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Barbara Ehrenreich, activist and groundbreaking ‘Nickel and Dimed’ author, dies at 81

A woman wearing an orange sweater stands in front of foliage with her arms folded.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich at her home in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2005.
(Andrew Shurtleff / Associated Press)

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, journalist and political activist whose groundbreaking work of immersive journalism, “Nickel and Dimed,” presaged and arguably helped spark the resurgence of the American labor movement, has died. She was 81.

Ehrenreich died Thursday in Alexandria, Va., after recently suffering a stroke, the Associated Press reported Friday.

“Sad news. Barbara Ehrenreich, my one and only mother, died on September 1, a few days after her 81st birthday,” her son, author and journalist Ben Ehrenreich, tweeted Friday.

“She was, she made clear, ready to go. She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another, and by fighting like hell,” he wrote.

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Following news of her death, writers, journalists and activists took to social media to pay their respects.

“Heartland” author Sarah Smarsh called Ehrenreich’s contributions to U.S. discourse around class and injustice “immeasurable. ... May she rest in peace, & may we include class in every conversation about justice.”

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of Labor, called her “inimitable. ... Our abiding thanks to her for her contributions to the labor, progressive and women’s movements, her brilliant literary journalism, and her tenacious appeals to common sense. She will be sorely missed.”

“Barbara Ehrenreich changed my life in many ways,” tweeted New York state Rep. Emily Gallagher. “Not only was I forever inspired by ‘Nickel and Dimed,’ I recently took a deeper dive into her earlier feminist pamphlets and felt kinship by her relentless pursuit of socialist feminism. Thank you Barbara [heart emoji] we continue your work.”

The Montana-born writer, also known for “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream” and “Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer,” rallied for higher minimum wage, pushed against white privilege and challenged conventional thinking about race, religion, class, American exceptionalism, gender politics, the mechanics of joy and the gap between rich and poor.

A proponent of liberal causes such as economic equality and abortion rights, Ehrenreich wrote 20 books and was also the founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She frequently contributed to the Los Angeles Times and other publications such as Mother Jones and the Nation.

Her 1989 book, “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class,” was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 2001 bestseller, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” traced her own journey as a waitress and hotel housekeeper, among other low-income jobs, and became one of her best-known works.

In that book, she wrote “to be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.” She learned — and wrote — that living on $7 an hour was not a way to live at all.

In a 2001 review for The Times, Stephen Metcalf called the book “thoroughly enjoyable, written with an affable, up-your-nose brio throughout. Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist, and she has a tremendous sense of rueful humor. ... Social critics often sting but just as often lack real antiseptic power. Not so Ehrenreich, an old-time southpaw, a leftie without a trace of the apologetic squeak that’s recently crept into the voice of the left — and crept in while conservatives have stertorously monopolized phrases like ‘civilized society.’”

In 2009, Ehrenreich asked in The Times if feminism had “been replaced by the pink-ribbon breast cancer cult,” hoping to ignite a new women’s health movement. In 2014, she asked “how do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life” for a memoir that she never set out to write, thinking the form was too self-involved.

Nonetheless, she crafted “Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything,” a personal history and spiritual inquiry that pulled from journals she wrote between the ages of 14 and 24.

In a 2014 review of the book, David L. Ulin, a former Times books editor and critic, emphasized that the memoir was “not a book of faith. Educated as a scientist, trained as a reporter, Ehrenreich does not believe in what she cannot see. As such, she turns to philosophy, chemistry and physics; she traces the influence of her home life, which was dysfunctional (both parents were alcoholics) but encouraged asking questions and thinking for oneself.”

Barbara Alexander was born in Butte, Mont., in 1941, to a mother who was a homemaker and a father who was a copper miner before earning a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University and becoming the director of research at Gillette.

According to the Associated Press, she was raised in a union household where family rules included “never cross a picket line and never vote Republican.”

Barbara Ehrenreich faces the mystical in ‘Living With a Wild God’

She also said she was born and raised into atheism “by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons.” She was a student activist, was educated as a scientist — she studied physics at Reed College and earned a PhD in cellular biology from Rockefeller University in 1968 — but trained as a teacher and reporter.

After getting her doctorate, she joined a group of activists trying to improve healthcare for poor New Yorkers, which cemented her love of reporting and writing. “Health seemed related to biology,” she told the Washington Post in 2005.

Her 1983 book, “The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment,” helped her get assignments at the New York Times and launched her journalism career. She wrote a regular column for Time from 1990 to 1997. Her most notable books from that period include “Fear of Falling” and “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.”

Barbara Ehrenreich in New York in 2007.
(Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2019, after the release of “Natural Causes,” she explored “Silicon Valley syndrome,” or “towering hubris,” the pursuit of not just extending the quality of life but living forever.

The prolific author told The Times that once she realized she was old enough to die, she decided she would put up with no more “suffering, annoyance and boredom” in pursuit of a longer life. Instead, she opted to choose the foods she liked, the exercise that sufficed and the doctor visits that addressed the pains she actually felt. At the time, she had just released “Natural Causes.”

Ehrenreich was motivated by a desire to shed light on ordinary people as well as the “overlooked and the forgotten,” her editor, Sara Bershtel, told the New York Times.

She is survived by her son and her daughter, Rosa Brooks.


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