Tillie Lerner Olsen, 1913-2007

Tillie Lerner Olsen

Tillie Lerner Olsen

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.

8 thoughts on “Tillie Lerner Olsen, 1913-2007

  1. Olsen’s SILENCES was an important book for me. (I think it was one of the early Virago reprints or perhaps Women’s Press?) I remember coming across it when I had 2 small children and was struggling to find time to write and an identity as anything other than a stay-at-home mother, a time when my writing efforts were confined to letters (remember those?), long rambling efforts penned to friends.
    I drew strength and determination from SILENCES and of course a sense of sisterhood. It was an important book.


  2. Linda, my only experience with Olsen has been her “As I Stand Ironing” so far, but now I must get my hands on her only novel. Pity it took her death to draw my attention back to her, but as usual better late than never. I think I need to have that last phrase embossed on everything I do!


  3. My experience with Olsen is also limited to “As I Stand Ironing” and to critical references concerning her skill and style. Thanks for the review of her personal and political efforts.


  4. You’re very welcome, Jenclair. I’ve placed a hold on her Tell Me a Riddle via interlibrary loan and hopefully that will arrive within the next couple of weeks. I’ll post on it after I’ve read it.


  5. I have a copy of Tell Me a Riddle that I read about ten years ago in a Great Plains Lit. class. I’d never heard of Tillie Olsen until then. I’ll have to get it out and read it again. When I think of Olsen, I think of “As I Stand Ironing.”


  6. Les, her “As I Stand Here Ironing” always seems to be on the satellite channel that features the “Literary Visions” program. That may be a local community college channel, I’m not sure, but it’s on there very frequently. I hardly ever catch that program but it features wonderful analysis of one short work in every episode. I’ll have to pay more attention to what channel it is actually on so I can be a little less vague in recommending it!


  7. Thank you for this! Tillie Olsen’s family would like to let people in the San Francisco Bay Area know about her public memorial celebration.
    Please circulate this information widely — the family is trying to get this information out to all those who might be interested.
    Tillie Lerner Olsen
    Author, Feminist, Activist
    January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007
    Join family, friends, and readers for a Memorial Celebration of Tillie Olsen’s Life
    Saturday, February 17, 2007
    First Congregational Church of Oakland
    2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison)
    Oakland, CA
    1:00 celebration followed by reception.
    Parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.
    Please share this information with others you know who cared about and
    were affected by Tillie’s writing, teaching, speaking, or friendship.
    Also, you can visit http://www.tillieolsen.net for more information about her life and work.
    Many thanks, and hope to see many of you there…
    Ericka Lutz
    (Tillie’s granddaughter)


  8. Ericka, I am so honored you stopped by and left this information. I hope many who’ve been touched by Tillie Olsen will be able to come by and pay their respects.
    My very best to you and your family.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s