NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, activist, and self-described “mythbuster” who, in notable works like “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch,” challenged conventional thinking about class, religion, and the whole idea of an American dream. , passed away at the age of 81.
Ehrenreich died Thursday morning in Alexandria, Virginia, according to her son, author and journalist Ben Ehrenreich. She had recently had a stroke.
“She was, she made clear, ready to go,” Ben Ehrenreich tweeted Friday. “She was never very fond of thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving each other and by fighting like hell.”
Born Barbara Alexander in Butte, Montana, she grew up in a unionist household, where family rules included never crossing a picket line and never voting Republican. She studied physics at Reed College and received her PhD in immunology from Rockefeller University. Starting in the 1970s, she worked as a teacher and researchers and became increasingly active in the feminist movement, from writing pamphlets to appearing at 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 published books and newspaper and magazine articles, Ehrenreich improved an accessible prose style that earned her a wide readership for otherwise disturbing and unsentimental ideas. She despised individualism, organized religion, unregulated economics, and what Norman Vincent Peale famously called the “power of positive thinking.”
A proponent of liberal causes, from unions to abortion rights, Ehrenreich often drew on her own experiences to convey her ideas. The birth of her daughter Rosa inspired 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 assurances of benefactors and examined American urges—a religion, she called it—for optimism, to the point of ignore the many problems of the country.
“We must brace ourselves for a battle 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 that is positive thinking,” she wrote.
“Positive thinking has made itself useful as an excuse for the cruel aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can gain an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. So the flip side of positivity is a hard emphasis on personal responsibility.”
For “Nickel and Dimed,” one of her best-known books, she worked in minimum wage jobs so she could learn firsthand the struggles of the working poor, whom she called “our society’s foremost philanthropists.”
“They neglect their own children so that the children of others are taken care of; they live in substandard homes so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they are going through hardship so inflation will be low and stock prices high,” she wrote. “Joining the working poor is being an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, for everyone.”
Ehrenreich wrote for The New York Times, The Nation, Vogue, and many other publications, and her other books include “The Worst Years of Our Lives: Ireverent Notes from a Decade of Greed,” “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War” and “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.”