Barbara Ehrenreich Essay - Critical Essays

Ehrenreich, Barbara


Barbara Ehrenreich 1941–

American lecturer, journalist, novelist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Ehrenreich's career through 1997.

A lifelong member of the Democratic Socialist Party, Barbara Ehrenreich has never been circumspect about her politics. Even critics at the opposite end of the political spectrum have found this directness refreshing: Writing for The American Spectator, Andrew Ferguson said of her frequent essays on the back page of Time magazine, "her unabashedly left-wing views make a pleasant contrast to the abashedly left-wing views found in the pages preceding it." Ehrenreich, sometimes with co-authors, has written about the world-wide student movement, health care, poverty, politics, feminism, and most of the other social and political issues of the second half of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Ehrenreich was born August 26, 1941, in Butte, Montana. Her first marriage, to John Ehrenreich in 1966, and produced two children, Rosa and Benjamin, and ended in divorce. She married Gary Stevenson in 1983. Raised in a working-class atheist family that had a longstanding ethic of independent thinking, Ehrenreich became a left-wing political activist, although her college career prepared her for the hard sciences. She received a B.A. in chemical physics from Reed College in Portland, Oregon in 1964. In 1968 she completed a Ph.D. in cell biology at Rockefeller University in New York City. While at Rockefeller, Ehrenreich became involved in the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement.

Major Works

In Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad (1969), written with her husband John, Ehrenreich reported on the student movements in the United States and Europe. Ehrenreich's identity as a socialist and feminist was reinforced by the poor quality of care she received during the birth of her daughter in 1970. This experience with health care was the impetus for the next book co-authored with her husband, The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics, a Report from the Health Policy Advisory Center (1970). Ehrenreich continued her exploration of women's health-care issues with two books co-authored with Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1972) and Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973). Her next book with English, For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (1978), examined the sexual politics of the advice literature genre. In the book, the authors argued that much of the writing ostensibly intended to make women's lives better was in fact intended to keep them in positions of subservience to the male-dominated hierarchy. In The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983), Ehrenreich argued that both men and women were beginning to break away from the traditional roles of breadwinner and housewife. In Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex (1986), co-authored with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs, Ehrenreich voiced her concern that the women's sexual revolution had become separated from the general thrust of the feminist movement. In Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989), Ehrenreich examined the drift of the Middle Class to conservatism, describing it as a defensive reflex arising from uneasiness caused by uncertainty in the economy and massive corporate layoffs. The author addressed themes such as increased selfishness and the loss of generosity in The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1990), a collection of essays previously published in several periodicals. In Kipper's Game (1994), a science fiction novel and Ehrenreich's first work of fiction, she examined many of the issues previously considered in her essays. ehrenreich offered another collection of previously-published essays with The Snarling Citizen (1995). Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997) is an alternative theory to the origins of war. Contrary to the common belief that man is aggressive by nature, Ehrenreich argues that the nature of this behavior is a codification of the relatively recent progression of mankind from prey to predator.

Critical Reception

Ehrenreich's work has received mixed critical response. The author has been faulted for her oversimplification of complex issues and her reliance on pop culture sources and television to support her arguments, however, reviewers acknowledge her writing skill and perceptiveness. While critical of the theories presented in Fear of Falling, Joshua Henkin asserted, "the book is elegantly written, and the insight and wit that characterize her journalism are also abundant here…. Throughout, she has a keen eye for the contradictions of our culture." Despite her keen insight, critics focus on Ehrenreich's tendency to overgeneralize from a limited number of sources. In a critique of Re-Making Love, Julie Abraham stated, "[The authors] have not talked to enough people, or considered the complex interactions between sexual and social change that even their own writing illustrates." Reviewers have praised Ehrenreich's ability to entertain and to "provide aphoristic observations on modern life." Wilfred M. McClay wrote, "she is a graceful and often witty essayist, usually at her best in writing of everyday, commonplace things—food, dieting, fashion, leisure, "relationships," and pop culture—from a mildly heterodox feminist position."

Principal Works

Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad [with John Ehrenreich] (journalism) 1969
The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics, a Report from the Health Policy Advisory Center [with J. Ehrenreich] (essays) 1970
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers [with Deirdre English] (essays) 1972
Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness [with English] (essays) 1973
For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts' Advice to Women [with English] (essays) 1978
The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (essays) 1983
Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex [with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs] (essays) 1986
The Mean Season: An Attack on the Welfare State [with Fred Block, Richard Cloward, and Frances Fox Piven] (essays) 1987
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (essays) 1989
The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (essays) 1990
Kipper's Game (novel) 1994
The Snarling Citizen (essays) 1995
Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (nonfiction) 1997


Edward Edelson (review date 24 January 1971)

SOURCE: "In Sickness and in Wealth," in The Washington Post, Vol. V, No. 4, January 24, 1971, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review, Edelson praises The American Health Empire as an innovative look at the problems with health care in America, although he finds some flaws in the authors' presentation.]

