“I Stand Here Ironing” is best understood in the context of two social forces that gripped the United States in the twentieth century: the lean years of the Great Depression and the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1950s and beyond. “I Stand Here Ironing” is highly autobiographical, and the narrator, a single, teenage mother raising a daughter in the depths of the Great Depression, is a double for Olsen. “It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression,” the narrator notes when she describes the reality into which Emily was born. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a relief agency that provided work rather than welfare to the nation’s struggling families. Without employment assistance or financial relief, the narrator was left to her own devices, forced to face the grim specter of poverty and the need to work while raising her infant daughter alone. Those trying years have left an indelible mark on the narrator, who openly cites the permanent effect that this inescapable crisis had not only on her family but also on her psyche. Olsen also raised a child alone in the early 1930s and, like the narrator, faced economic hardship that led to great emotional strain.
During the Depression years, many single, working mothers struggled with a lack of social services and financial support. Olsen’s story provides a glimpse of a woman’s experience of economic deprivation, and her writing at the time added to the growing momentum of the feminist literary movement in the 1960s. Readers, particularly female readers, were drawn to Olsen’s fictional portraits of working-class women who struggled to balance the demands of their professional and private lives, often at great expense to themselves and their self-identity. Olsen’s work helped to shatter stereotypes of the ideal mother who effortlessly and selflessly nurtures her family while easily putting aside her own hopes. “I Stand Here Ironing” desanctified motherhood, giving voice to the self-doubt and ambivalence that some mothers felt when faced with the challenges of child-rearing.