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 March, Short Spring. From 1969 to 1971, Ehrenreich worked at the Health Policy Advisory Center in New York. During this time she and her husband wrote The American Health Empire, an exposé of the inefficiency, unresponsiveness, and self-serving policies of the health care system.
The birth of her daughter and son in the 1970’s gave her an inside look at the system, and during the 1970’s she and coauthor Deirdre English exposed the male domination of women’s health care in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses; Complaints and Disorders; and For Her Own Good. During this period, Ehrenreich divorced her husband, moved to Long Island, edited the magazine Seven Days, and joined the New American Movement (NAM), now the Democratic Socialists of America. She later married a union organizer named Gary Stevenson.
Her controversial book The Hearts of Men was published with the support of a Ford Foundation Award for Humanistic Perspectives on Contemporary Society and a fellowship from the New York Institute for the Humanities. The book addresses the antifeminist backlash of the 1980’s, which attributed the weakening of the American family to feminism. Ehrenreich argued that men’s desire to escape from family responsibilities (encouraged by Playboy’s promotion of the single man’s freewheeling lifestyle and popular psychology’s push to “do your own thing”) was the real cause of the breakdown of the family. Later, in Re-making Love, Ehrenreich and her coauthors detailed the failure of the sexual revolution to bring about sexual equality and the persistence of a double standard for men and women.
After coauthoring The Mean...
(The entire section is 1,583 words.)