The American Health Empire is yet another book about the sad state of American medicine—but don't stop reading there. This one is different. It is galvanizing, irritating, flawed and fascinating, and it presents an argument that has never been touched in what can be called the standard book on the health care crisis.

The standard book has been written under a score of titles by a score of authors. The standard book's villains and heroes are unvarying. On one side, in the black hats, are the old-line doctors, whose spokesman is the American Medical Association and whose aim is to keep American medicine disorganized in the interests of personal profit. The men in the white hats are the medical liberals, working out of modern hospitals and university-based medical centers, eager to press medical research, hopeful about drastically different methods of financing medical care (such as national health insurance) and anxious to use computers and the other tools of technology to end the present "nonsystem" of medical care for the benefit of the health consumer. If we can just help the liberals beat the AMA, says the standard book, our health care problems will be over.

It is at this point, where the standard book ends, that The American Health Empire begins. Its authors are members of a group of young activists working out of a self-created think-tank called the Health Policy Advisory Center. They present the reader with an entirely new villain—the very medical liberal whom most authors present as the last great hope of American medicine.

Health-PAC dismisses the AMA briefly as a declining organization whose prestige and power are falling rapidly, chiefly interested in fighting a forlorn rear guard action against the twentieth century. (Just last year, for the first time, the AMA's membership fell below 50 per cent of the nation's physician population. The AMA is now a minority group.)

With the AMA out of the way, Health-PAC follows the first rule of investigatory reporting: Look where the money goes. It finds that the money is going chiefly to the large university-based "medical empires" that are run by medical liberals. These centers carry on most medical research, use most of the new medical technology, sponsor most of the community action medical programs.

Between 1960...

(The entire section is 1118 words.)

Tod Gitlin (review date 28 May 1983)

SOURCE: "Where the Boys Aren't," in The Nation, Vol. 236, No. 21, May 28, 1983, pp. 663-65.

[In the following review, Gitlin praises the insights and synthesis of divergent cultural icons in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.]

If the specter that haunts the American home is that of the woman walking out the door, Barbara Ehrenreich tells us in her stunningly subversive new book, our culture is once again deceiving us. Backlash panic has inverted the truth of the sexual war, which is that the family is threatened not because women want to get out but because men do.

Ehrenreich argues that men have been plotting their...

(The entire section is 1183 words.)

Carol Tavris (review date 5 June 1983)

SOURCE: "Who Started This?," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, pp. 12, 31, 32.

[In the following review of The Hearts of Men, Tavris finds Ehrenreich's analysis of male/female role dynamics insightful, but criticizes her conclusions about cause and effect.]

Over the past two decades we've heard many criticisms of the housewife's lot, mostly from women, and counterattacking complaints about the breadwinner trap, mostly from men. Now Barbara Ehrenreich offers a provocative new argument: Male complaints about their restrictions and responsibilities, and their grievances about women, did not follow the women's movement; they preceded it. Indeed, Miss...

(The entire section is 1612 words.)

Benjamin R. Barber (review date 11 July 1983)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Feminist Mystique," in New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 3, July 11, 1983, pp. 26-32.

[In the following excerpt, Barber summarizes developments in the Feminist Movement that he describes as anti-women and then discusses Ehrenreich's The Hearts of Men as a fresh perspective on the dynamics of male/female relationships, but oversimplified and flawed.]

This is more than the internecine bickering of ideological purists. It issues out of a basic disenchantment—a revisionism that is ready to rewrite the history of the past without yet being ready to revise its blueprint for the future. Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a loyal and unswerving feminist in the...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)

Phyllis Rose (review date September 1986)

SOURCE: "Sex in Our Time," in The Atlantic, Vol. 258, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 100-103.

[In the following review, Rose compares the opposite philosophies expressed in the books Re-Making Love and Willard Gayling's Rediscovering Love.]

"Higgimus, hoggimus, men are monogamous. Hoggimus, higgimus, women polygamous." My friends tell me I have got this wrong. It should be "Hoggimus, higgimus, men are polygamous. Higgimus, hoggimus, women monogamous." But I prefer my version, because it expresses a partial truth less often heard: many women have an instinct for sexual adventure, most often stifled, and many men, even promiscuous men, are at heart romantics, sexual...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)

Judith Viorst (review date 14 September 1986)

SOURCE: "Rolling Back the Lust Frontier," in New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1986, p. 9.

