I Stand Here Ironing | Study Guide

Tillie Olsen

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Tillie Olsen | Biography


Early Life and Education

Tillie Olsen was born Tillie Lerner in Nebraska on January 14, 1912, to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents. Her birth was not recorded, but Olsen and her parents insisted she was born in 1912 or 1913 either in Omaha, Mead, or Wahoo, Nebraska. Olsen's parents fled czarist Russia in the early 1900s. They supported the socialist movement which is a movement that supports the belief that the public and not private owners should possess and manage production and distribution economies. Their political beliefs made it difficult for them to find steady work. Olsen had to help support her family by doing odd jobs after school as a young girl. This working-class perspective and the struggle that poverty-stricken families face appear frequently in her work.

Olsen possessed a bright and curious mind as a student. She was often ill in her youth, and she would read any books, articles, or social pamphlets that were available in the house during periods of recovery. Her parents often hosted political activists, and Olsen and her siblings would listen to them practice speeches or have political discussions with Olsen's parents. Olsen skipped ahead to third grade when she was seven years old. She showed a talent for writing and poetry. She created poems and writing samples that showed creativity and a vocabulary beyond her age. Her writing abilities blossomed in high school where she created a humor column for her school newspaper. Olsen was one of the few working-class youths from her town to attend high school. Olsen became pregnant at age 16 and left school to have an abortion. She returned briefly the following school year but left before graduating.

Early Adulthood

Olsen left Nebraska a day after she turned 18 with political activist Abraham Goldfarb (1895–1937). She married Goldfarb in 1931. Goldfarb and Olsen traveled throughout the United States but particularly California and the Midwest as union activists and communist supporters. Olsen was arrested for instigating worker protests and spent time in jail where she picked up an infectious lung disease. The illness earned her an early release from confinement, and Goldfarb took her to his sister's home in Minnesota where Olsen could recuperate. Olsen took advantage of this recovery time by reading and writing for herself just as she had in childhood.

Writing and Activism

In 1932 Olsen gave birth to her first child and began working part-time as her husband's secretary. Olsen relied on family members for childcare and often sent her children to stay with relatives in different states for extended periods while she focused on her activism. She did some writing during this time. The majority of her time was focused on creating pamphlets, articles, and texts that described the working-class way of life and supported communist ideas. In 1934 The Partisan Review published Olsen's short story "The Iron Throat" under the initials "TL." The story received instant praise from reviewers. One reviewer named Robert Cantwell (1908–78) called the story "early genius" and the best short story published that year.

Multiple publishing houses pursued Olsen for a novel contract, and she signed with Random House. She was paid to produce a novel for the publishing house but was never able to deliver a finished piece. By 1936 her marriage to Goldfarb had all but ended, and she was living with Jack Olsen (unknown–1989). Jack Olsen was a fellow activist hired by Goldfarb to support worker strikes along the California coast. Tillie Olsen was able to write some communist-supporting articles during the 1930s, but she occupied most of her time with economic and maternal responsibilities. She had another child with her second husband Jack Olsen in 1943. He left in 1944 to fight in Europe during World War II (1939–42) when the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan waged a worldwide war with the Allied powers of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. Tillie Olsen was incredibly active while her husband was away. She founded a local preschool cooperative, participated in parent-teacher organizations, and served as director of the CIO War Relief Fund in California. Olsen also encouraged communist activism across her state and supported her children. She wrote a column called "Tillie Olsen Says" (1944–46) for the local paper and was arrested on multiple occasions for spreading communist materials.

After Olsen's husband returned home, American political views quickly sharpened against communism which made it difficult for the Olsens to find steady work. Tille Olsen was even named by American senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–57) as a Russian spy sent to infiltrate American schools. Olsen grew more keenly aware that being politically or socially different made life harder. Her role in social and political activities as well as her domestic duties created interruptions and roadblocks that disrupted her writing productivity. She only had time to produce propaganda materials rather than give earnest and uninterrupted attention to her fiction and personal writing.

Productive Writing Years

In 1953 Olsen enrolled in writing courses at San Francisco University. She had more time and space to devote to her craft and was finally able to fulfill the potential publishers saw when she wrote "The Iron Throat" two decades earlier. In 1955 Stanford University granted Olsen a Wallace Stegner Fellowship which paid her to write for eight months. In that time she produced two short stories that would become part of a larger collection. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "O Yes" both focus on ways individuals grapple with social and cultural expectations. Both stories were included in the collection Tell Me a Story published in 1961. The title story is a novella that examines the end-of-life reflections and desires of an old married couple as they make their way across the country to visit their children one last time.

Tell Me a Story includes the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" in which a mother reflects on her parenting choices and the uncontrollable circumstances that have shaped her daughter's personality. The mother grapples with guilt over mistakes she made, unavoidable decisions, and things she did differently and perhaps better for her subsequent children. "I Stand Here Ironing" reflects many of the real-life circumstances Olsen lived through with her own children. Olsen's eldest daughter had a different father than her other children and was often sent to stay with relatives while Olsen tried to work and earn a living. Olsen's other children were able to have their mother home with them in a domestic role before they entered school. They experienced the benefits of living with their parents continuously rather than moving from home to home. The narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" questions what control she really had over her daughter's life and experiences. She concludes that the most important thing is to help her daughter strengthen the talents she has rather than worry about filling any deficiencies.

Feminism and Legacy

Olsen continued to find literary recognition and won a fellowship with Radcliffe College from 1962 to 1964. A speech she delivered in 1963 discussed the hardships women writers faced when breaking into a male-dominated field. She noted that productive and respected male writers were often childless and were not expected to participate in the domestic and child-rearing responsibilities that women had to fulfill. Olsen concluded that creative people were often stifled by circumstance and societal roles. Her speech was published in Harper's Magazine in 1965 as the essay "Silences: When Writers Don't Write." The speech began her rise as a feminist icon, and her later work as a public speaker and writer heavily influenced feminist thought and study.

Olsen is considered to be a founder of the feminist movement, a social movement to promote women's equality in the United States in the 1960s. Her short stories examine the complex and essential roles mothers play in shaping and maintaining a family unit. Olsen's quality of writing and keen insight helped launch discussions about ways women struggle to fulfill their creative drives. Her work offered sharp critiques of the expectations society places on women and creative women in particular. Olsen helped spark a discussion in the United States and abroad about the roles men and women play in domestic, professional, and artistic communities.

Olsen won several awards and honors during her career. She received multiple writing grants and fellowships from universities and educational foundations as well as several writing awards. She was awarded the O. Henry Award in 1961, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 1966 and 1984, and a total of nine honorary doctorates from universities such as the University of Nebraska and Smith College. She was asked to be a guest lecturer or guest speaker at liberal universities and feminist functions across the country, and her speeches displayed her wit, passion, and empathy shaped by her activist work among the working-class during the 1930s.

Olsen's husband Jack Olsen found her long-abandoned novel from her first publishing contract in the 1930s called Yonnondio. It was published in an incomplete, unedited form in 1974. Tillie Olsen gathered her many essays along with quotes and reflections of authors who experienced repression into a collection called Silences that was published in 1978. Silences served to further establish her as a founding feminist icon. Her early poems and short stories were published in 1993 as the collection First Words. Her last published work was an essay for Newsweek magazine called "The '30s: A Vision of Fear and Hope." Olsen suffered from Alzheimer's disease in the final years of her life which caused her to lose her memory. She died in California on January 1, 2007, after a three-year fight against the disease.

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