Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, activist and self-proclaimed “mythbuster” who in such remarkable works as “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch” challenged conventional thinking about class, religion and the very idea of an American dream, died at age 81.
Ehrenreich died Thursday morning in Alexandria, Va., according to her son, author and journalist Ben Ehrenreich. She had recently suffered a stroke.
“She was, she said, ready to go,” Ben Ehrenreich tweeted on Friday. “She was never very into thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another and fighting like hell.”
She was born Barbara Alexander in Butte, Montana, and grew up in a family of union supporters, where family rules included “never cross a picket line and never vote Republican.” She studied physics as an undergraduate at Reed College and earned a doctorate in immunology at Rockefeller University. From the 1970s, she worked as a teacher and researcher and became increasingly active in the women’s movement, from writing pamphlets to attending conferences across the country. She also co-wrote a book on student activism, “Long March, Short Spring,” with her then-husband John Ehrenreich.
A prolific author who regularly publishes books and newspaper and magazine articles, Ehrenreich honed an accessible style of prose that won him a wide readership for otherwise unsettling and unsentimental ideas. She disdained individualism, organized religion, the unregulated economy, and what Norman Vincent Peale called “the power of positive thinking.”
A supporter of liberal causes, from labor unions to abortion rights, Ehrenreich has often drawn on her own experiences to communicate her ideas. The birth of her daughter Rosa helped her to become a feminist, she later explained, as she was appalled at the treatment of patients in the hospital. Her battle with breast cancer years ago inspired her 2009 book “Bright-Sided,” in which she recalled the bland platitudes and reassurances of sympathizers and probed American insistence – a religion she l called – on optimism, to the point of ignoring the country’s many problems.
“We must prepare for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion of positive thinking,” she wrote.
“Positive thinking has proven useful as an apologia for the harsher aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity, then, is a stern insistence on personal responsibility.
For “Nickel and Dimed,” one of her best-known books, she worked in minimum-wage jobs so she could learn first-hand about the struggles of the working poor, whom she called “the leading philanthropists of our society”.
“They neglect their own children so that the children of others are cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other houses are shiny and perfect; they endure deprivation to keep inflation low and stock prices high,” she wrote. “To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, an unnamed benefactor, to everyone.”
Ehrenreich has written for The New York Times, The Nation, Vogue and many other publications, and his other books include “The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed”, “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the War” and “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class”.