Tillie Olsen

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Tillie Olsen in 1996

Tillie Lerner Olsen (January 14, 1913–January 1, 2007) was a Jewish American writer who was associated with the political turmoil of the 1930s and the first generation of American feminists.


  • "I learned a lot being around cows," she recalled in 2002. "It seemed to me they were so damned patient."
  • Public libraries were my sustenance and my college.
  • Sad is the country that requires women's studies, black and ethnic studies.
    • Attributed by Kay Bonetti in 1986 article included in Conversations with Grace Paley (1997)
  • Sometimes the young-discouraged, overwhelmed-ask me incredulously: "You mean you still have hope?" And I hear myself saying, yes, I still have hope: beleaguered, starved, battered, based hope. Through horrors, blood, betrayals, apathy, callousness, retreats, defeats-in every decade of my now 82-year-old life that hope has been tested, affirmed. And more than hope: an exhaustless store of certainty, vision, belief-which came to me first in the time of my youthhood, the Depression '30s.
    • "A Vision of Fear and Hope" (1994) nonfiction originally in Newsweek, also in Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I and Other Works (2013)
  • For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say--but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.
  • beginning of the short story "Tell Me a Riddle" (1960), also included in Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I and Other Works (2013)
  • She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.
    • "Tell Me a Riddle" (1960)
  • "It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched."
    • "Tell Me a Riddle" (1960)
  • I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
    • first line of the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" (1956), also included in Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I and Other Works (2013)

Interview with The Progressive Magazine (1999)

  • Because I'm a human being and human beings have a need to express themselves. Also, I stuttered. So I listened a lot, and there was a lot to listen to in my neighborhood. And there was the wonder of the black church, right around the corner. I loved that music so much, sometimes I'd go sit on the stairs. Once one of the women said, "Why don't you come up and sit in a real chair?" So I went in and came every Sunday I could. I also had luck because I was proud of my class--because of growing up with Socialist parents and having sat on Eugene V. Debs's lap and given him red roses. And hearing him. I remember how he said passionately, "You are not heads to them, brains that can think. You are not hearts to them, that can feel. You are hands." And he held up his hands. And he started, you know: "Cowhands, farmhands. . . ." I was impressed again by the power of language.
    • "Why do you write?"
  • Yes, of course, the silences go on. The first silencing is the inequality of the educational system. We still have a strong class system in this country. Look at what's happening with most public schools. Think of the future writers who are being lost all along. Future writers. In Yonnondio, the kids really hate school, and their mom wants them to get a good education, but instead they are turned against it. And as I write in there, "For was it not through books they had been taught that they were dumb, dumb, dumb?" That process is exactly what is happening in the public schools now for many children-- the doing in of bilingual programs, for instance. I'm enraged by charter schools. Every school should be a good school. We are just setting up more educational class systems. The second silencing is the workload so many have to carry, the problem of time.
    • Are writers still silenced by their economic circumstances as they were when you began your career?
  • Think about all that we've lost that has been said orally because nobody was taking it down. I feel very fortunate to live in a time where we have so many different voices. We have a much richer literature than we've ever had, and we can know our country so much better.
  • There are "hidden injuries of class" whether you are conscious of it or not.
  • Central High School was where I first learned about the power of circumstances, about economics. I learned about what people of color were like through my neighborhood relationships, and also that there was racist hatred because there was a lynching in our neighborhood...I still have a recurring nightmare--the smell of burning flesh and a boy about my age whose father is trying to put this open pocketknife in his hand, pushing him, and telling him to go up [to the hanged man] and bring back part of his ear.
  • I very much dislike the word "race," and I never use it. I use the word "racist." Race is not a fact. There is only one race: human. Skin color is less than 2 percent of the DNA.
  • In that Czarist Russia, Jewish girls were not taught even to read and write. It took (my mother) becoming a revolutionary and joining the Bund, the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization, to learn to read and love books.
  • The great college of motherhood. You learn so much about human development, human capacity. And it doesn't have to do with whether you have wealth and advantage or not. It has to do with the parenting those first few years before the world comes in with its enormous effect. The ecstasy of achievement when you first learn to walk, the passion for language. When children first learn to talk sentences, you usually can't shut them up. When they learn how to climb, for instance, again the ecstasy of achievement, that real hunger to learn, to have experiences, to be on top of something.
  • The college of activism--that whole participation with others in trying to make change for the better. When I had only one child, I was already a labor activist. I did leaflets for unions in the old mimeograph days way back in 1932 and '33. And of course, '34 was the year when union organizations finally were really winning. The General Strike was my second-ever arrest. The city jail was just packed. We'd be serenaded every night from the men's section with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
  • We lefties said over and over and over again, "If Hitler and Mussolini and Franco win there, there's going to be World War II." If only we'd had enough power, millions of people would be alive and the Holocaust would never have happened.
  • It's hard for me to talk about the terrible things that have happened in my lifetime because they didn't need to be.
  • History gives me hope. The century has also been full of resistance. Why is it that the resistance movements--often so heroic and so ingenious--get obliterated from consciousness? There's always been resistance, and there comes a time when changes are made. The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act is a fact which every human being should know about. We are a species that makes changes. I have a lot of faith in the American people if they have access to truth.
  • I buy 100 copies at a time of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Eleanor Roosevelt's great work...I sometimes, if it's an adult audience, ask how many of them are familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most highly educated people have never read it. It's a tragic erasure of our heritage...It was such a time of hope. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic rights.
  • We also read Lenin on housework, which is a very, very interesting essay. He uses the word "degrading," which I never felt, because you really see the results of what you've done. But the enormous amount of time it took! That was a factor in our not being as active. Of course, the men came home, and if we were working, we did not sit down like they did. It took a women's movement to change that.
  • There was a guy who testified before the Un-American Activities Committee that it was at the house of Jack and Tillie Olsen that everybody was ordered to throw their party books into the fireplace. The only thing he goofed on was that we never had any fireplace, let alone the fact that it never happened. I was president of the PTA. A neighbor called one morning and said, "Do you have your radio on?" I said, "No." And she said, "Well, you'd better put it on. It's about you." I said, "About me?" So I turned it on fast and heard I was "an agent of Stalin who'd been empowered to take over the San Francisco school system."
  • There's been some change, as is evident by the number of women writers who are read. And education itself has somewhat changed. There's a lot more encouragement, a lot more writing classes. It was the women's movement that gave women in academe a certain strength. If you'd look at the old reading lists, maybe George Eliot, the Bront‘s, Virginia Woolf might be taught. At Stanford, I think it was 1971, they needed somebody [to teach their first-ever course on women's literature], and my name was suggested. Well, I had no credentials. I had never gone to college. And there was quite a to-do about whether or not I had the qualifications. It was supposed to be a small class. I went into this auditorium. It was jammed. There were, I think, four guys, one of whom went out and then came back again and then went out and then came back again. There were over 100 women there, including faculty wives. By and large, none of this had ever been taught at Stanford before.
    • "How has the situation of women writers changed?"
  • What does hope have to do with it? It depends on time, circumstances, whether or not your writing lives the life of being read, taught. Certainly, for years, I wrote of women's lives, working class lives, when few others were. I do know that the two talks printed in Silences had real impact at the time, as did my reading lists--for academics, especially. I haven't published a lot of fiction. I haven't published a lot of anything. But it does go on, it's taught, anthologized. That's very dear to me, and dearest of all are the people whom it has affected. I know that for some people, they feel that it's their life or the life of their mother, or alcoholic relative [that I'm writing about], or they suffer over a daughter and think, "my wisdom came too late" [as the speaker says in "I Stand Here Ironing"].
    • "What effect do you hope your writing will have?"
  • Little is written about revolutionaries, let alone Jews who became atheists, "idealists," some people might term them, not "realists." I like to quote William James, who said, "The world can and has been changed by those to whom the ideal and the real are dynamically contiguous." It was their struggle to do this and make needed changes. There was a period in my parents' lives--it was a period in our country's life--when the ideal and the real were dynamically contiguous. They really felt that the international movement was going to change the world and make it a more just, human place. They were young when they came here, but they'd lived so very, very much. The world is so different from the world of their youth and the world of my youth. Still, power is primarily held by people of wealth and position. By and large, class interest still rules in our country. Who are the people who make policy and how do they get there? You may get an elite education, but you don't learn labor history (which means the lives of most of humanity).
  • I have a lot of hope from young people, too, with that flame of freedom and light of knowledge, as well as from some of the old people, whom I honor a lot. There's the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought in Spain, what's left of them, and there's no bitterness, there's no cynicism. They believe, too, as I do, that it's in human beings not to put up with what is harming and depriving. I am a believer, but the U.S. über alles psychology is very strong now and our bombings from the air. I don't want to die leaving the world as it is right now. You know the old saying, "Whoever degrades another degrades me"? That's Walt Whitman--an American, I'm proud to say.

