Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941. Butte at the time was a thriving town, and Ehrenreich’s father and much of her family worked in the mines and on the railroads. After her father received a degree at the Butte School of Mines, Ehrenreich moved frequently with her family—from Butte to Pittsburgh to New York to Massachusetts to Los Angeles—and found herself eventually ensconced in the middle class. She attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she majored in chemistry at first, then switched to physics. She enrolled as a grad student at Rockefeller University studying theoretical physics, then changed her field to cellular biology and earned a Ph.D.
As the anti-Vietnam War movement gained steam, Ehrenreich began to question whether science was her calling. Fresh from grad school, she dove into activism, joining a New York City nonprofit that clamored for better health care for the city’s less privileged. As part of the nonprofit, she began writing investigative pieces for its monthly bulletins. Later the women’s health movement caught her interest, and in 1972 she coauthored with Deirdre English a popular pamphlet called Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Eventually, she quit a university teaching job and resolved to write full-time.
Since then, Ehrenreich has proven herself one of the most influential journalistic voices of her generation. Her focus is on the contemporary socio-cultural landscape, with emphasis at times on feminism, American culture, and the plight of the poor. She shared the National Magazine Award for Excellence in Reporting in 1980 and received a Ford Foundation Award for Humanistic Perspectives on Contemporary Society in 1982, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1987-88, and a MacArthur Foundation Grant for Research and Writing in 1995. Her earlier works include The American Health Empire: Power, Profits and Politics (1971), with John Ehrenreich; For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (1978), with Deirdre English; The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983); Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex (1986), with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs; and The Mean Season: The Attack on Social Welfare (1987), with Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward, and Fred Block. In 1989, her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class was nominated for a National Book Critics’ Award, and the following year she penned a collection of essays on the Reagan years, called, bluntly enough, The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed.
Nickel and Dimed was published in 2001 and received immediate acclaim. Before its release, Ehrenreich had authored another highly regarded work, this one on the human disposition for warfare, called Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in 1997, as well as a novel, Kipper’s Game, in 1993. In 2002 Ehrenreich co-edited a collection of essays with Arlie Russell Hochschild called Global Woman, and in 2003 her own essay “Welcome to Cancerland” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. In 2006 she penned another work of socially inflected reportage, Bait and Switch, about white-collar unemployment, followed in 2007 by Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy--a sort of optimistic correlative to Blood Rites--and in 2009 by This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation--a biting look at the Bush years.
Ehrenreich returned to stints as a teacher at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998 and 2000, but she remains primarily a freelance writer.