Study Guide

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barbara Ehrenreich (AYR-ehn-rik) has written numerous books, pamphlets, and essays for magazines such as Esquire, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and Radical America. In addition to writing a monthly column for Time, she has been a contributing editor to Ms. since 1981 and to Mother Jones since 1988. A noted feminist, socialist, and secular humanist, Ehrenreich is probably best known for her social criticism of the economic status of women and how the health care system treats women.

Barbara was born in Butte, Montana, the daughter of Ben Howes Alexander and Isabelle Oxley Alexander. Her father was a coal miner and her mother a homemaker active in the Democratic Party. Theirs was a freethinking household and a strong secular humanist family. Her father’s maternal grandfather was a miner who liked to prove that he could do without whatever the mine owners had to offer.

Atheism is another tradition of defiance in the family. Ehrenreich grew up hearing that religion was nothing but superstition and only fools could be taken in by it. Her father had the complete works of the famous nineteenth century atheist Robert Ingersoll and sometimes read to the children from these books. Most men in Butte at that time were copper miners or railroad workers, and according to Ehrenreich’s father, many were atheists because they associated the clergy with the upper class of lawyers, doctors, and bosses “who sat around and didn’t do anything while other men broke their backs and risked their lives.” Ehrenreich’s parents always preached to her, “Think for yourself! Think for yourself!” Independent thinking has shaped her political activism and social criticism.

Ehrenreich graduated from Reed College in 1963 with a B.A. in chemical physics. The 1950’s and early 1960’s had been a time of idealism and high expectations, but the social upheavals of the Civil Rights movement and anti-Vietnam War activism profoundly changed the political landscape. Although Ehrenreich went on to get her Ph.D. in cell biology at Rockefeller University in New York in 1968, she was caught up in political activism, and her interest in writing about social issues became more important to her than science.

In 1966, she married John Ehrenreich, another activist. Together they wrote about their impressions of the student movement in Long...

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Barbara Ehrenreich Biography (Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Though Barbara Ehrenreich is best known for her 2001 investigation of the working poor, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Barbara Ehrenreich Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Advise and Dissent.” Interview by Rick Szykowny. The Humanist 52, no. 1 (January/February, 1992): 11-18. An interview with Ehrenreich about citizenship, secular humanism, and the Reagan administration, with lengthy quotes from The Worst Years of Our Lives.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “PW Interviews: Barbara Ehrenreich.” Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 30 (July 26, 1993): 46. Ehrenreich discusses writing her first novel as well as her nonfiction work. Smith provides some excellent biographical background.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Lionel Tiger. “Who Needs Men?” Interview by Colin Harrison. Harper’s 298, no. 1789 (June, 1999): 33. In this thirteen-page interview, Ehrenreich and Tiger—a noted author and anthropologist who introduced the term “male bonding”—debate masculinity and the current nature of feminism.

Kerr, Kathleen. “Barbara Ehrenreich.” In Twentieth-Century American Cultural Theorists, edited by Paul Hansom. Vol. 246 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: The Gale Group, 2001. A solid introductory essay that discusses Ehrenreich’s work through Nickel and Dimed.