2003), which she coedited with Arlie Russell Hochschild, is a collection of fifteen essays that examine the impact that globalization has had on millions of women from third-world countries as they leave the poverty of their homelands to undertake jobs as domestic servants in first-world nations.
With Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), Ehrenreich took the next logical step from Nickel and Dimed by looking at the reality facing the unemployed white-collar professional. With the corporate world scourged by the effects of downsizing and outsourcing, she found that the prospects for white-collar job seekers were bleaker than ever. Forging yet another new identity, Ehrenreich presented herself as a former homemaker seeking to reenter the workplace. Her goal was a job paying somewhere near $50,000 per year, with benefits. Her search netted her few responses and fewer job offers. Instead, she discovered an extensive but parasitical network of career coaches, networking professionals, image renovators, and others whose stated goal is to help people find jobs, but who deliver few results. The book ends up being a critique of these side-industries as much as an analysis of the problems facing the white-collar workforce.
Ehrenreich currently writes for a broad array of newspapers and magazines; many of her pieces from the last several years appear in This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation (2008), which picks up the thread of The Worst Years of Our Lives and Nickel and Dimed in exploring the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, and what that means for American culture.
Works in Literary Context
Literary Journalism and the New Journalism
Literary journalism (literature that is both factual but presented with the storytelling skill of a literary artist) has a long history in the United States; it goes back at
least to the war reporting of Stephen Crane and the journalism of Jack London over a hundred years ago. Another early name in the genre is John Reed, an American journalist who wrote a vivid eye-witness account of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), which became a classic of its kind. In the 1930s and 1940s, John Dos Passos and James Agee wrote notable literary journalism, especially Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which reported on the eight weeks he spent living among sharecroppers in Alabama.
Literary journalism took a new turn in the 1960s, when many journalists began experimenting with view points and storytelling techniques deemed ”nonconventional” by the mainstream press. Writers of ”New Journalism”—as literary journalism would later be labeled—often wrote in the first person, including their own opinions and experiences in their reporting. For this reason such work was also sometimes referred to as ”personal journalism.” Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote were early pioneers of the genre, which also includes Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. Ehrenreich’s name is not always included in this list, because her work is often more politically committed than that of other New Journalists. Ehrenreich, unlike many New Journalists, is interested in specific issues such as feminism, the minimum wage, and health care, whereas New Journalists are often more interested in storytelling as an art. Nevertheless, her use of literary techniques and unconventional reporting methods, and her willingness to stand in the shoes of those she is reporting on, are common elements of this movement.
Works in Critical Context
The Hearts of Men
Widely reviewed in both magazines and newspapers, The Hearts of Men was hailed for its provocative insights, even as individual sections of the study were soundly criticized. In her Village Voice review, for example, Judith Levine wrote: ”Barbara Ehrenreich— one of the finest feminist-socialist writers around—has written a witty, intelligent book based on intriguing source material. The Hearts of Men says something that needs saying: men have not simply reacted to feminism— skulking away from women and children, hurt, humiliated, feeling cheated of their legal and emotional rights. Men, as Ehrenreich observes, have, as always, done what they want to do.” But at the same time, Levine judged the central thesis of the book as ”wrong”: ”When she claims that the glue of families is male volition and the breadwinner ideology—and that a change in that ideology caused the breakup of the family—I am doubtful,” commented the critic. ”The ideology supporting men’s abdication of family commitment is not new. It has coexisted belligerently with the breadwinner ethic throughout American history.”
Nickel and Dimed
The critical reaction to Nickel and Dimed ranged from skeptical to admiring. In the former camp was Julia Klein, whose question in American Prospect was: ”In the end, what has [Ehrenreich] accomplished? It’s no shock that the dollars don’t add up; that affordable housing is hard, if not impossible, to find; and that taking a second job is a virtual necessity for many of the working poor.” After labeling the author ”a prickly, self-confident woman and the possessor of a righteous, ideologically informed outrage at America’s class system that can turn patronizing at times,” Klein went on to acknowledge that Nickel and Dimed is still ”a compelling and timely book whose insights sometimes do transcend the obvious.” Similarly, Humanist contributor Joni Scott mentioned her early reluctance to read the memoirs of an affluent person living temporarily as poor, but found that Ehrenreich’s work is ”an important literary contribution and a call to action that I hope is answered. I believe this book should be required reading for corporate executives and politicians,” Scott concluded. In the view of Bob Hulteen of Sojourners, ”Definitional books come around about once a decade. Such books so describe the reality of the age in simple terms that the impact is felt from after-dinner conversations to federal policy discussions.” Nickel and Dimed, he added, ”will likely join this pantheon.”
- Altschuler, Glenn C. Review of Bait and Switch. Philadelphia Inquirer (November 16, 2005).
- Beck, Joan. Review of Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex. Chicago Tribune (September 25, 1986).
- Helwig, Maggie. Review of Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. Globe and Mail (August 26, 1989).
- Hulteen, Bob. Review of Nickel and Dimed. Sojourners (January-February 2002).
- Klein, Julia. Review of Nickel and Dimed. American Prospect (July 30, 2001).
- Levine, Judith. Review of The Hearts of Men. Village Voice (August 23, 1983).
- Mitgang, Herbert. Review of The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed. New York Times (May 16, 1990).
- Newman, Katherine. ”Desperate Hours.” Washington Post (June 10, 2001).
- Scott, Joni. Review of Nickel and Dimed. Humanist (September 2001).
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