Barbara Ehrenreich Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."