[In the following review, Viorst praises Re-Making Love.]

It was women—it wasn't men—whose sexual attitudes and behavior drastically changed within the past two decades. The sexual revolution, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs compellingly argue, is actually women's sexual revolution. Thus the counterrevolution, the sexual backlash that emerged in the early 1980's, is primarily directed against women and is a threat to women's achievements in "the remaking and reinterpretation of sex."

Much of Re-making Love is devoted to...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Julie Abraham (review date 28 February 1987)

SOURCE: "Not My Revolution," in The Nation, Vol. 244, No. 8, February 28, 1987, pp. 266-67.

[In the following review, Abraham finds the source material in Re-Making Love too superficial, and the resultant conclusions over-generalized.]

Singles in the cities, paraphilias in the suburbs and sex aids in Ohio: according to Re-making Love, these are all manifestations of a women's sexual revolution that far outweighs the male-dominated phenomenon known as the sexual revolution. The latter, as Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs describe it—"what Gay Talese found when he set out on his quest to see what middle-aged, middle-class men...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Leslie Dick (review date 9 October 1987)

SOURCE: "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" in New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 2950, October 9, 1987, pp. 25-26.

[Below, Dick gives a negative review of Re-Making Love.]

In 1964, when we were nine, my best friend and I played a secret game, enacting elaborate adventures in which we would take turns to be Paul McCartney or John Lennon. The story always ended with us "falling in love": we would roll around on the floor, kissing passionately.

In Re-making Love, the roots of the Women's Liberation Movement are found in the rebellion against the female sexual predicament of the early 1960s, as evidenced by Sex and the Single Girl-ism (nice girls...

(The entire section is 867 words.)

Jefferson Morley (review date 6 August 1989)

SOURCE: "The Discreet Anxiety of the Bourgeoisie," in New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989, pp. 12-13.

[In the following review, Morley praises the insights in Fear of Falling.]

I was a teen-age neoconservative, I came of age politically in the 1970's with a low tolerance for the foibles of my parents and an all-too-cool critique of the 1960's, especially of the decade's "permissiveness." The cultural contradictions of capitalism seemed less disturbing (and more fun) to me than the cultural contradictions of Communism, and I imagined I was rejecting middle-class culture. But in fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling makes clear, it defined my every...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)

Mary Warner Marien (review date 11 September 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, September 11, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following essay, Marien praises Ehrenreich's perception and compassion in Fear of Falling.]

The recent death of Michael Harrington was taken by many to symbolize the end of socialist influence in American political thought. Through his many books, including The Other America (1982), the work said to have sparked the War on Poverty, Harrington served as the conscience of the left. "I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America," Senator Edward M. Kennedy once said.


(The entire section is 818 words.)

Joshua Henkin (review date 20 November 1989)

SOURCE: "A Touch of Class," in The Nation, Vol. 249, No. 17, November 20, 1989, pp. 607-09.

[Although critical of several of Ehrenreich's conclusions, in the following review, Henkin finds much to like in Fear of Falling.]

Most books that make sweeping assertions about American culture, Barbara Ehrenreich argues, are really only about the middle class. When authors tell us that "Americans" are becoming "more self-involved, materialistic, spineless, or whatever," they are really referring to the relatively small "professional … middle class … from which every other group or class is ultimately [considered] a kind of deviation." In Fear of Falling: The Inner Life...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)

Wilfred M. McClay (review date January 1990)

SOURCE: "High Anxiety," in Commentary, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 64-7.

[While praising Ehrenreich's writing, in the following review, McClay finds many flaws in the thesis of Fear of Falling.]

The debacle of the 1988 presidential election not only left the very word "liberalism" badly battered, but may have administered the coup de grâce to the only opposition movement with a shred of intellectual and political vitality: the so-called "neoliberals." Hence, in 1992, the Democratic party will find that it once again has to face the relentless demands of its Left; and that Left, if it is feeling any vestigial desire to win elections, will have to come up...

(The entire section is 2194 words.)

James Fallows (review date 1 March 1990)

SOURCE: "Wake Up, America," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 137, No. 3, March 1, 1990, pp. 14-15.

[In the following excerpt, Fallows examines the correlation among culture, prosperity, and security and their place in Fear of Falling.]

Economists don't like to talk about the effects of culture or of ethics on economic development, since these are such subjective and imprecise matters. But most people, including economists off-duty, assume that there is a connection between the kinds of everyday behavior a society encourages and its stability and prosperity.

In nearly every discussion about Europe's future, for instance, all sides take it for granted...

(The entire section is 3626 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 13 July 1993)

SOURCE: "A Plague of Gray Caterpillars and a Preacher," in The New York Times, July 13, 1993, p. C18.

