I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes

I Stand Here Ironing

I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen was one of six children born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Omaha, Nebraska. Olsen grew up in relative poverty and, although she was a voracious reader, her formal education ended when she left high school at age 16. Upon joining the Young Communist League in 1930, Olsen became deeply involved in communist activism and was noted throughout her life for her wide-ranging advocacy on behalf of women and the working class. Olsen published political poems and articles as a young woman, but her writing career slowed for many years due to the pressures of raising four daughters and earning a living. Olsen resumed publishing in her forties to wide acclaim, most notably with the four stories collected in Tell Me a Riddle, all of which were anthologized in the prestigious Best American Short Stories series. Following this success, Olsen was awarded numerous fellowships and honorary degrees and participated in the founding of The Feminist Press in 1970. Despite her relatively small body of published work, by the time of her death in 2007, Olsen was regarded as an instrumental figure in the evolution of feminist literature and activism.
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Historical Context of I Stand Here Ironing

Olsen is clearly influenced by the socialist ideals of her upbringing and, even more significantly, the Communist activism to which she devoted herself throughout her life. Her determination to amplify the voices of the working class and her skepticism of capitalist order define much of her work, and so the broader labor rights movement of her time can be seen as a significant historical influence. The lingering effects of the Great Depression and World War II also shape this story’s setting, as they cause first the poverty and then, later, the post-war stability that the narrator experiences. Finally, this story can be seen as a reaction to the social mores of 1950s America, in which polished, perfect versions of domestic life were idealized.

Other Books Related to I Stand Here Ironing

A leading voice in second-wave feminism, Olsen writes within the tradition of American short fiction that fuses stories of domestic life with questions of gender roles and equality. An early example of a short story dealing with those same themes is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story The Yellow Wallpaper. Although the setting and social class of the characters differs from Olsen’s work, The Yellow Wallpaper also examines the impact of domestic life on women through the story of a narrator whose transition to motherhood and oppression within her marriage lead to madness. The short fiction of Grace Paley, including her first collection The Little Disturbances of Man, also explores gender roles and domestic life through a feminist lens, this time during the same era that Olsen lived and wrote. Finally, Olsen’s nonfiction writing shares crucial themes with her short stories. Most notably, Olsen’s essay collection Silences includes reflections on the ways that motherhood and social oppression stifle the careers and creative ambitions of women, particularly those from working class background.
Key Facts about I Stand Here Ironing
  • Full Title: I Stand Here Ironing
  • When Written: 1950s
  • Where Written: San Francisco, California
  • When Published: 1960
  • Literary Period: Postmodern period
  • Genre: Short story, Realism, Feminism
  • Setting: Unspecified urban, working class neighborhood
  • Climax: Emily enters the room where the narrator is ironing
  • Antagonist: Economic and social pressures
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for I Stand Here Ironing

Documentary Subject. A 2007 documentary called Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Action focuses on Tillie Olsen’s life and literary influence.