I Stand Here Ironing | Study Guide

Tillie Olsen

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I Stand Here Ironing | Context



Olsen's discussion of the restrictive roles that women grapple with in the essay "Silences: When Writers Don't Write" (1978) is a natural pairing with The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedman. The Feminine Mystique debunked the social belief that women should only aspire to be wives and mothers. Olsen's essay points out the inequality between male and female writers and artists. Prominent male writers of the time were often childless so they had the free time to devote to exploring their craft. Even male writers with families were not expected to carry out the work of child-rearing. Traditional gender roles delegated domestic responsibilities to women. These responsibilities were time-consuming and constant throughout the day. The societal expectation to carry the domestic workload puts women at a significant disadvantage. Olsen's essays and lectures encouraged audiences to consider the ways women and other repressed artists must choose between domestic responsibilities and creative expression.

Olsen's nonfiction addresses gender role issues head-on, and her fiction examines the roles women and particularly mothers play in the lives of their families. "I Stand Here Ironing" (1968) gives voice to the guilt mothers face when reflecting on their children. The story questions how much of the responsibility for shaping a child lies in the mother's choices and how much lies in choices forced upon the family. Olsen creates complex mother characters who often struggle against societal expectations for themselves or for their loved ones. These characters must make difficult choices, and it is not always clear if they did the right thing or made the best choice, especially when they have time to reflect. The narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" takes a long look at several of her choices as a mother. The narrator must wrestle with the guilt she holds in hindsight as she examines her teen daughter's life.

The Great Depression

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the United States was hurled into a spiraling economic depression that was further exacerbated by famine and natural disasters across the country. The US economy took more than a decade to recover. The Great Depression (1929–33) negatively impacted virtually every household across the country but especially the working class who were already at the mercy of volatile markets. Many families faced tough choices and were forced to separate during this time. Young children were sometimes sent to live with relatives while their parents worked. Other times heads of households would abandon their families when the pressure of poverty was too difficult to bear. Many individuals and families traveled across states to try to find work.

Like the mother in "I Stand Here Ironing," Olsen was a new young mother during the Great Depression and struggled to make enough money to support her family. Olsen also sent her eldest child to live with out-of-town relatives so she could continue to work. The narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" had the added burden of being a single mother who was abandoned by her husband when her daughter Emily was only months old. The narrator twice makes the decision to send Emily to live with other relatives so the narrator can make enough money to live and support her child. These are the beginning of a series of difficult choices the mother feels guilt over in the story. Her decisions are a reflection of the difficult choices many mothers and families had to make while grappling with the Great Depression and economic recovery.

The Cold War Era

The Cold War Era (1945–91) in America was almost a direct antithesis of the Great Depression (1929–33). The Cold War was a time of general prosperity and comfort for many people in America. Parents who grew up during the Great Depression had very different upbringings than their children growing up in the 1950s. Children and young adults of the 1930s worried about immediate, day-to-day survival needs like having a job, food, and place to live. The children of the 1950s had financial comfort but were worried about atomic warfare and a communist revolution. Parents who grew up with basic survival concerns were raising a generation that was taught that having the same material possessions as friends and neighbors was the best way to maintain perfect societal expectations.

The shift in priority and perspective is evident in the relationship between the narrator and her daughter Emily. While the narrator raised her infant daughter, she made difficult decisions to send her to live with relatives for several months. The narrator was then forced by circumstance to send her daughter to a daycare where she didn't feel loved or safe. In the present time of the story, Emily says she's not concerned with midterms because everyone will be dead from an atom bomb in a few years anyway. The urgency of survival in the face of poverty that drove her mother's choices is replaced in Emily with an amused acceptance of total annihilation while living in economic comfort. Emily's perspective is shaped by the political instability and threat of nuclear war that persisted throughout the Cold War.

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