Tillie Olsen died two days ago, at the age of 94. Most famously, Olsen was the author of the short story “As I Stand Here Ironing.” Her only finished work of fiction, Tell Me a Riddle, is still on the curriculums of some universities.
Olsen had articles published in The Nation and The Partisan Review, articles detailing the labor strikes and political unrest she saw and participated in. She was on the front lines, fighting injustice and spreading the message about the plight of women. An early member of the feminist movement, she spoke out against injustice when she saw it. Somewhat of a radical, she belonged to the American Communist Party for a short time. Tillie Olsen was an American writer and political activist who worked for what she believed in at a time when it was considered very unfeminine for a woman to speak out at all.
“Literary history and the present are dark with silences . . . I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences–what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)–that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.”
― Tillie Olsen
One of her main concerns was working-class women, especially those with aspirations toward the arts. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Olsen felt empathy for the plight of women so caught up in maintaining hearth and home they had no time for themselves, much less time for creative expression. She famously noted that the women who, through the generations, were able to become famous writers either had no children or had housekeepers raising her children. Despite all her hard work, her brief flirtation with communism unfortunately put a taint on her reputation. Some critics were unable to forgive her short association with the communists, unwilling or unable to separate Olsen the radical from Olsen the social reformer.
Tillie Olsen’s death may not immediately set off a shock wave in the literary world, just as her own life didn’t create any huge ripples, but it does resonate. It helps us remember the road we’re on today was paved by hundreds of Tillie Olsens who came before us, fighting battles against prejudice and social injustice in the name of future generations of humanity. We all reap the rewards for her victories, and continue to fight the good fight against the same threats to the weak.
The world could use a lot more Tillie Olsens. She will be missed.