Barbara Ehrenreich died at the age of 81 on September 1. The American author had reached a worldwide readership with her over 20 books which are best known for their strong voice of justice and dignity for the weakest sections as well as for opposing hypocrisy and social deceit at several levels. Her brilliant reportage, social commentary and book reviews will be remembered for long. Her books are known to be provocative and evidence-based; conveying strong views while retaining a sense of humor, taking delight in exposing injustice and hypocrisy.
Although it is as a writer that she is best remembered, she was also known widely as a socialist feminist and for her leading role in several organizations like Campaign for America’s Future, The National Women’s Health Network, the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Writers’ Union. She was able to combine the work of a political activist, journalist, author and academic efficiently and productively, contributing much in all areas of her work. It is interesting that she studied Physics and Chemistry at high levels, obtaining a doctorate, but preferred independent writing as her main work and source of livelihood all her life. She was able to write for several influential publications and reach a significant number of readers over a long period.
She became famous following the publication of her book ‘Nickel and Dimed –On (Not) Getting By in America’. To write this book she went undercover—hiding her real identity while working at the legal minimum wages as a salesgirl, household cleaner and waitress. With her experiences she revealed in her book—with a very readable mix of anger and humor—how in the most powerful as well as well-endowed country, the minimum wage is not adequate to pay for basic needs like food and rent and in order to meet basic needs, a worker will probably have to do two jobs, in the process exhausting herself to the point of health risks. This book also brought out the loss of dignity suffered by workers in low wage lines of work. Many cruel ironies of capitalism are brought out vividly in the book in the course of narrating the daily experiences of low-wage workers.
Her first book, published in 1969, titled ‘Long March, Short Spring’, was about student protests against the Vietnam War of the USA. Some of her best known books, apart from ‘Nickel and Dimed’ include ‘The Worst Years of Our Lives’, ‘Fear of Failing’, ‘Bright-Sided’, ‘Natural Causes’ and ‘Had I Known.’ Several of her books expose injustices and ironies of US systems, including beliefs taken for granted and seldom questioned.
However if the USA system is full of many injustices, why isn’t the anger against this more visible and why do many of those suffering from such injustices refuse to speak against this? Another book by Barbara tried to at least partially answer this question. This book, titled ‘Bright Sided-How Positive Thinking is Undermining America’ , shows that there is quite an ‘industry’ of positive thinking working all the time to convince more and more people to be always positive, or at least to sound positive, so that even when some workers get sacked, then instead of thinking of this injustice and the resulting immediate unemployment they may be lured into thinking that this may be only to pave the way for some better jobs that are going to available soon from what they have heard. Due to constant pressure of such positivist propaganda, people start feeling that it is less valiant to complain and crib about injustices and the more valiant way is to somehow look with hope at the future. This book led to a need for closely examining the ‘positivists’—some of them have amassed a fortune for themselves while convincing others to accept their deprivation more ‘happily’– in a new and much more critical way.
Apart from her own considering writing, Barbara Ehrenreich was keen to promote writings on poverty and justice by others, including by people who have been close to experiencing economic difficulties themselves. This led her to initiate the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
She is survived by two children Ben Ehrenreich and Rosa Brooks. Both of them are also involved in writing on justice related issues.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now within a Framework of Justice, Peace and Democracy.