Tillie Olsen was born in either 1912 or 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska, the second of six children. Her parents were Russian Jews who fled to the United States after participating in the unsuccessful revolution of 1905, during which Russian peasants revolted against the government for a chaotic assortment of reasons, including their desire to have more land and higher wages. Olsen’s parents settled in Nebraska, where Olsen’s father became the secretary of the state’s Socialist Party. The family struggled to make ends meet. When Olsen was age ten, she was forced to get a job shelling peanuts after school. Raised by political activists and often surrounded by orators and social commentators, many of whom stayed at the family home when in town for speaking engagements, Olsen developed an early awareness of the power of words. She was especially inspired by her mother, who was illiterate until her twenties and taught Olsen about the sacrifices women often make when they become mothers and wives.
Olsen was one of a few students in her neighborhood to go to the district’s academically challenging high school, where teachers fed her love of learning and acquainted her with literature. In her mid-teens, Olsen began producing skits and musical sketches for the Young Socialist League. At eighteen, she joined the Young Communist League and was jailed for a month in Kansas City for distributing leaflets encouraging packinghouse workers to unionize. In 1932, Olsen moved to Faribault, Minnesota. She developed tuberculosis, and, during her recovery, had the luxury of bed rest and unlimited time to write. She produced the first few chapters of what would eventually become the novel Yonnondio, but pregnancy and the birth of her first child, Karla, interrupted her progress. Grinding poverty and an itinerant life, a period during which Karla’s father left and returned numerous times, thwarted Olsen’s initial literary efforts.
The 1934 publication of a short story called “The Iron Throat” garnered Olsen a sudden notoriety among critics and publishers. She soon found herself under contract with Random House and alone in Los Angeles, having sent her young daughter to be cared for by relatives. The separation proved too painful. Olsen forfeited her contract and moved to San Francisco to be reunited with Karla. In 1944, Olsen married fellow communist sympathizer Jack Olsen, with whom she had three daughters. From the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, Olsen worked a number of grueling jobs, attempting to write whenever she could.
At age forty-one, Olsen enrolled in a creative writing class at San Francisco State. A two-year fellowship at Stanford’s prestigious writing program followed. An early draft of “I Stand Here Ironing,” then entitled “Help Her to Believe,” was the submission that won the admission committee’s praise. At the end of the program, the return to a traditional workday almost thwarted the progress Olsen had made in those years. However, a grant from the Ford Foundation allowed her to finish one of her best-known stories, “Tell Me a Riddle,” for which she won the esteemed O. Henry Award for Best Story of the Year in 1961. That story became the title piece in a collection of four short prose works, Tell Me a Riddle (1961), which also featured “I Stand Here Ironing.” In 1974, Olsen finally published Yonnondio, the novel she had begun in 1932.
“I Stand Here Ironing” contains many autobiographical elements, including the narrator’s recollection of being a teenage mother with limited opportunities who is abandoned by the baby’s father. Olsen faced the same challenges, as her life was marked by the struggle to balance her family’s demands and political activism. Those involved with the reenergized women’s movement in the 1960s embraced the story’s sensitive portrayal of the difficulties and self-doubts that infiltrated motherhood. They also praised the story’s exploration of the effect that child rearing had on female identity during the Great Depression and World War II. The narrator attempts to accept responsibility for her failings as a mother, but she also recognizes the extenuating circumstances, such as inadequate pay for women and lack of social services, that frustrated her best efforts.