Tillie Olsen was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1913, the child of political refugees from Russia. Olsen dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to help support her family during the depression. She became politically active in the Young Communist League and was involved in the Warehouse Union’s labor disputes in Kansas City. Her first novel, Yonnondio, about a poor, working-class family, was begun when she was nineteen. While writing the novel over the next four years, she gave birth to her first child and was left to raise the baby alone after her husband abandoned her. She married Jack Olsen in 1936 and had three more children. She remained politically active and held down various jobs while raising her family throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1953 she was finally able to return to writing after her youngest child started to school.
Olsen enrolled in a fiction writing course at San Francisco State College in 1953. She won a creative writing fellowship for 1955 and 1956 from Stanford University. Her first book of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle, was published in 1961, which established her reputation as a feminist writer. The 1970s brought Olsen more notoriety with several grants and creative writing fellowships. In 1974 she published the still-unfinished Yonnondio. A collection of essays about various circumstances which silence literary creation, Silences was published in 1978. Though Olsen’s body of published work is considered small, her short stories from Tell Me a Riddle, which include "I Stand Here Ironing," have been included in over fifty anthologies and have been translated into many different languages.
"I Stand Here Ironing" is an autobiographical story of the r...
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Olsen works in numerous details to illustrate the sacrifices she made in her life. But instead of guilt, anger, or martyrdom, the author exudes a sense of powerlessness as she sees her daughter drift out of her mother’s emotional reach. As the title suggests, Olsen is literally ironing clothes in the story, but she includes the iron as a metaphor for the helplessness she feels as a woman struggling to support her family in a male dominated society. In a sense, Olsen is the clothing lying helpless before the iron of society and she lives for the day that her daughter will overcome the life-draining domesticity of generations of women who precede her.
Charters, Ann, ed. The Story and It’s Writer. Boston: Bedford, 1999.
Olsen, Tillie. "I Stand Here Ironing." The Story and It’s Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford, 1999. 1129-1134.
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