[In the following essay, Kakutani negatively reviews Kipper's Game.]

It's no surprise that science-fiction and futuristic novels are a favorite forum for social critics: after all, they provide an easy means of extrapolating and satirizing the problems of the contemporary world. Certainly, this is what the author and magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich seems to be up to in her first novel. "Kipper's Game," a dark, convoluted piece of apocalyptic fiction that enables her to combine her scientific training (she holds a Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University and a...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Barbara Ehrenreich with Wendy Smith (interview date 26 July 1993)

SOURCE: An interview in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 270, No. 30, July 26, 1993, pp. 46-47.

[In the following interview, Ehrenreich discusses the writing of her first fiction book.]

"I feel like a criminal," says Barbara Ehrenreich. "I didn't mean to do it!" She's not referring to an act of civil disobedience from her anti-war past (about which she'd be unlikely to repent); she's talking about the reckless act of writing a novel. Kipper's Game (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Fiction Forecasts, Apr. 26), an adventurous tale involving a computer game, Nazi scientists and a mysterious illness that causes uncontrollable bleeding, is indeed not the book you'd necessarily...

(The entire section is 2114 words.)

Steven J. Kellman (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: "Ehrenreich's Game," in Michigan Quarterly, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 375-84.

[Below, Kellman offers a mixed review of Kipper's Game.]

"When a scholar of John Kenneth Galbraith's immense sagacity has a tale to tell, it is time to put away our toys, sit quietly and attend with great care," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich in The New York Times Book Review of February 11, 1990. It is the opening sentence to the enthusiastic account she gave of A Tenured Professor. The book was Galbraith's third published novel, but he is much better known for his nonfiction, including The Affluent Society, The Liberal Hour, and The New Industrial...

(The entire section is 3983 words.)

Vicky Hutchings (review date 20 May 1994)

SOURCE: "Lamb Stakes," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 303, May 20, 1994, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Hutchings provides a summary of the plot elements in Kipper's Game.]

Like the famous trick with mirrors, this book endlessly repeats itself in different sizes. The leitmotif is the search for understanding. It starts with an addictive computer game condensed on to three disks: you have to get the scrolls to the wise woman, past the black knights, past all the obstacles in the way. The game is also a pedagogical tool, a summary of all that we are capable of and all we have learned. Hey, these disks can lead to "Enlightenment, the mystic goal...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Penelope Mesic (review date 28 May 1995)

SOURCE: "The Heat and the Intimacy," in Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1995, sec. 14, p. 3.

[In the following review, Mesic compares the essay styles of Ehrenreich and Joseph Epstein.]

Other than a review, these two collections of essays by Joseph Epstein and Barbara Ehrenreich deserve something more closely resembling a National Geographic Special. For no team of Sherpaled climbers or divers finning through the crannies of a coral reef, ever discovered more diverse or improbable life forms thriving in a single culture. Well-adapted to the hot, volcanic slopes of national politics we find the highly colored clusters of barbed remarks known as commentarius...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)

Andrew Ferguson (review date August 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Snarling Citizen, in The American Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 8, August, 1995, pp. 66-7.

[In the following review, Ferguson suggests that Ehrenreich's writing is rife with factoids and faulty syllogisms.]

Barbara Ehrenreich's career as a journalist has followed an interesting trajectory. She is a witty, graceful stylist who first came to prominence in the Nation, Ms., and Mother Jones. Unlike Molly Ivins, she's a mom—a working mom!—and unlike Anna Quindlen, she never whimpers. The fat cats of "main-stream" journalism do not allow writers with Ehrenreich's attributes to languish on the leftward fringe, and so for the past...

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXV, No. 6, March 15, 1997, pp. 432-33.

[Below, the reviewer describes Blood Rites as an iconoclastic study in which social commentator and Time essayist Ehrenreich challenges accepted notions of why human beings wage war.]

In her tenth book Ehrenreich (The Worst Years of Our Lives, 1990, etc.) takes a multidisciplinary approach in her investigation of "the feelings people invest in war and often express as their motivations for fighting." She makes a thorough examination of a wide range of historical, psychological, sociological, biological,...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

Further Reading


"The Coming Medical War." New York Review (1 July 1971): 33-38.

Examines several books on the issue of health care, including the Ehrenreichs' The American Health Empire: Power, Profit, and Politics.

Ross, Leonard. Review of The American Health Empire: Power, Profit, and Politics, by John and Barbara Ehrenreich, and In Failing Health, by Ed Cray. New York Times Book Review (7 March 1971): 3, 50.

Provides a summary of the two books and an argument in favor of national health care.

(The entire section is 108 words.)