BARBARA EHRENREICH Biography - Writers


Biography » writers » barbara ehrenreich


I was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941, when Butte was still a bustling, brawling,         
blue collar mining town. My father was a miner, and the other men in my family           
were either miners or railroad workers (the women were homemakers.) What                 
distinguished my father is that he managed to get a degree from the Butte School         
of Mines and thus embark on the career that took us from Butte to Pittsburgh PA,         
New York, various places in Massachusetts and finally Los Angeles. We moved so           
often that I can hardly claim any geographical roots -- except for Butte, which           
is today a sadly under-populated, woefully polluted, EPA superfund site, thanks           
to the mining companies.By the time I was in my mid-teens my family had achieved         
middle class status and I was able to go to the college of my choice (actually           
my second choice, Radcliffe being too expensive), which was Reed College in               
Portland, Oregon. I started out majoring in chemistry but after a couple of               
years decided I would only get to the bottom of things with physics. I did well           
enough to get into grad school at Rockefeller University in theoretical physics.         
But within a year I realized I was gravely under-prepared and switched to                 
molecular biology, and from that to cell biology.                                         
Meanwhile, I’d gotten caught up in the anti-Vietnam war movement and was                 
beginning to question whether I wanted to spend my life “at the bench,” the               
laboratory bench, that is. Looking back, I don’t think I was especially well-suited       
for a life of lab research: I’m too impatient and, well, sloppy. I got my PhD in         
cell biology, then gravitated into activism, joining a tiny nonprofit in New             
York City that advocated for better health care for the city’s poor. One of               
things we did was put out a monthly bulletin and I found myself enjoying doing           
investigative stories for it. There was no decision to become a writer; that was         
just something I started doing.                                                           
What prepared me for writing? Probably the main thing was that I’ve always been           
a big reader. By reading “the classics” while I was growing up and good fiction           
ever since, I developed an ear for the language and what can be done with it.             
Then, too, science played a role: One thing I learned in my dilettantish bopping         
around from one scientific discipline to another is that I can learn almost               
anything if I try hard enough. So I’ve never been afraid to take on any                   
assignment that came my way.                                                             
With the birth of my first child in 1970, I underwent a political, as well as a           
personal, transformation. I’d never thought much about my gender, but the                 
prenatal care I received at a hospital clinic showed me that PhD’s were not               
immune from the vilest forms of sexism. Bit by bit, I got involved with what we           
then called the “women’s health movement,” advocating for better health care for         
women and greater access to health information than we had at that time. This             
new concern led to the “underground bestseller,” a little pamphlet called                 
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, co-authored with my           
friend Deirdre English.                                                                   
A couple of years later I made the rash decision to quit my teaching job at the           
State University of NY, Old Westbury -- where I didn’t expect to get tenure               
anyway -- and become a full-time writer. Financially rough times followed. My             
partner at the time was a blue collar worker making about $6/hour (though he             
rose within a few years to become a union organizer) and I was lucky to earn a           
few hundred dollars for an article. My big break was a feature story for Ms.             
magazine on the myth that feminism causes heart disease -- a subject well suited         
to my science background. It became a cover story, and more assignments followed.         
In the eighties I had columns in Ms. and Mother Jones, which provided some small,         
but reliable, income between assignments.                                                 
My work life settled into three tracks, which continue to this day: (1)                   
Journalism, generally essays and opinion pieces, now blogs. (2) Book-length               
projects on subjects which may not make any money but fascinate me and give my           
life some intellectual continuity. Before Nickel and Dimed, my books included             
For Her Own Good: 200 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (with Deirdre                 
English), The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment,             
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Kipper’s Game (a science             
fiction novel), and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. (3)         
Activism on such issues as health care, peace, women’s rights, and economic               
People sometimes ask how one can be an objective journalist as well as an                 
activist, but most of the writing I have done has been of the opinionated                 
variety anyway. Besides, I can’t imagine getting involved in a problem as a               
journalist and not wanting to do something about it, whether that means marching,         
picketing, leafleting, or helping build an organization for social change.               
Besides, a lot of my inspiration as a journalist comes from what I experience as         
an activist -- the people I meet on union picket lines, for example.                     
In 1998, I veered off from essay-writing for the reporting that led to the book           
Nickel and Dimed. This was a totally new experience for me as a writer, and I             
don’t just mean the manual labor involved in the jobs I took. I had never done           
much reporting before, and certainly not in the first person. But I found I               
loved that kind of writing, at least enough to do a second reported book, Bait           
and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, based on my experiences           
as an undercover white-collar job seeker.                                                 
Each of these books changed my life in important and unexpected ways. Nickel and         
Dimed plunged me into the nascent living wage movement, traveling to union               
rallies, picket lines and organizing meetings around the country. Once terrified         
of public speaking, I became comfortable addressing crowds through a bull horn,           
with no notes at all. I got arrested at a protest with Yale workers; I joined             
picket lines with hotel workers in Santa Monica and janitors in Miami; I                 
leafleted for a living wage in Charlottesville and marched with ACORN in                 
Bait and Switch inspired me to do something totally new: try to build an                 
organization for unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white collar           
workers. My research on the book showed me that college-educated workers are             
extremely vulnerable to downward mobility, and often end up in the kinds of low-wage     
jobs I had done for Nickel and Dimed. With some help from the Service Employees           
International Union, a group of people I met while on my book tour launched               
United Professionals in 2006, and we can be found at We’re       
still small and struggling, but hoping to build a response to the “war on the             
middle class” that is undermining so many lives.                                         
Meanwhile, curiosity has kept pulling me in different directions. I’ve just               
published Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, a scholarly book           
that I began many months before I started the research for Nickel and Dimed. It’s         
a sweeping book about festivities and ecstatic rituals: their roots in human             
evolution and the history of their repression by elites from ancient times to             
the present. I’m now researching for a book on what I call “the cult of                   
cheerfulness,” which requires Americans to “think positively” rather than to             
take positive action for change.                                                         
I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I do. Sure, I could have had             
more stability and financial security if I’d stuck to science or teaching. But I         
chose adventure and I’ve never for a moment regretted it.