For the narrator and her two daughters, being a woman is both a source of power and a burden. Since the men in their lives are unreliable, the story’s women have learned to be self-sufficient and resilient, which helps them through difficult times. However, even without individual men supporting them, the influence of male-dominated culture still affects them, causing them to see themselves through impossible beauty standards and creating conflict between them. Women, Olsen suggests, must fill countless conflicting roles simultaneously, and these paradoxical demands make it nearly impossible for an individual woman to live up to all of society’s expectations of her. In the story, then, femininity operates as a key to resilience, but also a liability.
While nothing in the story explicitly states that women are more powerful than men, Olsen implies it by depicting all of the male characters as absent, irrational, or helpless. The narrator mentions men only in passing, which makes clear by omission that her struggles and accomplishments are all her own. Emily’s unnamed father, for instance, vanishes early in the story after saying good-bye to his family in a note, and the narrator does not mention him again. By leaving him largely absent and making even his departure silent, Olsen hints at his essential voicelessness and lack of influence. The father of the narrator’s other children is presumably present throughout much of the story but his are never mentioned, making him effectively absent as well. The boy that Emily loves during childhood also remains nameless. He comes across as irrational and incomprehensible, rejecting Emily even though she brings him his favorite candy. Again, the narrator quickly moves on from recalling him, indicating that attempts to understand him are a waste of time. Similarly, the narrator reveals that her second husband is named Bill but says nothing else about him or his role in the family. The only other named male character is the infant Ronnie, the narrator’s youngest child. Ronnie is sweet but helpless, relying completely on the narrator’s care and even on Emily for his notion of comfort, which he expresses using a nonsense word that Emily invented. Again, the narrator meets Ronnie’s needs in a matter-of-fact way with little comment, suggesting that being the sole source of support is second nature to her. Ronnie’s total reliance on the narrator illuminates Olsen’s broader representation of gender dynamics: while male characters remain useless and nondescript, women like the narrator and Emily assume both the burden and the power of defining the world.
And yet even though the individual men in their lives are ineffective, the expectations of patriarchal society still constrain Emily and the narrator, most notably through standards of female beauty. The narrator describes Emily as “beautiful at birth,” but notes that later on Emily was “thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple.” The narrator links this difference in appearance to Emily’s social and emotional struggles and notes that Emily’s conventionally beautiful sister, Susan, had none of the same struggles. The narrator recalls trying to convince Emily that she was beautiful “to the seeing eye” but then adds that “the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.” That the narrator herself could not always appreciate Emily’s genuine beauty shows that even when beauty is present, it often goes unappreciated, making its pursuit useless. Even the appearance of non-human entities demonstrates the deceptive nature of beauty. The narrator describes the home where Emily lives as a child as “a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds.” But Emily and the other children are miserable living at the home, despite its pleasing appearance. Beauty, then, is unreliable, which further reduces its value and limits the power of those who do possess it. While Emily aspires to conventional female beauty, the narrator is more circumspect, suggesting that this outward measure of power lacks substance. The societal pressure to live up to arbitrary standards of beauty is one way in which female identity is a burden to the narrator and her daughter.
Like female beauty, relationships between women are also simultaneously empowering and limiting in this story. Love between the female characters sometimes strengthens them, but gendered social pressures often introduce anxiety and stress into those otherwise loving relationships. For example, the narrator acknowledges that, as Emily’s mother, she is expected to have some special understanding of her daughter. However, she finds herself distant from Emily, musing: “She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.” This separation leaves the narrator wondering whether she has failed as a mother, even though she demonstrates to readers all the ways in which she has shown love and support to Emily throughout her life. The narrator’s relationship with Emily is undeniably meaningful, but the narrator senses that society expects an even deeper, almost magical bond. In this way, the role of mother leaves the narrator despairing in the face of impossible expectations, despite all the positive elements of her relationship with Emily. Furthermore, Emily’s younger sister Susan acts mostly as an antagonist in this story, even though she looks the part of the pretty, perfect young girl. Far from comforting Emily, Susan’s presence causes “corroding resentment” in her sister. The narrator implies that this resentment stems from the discrepancy between Susan’s easy compliance with gendered expectations and Emily’s parallel inability to live up to those same standards. For Susan and Emily, the pressures of female identity transform the mutual support of sisterhood into painful competition. Love between female peers is also presented as dangerous at the convalescent home where Emily lives for some months due to her anxiety. After her close friend is moved to another residence, Emily tells her mother: “They don’t like you to love anybody here.” One of the only times that the narrator and her two daughters seem to be at peace together is when the narrator keeps both daughters home from school, “to have them all together.” That the narrator chooses to do this, even though Emily’s teachers get angry at her absences, suggests that deviating from social structures and expectations may be the only avenue to achieve conflict-free female relationships.
Female Identity ThemeTracker
Female Identity Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.
Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking—but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in manner and appearance that Emily was not.
I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.