Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Barbara Ehrenreich, born Barbara Alexander

American Feminist, Democratic Socialist, Political Activist, Columnist, Essayist and Author

"A child is not a salmon mousse. A child is a temporarily disabled and stunted version of a larger person, whom you will someday know. Your job is to help them overcome the disabilities associated with their size and inexperience so that they get on with being that larger person. "

"America is addicted to wars of distraction. "

"Almost everyone smokes as if their pulmonary well-being depended on it — the multinational mélange of gooks; the dishwashers, who are all Czechs here; the servers, who are American natives — creating an atmosphere in which oxygen is only an occasional pollutant. My first morning at Jerry's, when the hypoglycemic shakes set in, I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don't understand how she can go so long without food. 'Well, I don't understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,' she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for other; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don't know why the anti-smoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims — as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. "

"A lot of what we experience as strength comes from knowing what to do with weakness."

"But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. "

"Anyone who has invented a better mousetrap, or the contemporary equivalent, can expect to be harassed by strangers demanding that you read their unpublished manuscripts or undergo the humiliation of public speaking, usually on remote Midwestern campuses. "

"A free-enterprise economy depends only on markets, and according to the most advanced mathematical macroeconomic theory, markets depend only on moods: specifically, the mood of the men in the pinstripes, also known as the Boys on the Street. When the Boys are in a good mood, the market thrives; when they get scared or sullen, it is time for each one of us to look into the retail apple business. "

"But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food includes strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down toward destitution. "

"Crime seems to change character when it crosses a bridge or a tunnel. In the city, crime is taken as emblematic of class and race. In the suburbs, though, it's intimate and psychological -- resistant to generalization, a mystery of the individual soul. "

"Considering the absence of legal coercion, the surprising thing is that men have for so long, and, on the whole, so reliably, adhered to what we might call the breadwinner ethic."

"Everyone in yuppie-land — airports, for example — looks like a nursing baby these days, inseparable from their plastic bottles of water. Here, however, I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs ... Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and objet through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from another vantage point, only an obstacle between some thirsty person and a glass of water. "

"For all the talk about the need to be a likable team player, many people work in a fairly cutthroat environment that would seem to be especially challenging to those who possess the recommended traits. Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates -- of servants rather than masters, women (traditionally, anyway) rather than men. After advising his readers to overcome the bitterness and negativity engendered by frequent job loss and to achieve a perpetually sunny outlook, management guru Harvey Mackay notes cryptically that the nicest, most loyal, and most submissive employees are often the easiest people to fire. Given the turmoil in the corporate world, the prescriptions of niceness ring of lambs-to-the-slaughter. "

"Exercise is the yuppie version of bulimia. From the point of view of the pharmaceutical industry, the AIDS problem has already been solved. After all, we already have a drug which can be sold at the incredible price of $8, 000 an annual dose, and which has the added virtue of not diminishing the market by actually curing anyone. "

"Frankly, I adore your catchy slogan Adoption, not abortion, although no one has been able to figure out, even with expert counseling, how to use adoption as a method of birth control, or at what time of the month it is most effective."

"I displayed, or usually displayed, all those traits deemed essential to job readiness: punctuality, cleanliness, cheerfulness, obedience. These are the qualities that welfare-to-work job-training programs often seek to inculcate, though I suspect that most welfare recipients already possess them, or would if their child care and transportation problems were solved. "

"Given the cultural barriers to intersex conversation, the amazing thing is that we would even expect women and men to have anything to say to each other for more than ten minutes at a stretch. The barriers are ancient -- perhaps rooted, as some paleontologist may soon discover, in the contrast between the occasional guttural utterances exchanged in male hunting bands and the extended discussions characteristic of female food-gathering groups. "

"However we resolve the issue in our individual homes, the moral challenge is, put simply, to make work visible again: not only the scrubbing and vacuuming, but all the hoeing, stacking, hammering, drilling, bending, and lifting that goes into creating and maintaining a livable habitat. In an ever more economically unequal world, where so many of the affluent devote their lives to ghostly pursuits like stock trading, image making, and opinion polling, real work, in the old-fashioned sense of labor that engages hand as well as eye, that tires the body and directly alters the physical world tends to vanish from sight. The feminists of my generation tried to bring some of it into the light of day, but, like busy professional women fleeing the house in the morning, they left the project unfinished, the debate broken off in mid-sentence, the noble intentions unfulfilled. Sooner or later, someone else will have to finish the job. "

"I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle 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. "

"I dust a whole shelf of books on pregnancy, breastfeeding, the first six months, the first year, the first two years — and I wonder what the child care-deprived Maddy makes of all this. Maybe there's been some secret division of the world's women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits — to show she's advanced to the breeder caste and can't be sent out to clean anymore. "

"I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that hard work was the secret of success: Work hard and you'll get ahead or It's hard work that got us where we are. No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt. "

"If men were equally at risk from this condition -- if they knew their bellies might swell as if they were suffering from end-stage cirrhosis, that they would have to go nearly a year without a stiff drink, a cigarette, or even an aspirin, that they would be subject to fainting spells and unable to fight their way onto commuter trains -- then I am sure that pregnancy would be classified as a sexually transmitted disease and abortions would be no more controversial than emergency appendectomies. "

"I was raised the old-fashioned way, with a stern set of moral principles: Never lie, cheat, steal or knowingly spread a venereal disease. Never speed up to hit a pedestrian or, or course, stop to kick a pedestrian who has already been hit. From which it followed, of course, that one would never ever -- on pain of deletion from dozens of Christmas card lists across the country -- vote Republican. "

"In economics, we borrowed from the Bourbons; in foreign policy, we drew on themes fashioned by the nomad warriors of the Eurasian steppes. In spiritual matters, we emulated the braying intolerance of our archenemies, the Shite fundamentalists."

