Tillie Olsen: Voicing What Was Silenced
Last week, after Jewish writer Tillie Olsen died at the age of 94, I picked up a copy of Tell Me A Riddle, her first collection of short stories published in 1961. Last night I re-read “I Stand Here Ironing,” a story that recounts a poor working woman’s ambivalence about her parenting skills and about her eldest daughter’s future during the Great Depression. The narrator, a middle-aged single mother of four—as Olsen was when she wrote the story—wrestles with her own feelings of inadequacy in a world that offers little public understanding of her daily struggles to put food on the table, treat illnesses, comb her children’s hair, and iron her daughter’s dress as she does throughout the narration of the story. Like many of Olsen’s stories, "I Stand Here Ironing" gives voice to what is often silenced: the limitations imposed by poverty, the abandonment of a husband and father, and the alienation of being “dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness, curls, chubbiness and dimples.”
Olsen’s writing grew from the struggles of her own life and the impact of her family history. Born in Omaha, Nebraska to Jewish socialist refugees from the Russian Czarist repression of the early 1900s, she experienced conflicts between the demands of daily existence and the fulfillment of human potential. As a high school dropout at the height of the Great Depression, Olsen was much like everyone else in her hometown -- she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a packinghouse worker, a tie presser, an ice-cream packer, a secretary and a book clerk.
Although Olsen wrote steadily throughout this period, it took twenty years before she published Tell Me a Riddle, at the age of 50.
As the women’s movement emerged during the 1960s, a growing audience connected to Olsen’s articulation of the pain of silence and hardship. As is shown in JWA’s online exhibit “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” Olsen also became a central figure in reviving literary voices that had been silenced for decades. In the process, she helped redefine American fiction, opening doors for other women writers and encouraging the Feminist Press to publish manuscripts that had been uncovered years after they were written.
It’s inspiring that a woman like Olsen could overcome so many obstacles in order to bring renewed attention to women’s literary voices that had been lost for decades. And yet, her work is not done. Women’s voices and stories are still buried and often silenced. Tillie Olsen reminds us of our continued responsibility to preserve and transmit women’s experiences and voice our own as we strive for a more inclusive, just world.