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Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen’s own struggles to combine writing with working and raising a family spurred her to recover the writing of other silenced women writers, revolutionizing the study of women’s literature. Born to a working-class family and coming of age in the Great Depression, Olsen worked factory jobs and was not able to devote time to her writing until after her four daughters were grown, in the 1950s. Her first book, a short story collection called Tell Me a Riddle, was published in 1961 and met with wild success, earning an O’Henry short story award and inspiring an Academy Award-winning movie. Olsen continued to write while teaching writing and literature at Amherst, Stanford, and Kenyon College. It was during this time that she rediscovered Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 novel Life in the Iron Mills, a one-time bestseller that had been completely forgotten. Olsen began recovering the work of other women authors and lobbying the academic establishment for gender parity in literature courses. This work, combined with her own struggles to write despite economic and family pressures, led to Silences, her groundbreaking exploration of the absence of women, minorities, and working class writers from the literary canon.

Tillie Olsen
Full image
Tillie Olsen.
Courtesy of Tillie Olsen.
Date of Birth
January 14, 1913
Place of Birth
Mead, Nebraska
Date of Death
January 1, 2007

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Tillie Olsen." (Viewed on March 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/people/olsen-tillie>.


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