"Imagine spending four billion years stocking the oceans with seafood, filling the ground with fossil fuels, and drilling the bees in honey production -- only to produce a race of bed-wetters! "

"In matters of the heart as well, a certain level of negativity and suspicion is universally recommended. You may try to project a thoroughly positive outlook in order to attract a potential boyfriend, but you are also advised to Google him. "

"It seems to me that there must be an ecological limit to the number of paper pushers the earth can sustain, and that human civilization will collapse when the number of, say, tax lawyers exceeds the world's total population of farmers, weavers, fisherpersons, and pediatric nurses. "

"My aim here was much more straightforward and objective — just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I've had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it's not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear. "

"Of all the nasty outcomes predicted for women's liberation... none was more alarming, from a feminist point of view, than the suggestion that women would eventually become just like men. "

"Marriage is socialism among two people. "

"Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively, by someone else. I just don't happen to think it's an appropriate subject for an ethic"

"Sexual ecstasy usually arises among dyads, or groups of two, but the ritual ecstasy of primitives emerged within groups generally composed of thirty or more participants. Thanks to psychology and the psychological concerns of Western culture generally, we have a rich language for describing the emotions drawing one person to another--from the most fleeting sexual attraction, to ego-dissolving love, all the way to the destructive force of obsession. What we lack is any way of describing and understanding the love that may exist among dozens of people at a time; and it is this kind of love that is expressed in ecstatic ritual."

"No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots. "

"No culture on earth outside of mid-century suburban America has ever deployed one woman per child without simultaneously assigning her such major productive activities as weaving, farming, gathering, temple maintenance, and tent-building. The reason is that full-time, one-on-one child-raising is not good for women or children. "

"Natural selection, as it has operated in human history, favors not only the clever but the murderous. "

"Some economists argue that the apparent paradox rests on an illusion: there is no real 'labor shortage,' only a shortage of people willing to work at the wages currently being offered. You might as well talk about a 'Lexus shortage' — which there is, in a sense, for anyone unwilling to pay $40,000 for a car. "

"Some of us still get all weepy when we think about the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that earth is a big furry goddess-creature who resembles everybody's mom in that she knows what's best for us. But if you look at the historical record -- Krakatoa, Mt. Vesuvius, Hurricane Charley, poison ivy, and so forth down the ages -- you have to ask yourself: Whose side is she on, anyway? "

"So why do people keep on watching? The answer, by now, should be perfectly obvious: we love television because television brings us a world in which television does not exist. In fact, deep in their hearts, this is what the spuds crave most: a rich, new, participatory life. "

" Surely there must be some way to find a husband or, for that matter, merely an escort, without sacrificing one's privacy, self-respect, and interior decorating scheme. For example, men could be imported from the developing countries, many parts of which are suffering from a man excess, at least in relation to local food supply. "

"Someone has to stand up for wimps. "

"The absence of legal coercion, the surprising thing is that men have for so long, and, on the whole, so reliably, adhered to what we might call the breadwinner ethic. "

"The feminist anti-pornography movement, no less than the feminist movement of a century ago, encourages the assumption that male and female sexuality, and possibly morality, are as unlike as yin and yang. "

"Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent. "

"The discovery of poverty at the beginning of the 1960s was something like the discovery of America almost five hundred years earlier. In the case of each of these exotic terrains, plenty of people were on the site before the discoverers ever arrived. "

"That's free enterprise, friends: freedom to gamble, freedom to lose. And the great thing -- the truly democratic thing about it -- is that you don't even have to be a player to lose. "

"The label of liberalism is hardly a sentence to public ignominy: otherwise Bruce Springsteen would still be rehabilitating used Cadillacs in Asbury Park and Jane Fonda, for all we know, would be just another overweight housewife. "

"The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks. "

"The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all. Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding? Why retreat into anxious introspection when, as Emerson might have said, there is a vast world outside to explore? Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done? "

"The media have just buried the last yuppie, a pathetic creature who had not heard the news that the great pendulum of public consciousness has just swung from Greed to Compassion and from Tex-Mex to meatballs. "

"The secret of the truly successful, I believe, is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy. They saw through that adage, repeated to me so often in childhood that anything worth doing is worth doing well. The truth is, many things are worth doing only in the most slovenly, halfhearted fashion possible, and many other things are not worth doing at all. "

"The urge to transform one's appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress. "