Silences (1978)

  • Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all...The great in achievement have known such silences-Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins. They tell us little as to why or how the creative working atrophied and died in them-if ever it did.
  • In the last century, of the women whose achievements endure for us in one way or another, nearly all never married (Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett) or married late in their thirties (George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Olive Schreiner). I can think of only four (George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Elizabeth Gaskell) who married and had children as young women. All had servants.
  • In our century, until very recently, it has not been so different. Most did not marry (Selma Lagerlof, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Gertrude Stein, Gabriela Mistral, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Charlotte Mew, Eudora Welty, Marianne Moore) or, if married, have been childless (Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, H.H. Richardson, Elizabeth Bowen, Isak Dinesen, Katherine Anne Porter, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker). Colette had one child (when she was forty). If I include Sigrid Undset, Kay Boyle, Pearl Buck, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, that will make a small group who had more than one child. All had household help or other special circumstances.
  • women are traditionally trained to place others' needs first, to feel these needs as their own (the "infinite capacity"); their sphere, their satisfaction to be in making it possible for others to use their abilities.
  • More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible. Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one's own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy.
  • Almost no mothers as almost no part-time, part-self persons-have created enduring literature... so far.
  • When the youngest of our four was in school, the beginnings struggled toward endings. This was a time, in Kafka's words, "like a squirrel in a cage: bliss of movement, desperation about constriction, craziness of endurance." Bliss of movement. A full extended family life; the world of my job (transcriber in a dairy-equipment company); and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around within me through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." In such snatches of time I wrote what I did in those years, but there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible.
  • "Silences" was an attempt, as later were "One Out of Twelve," "Rebecca Harding Davis," and now the rest of this book, to expand the too sparse evidence on the relationship between circumstances and creation. (All limited to only one area of recognized human achievement: written literature.)
  • Remember women's silence of centuries; the silences of most of the rest of humanity. Not until several centuries ago do women writers appear. Sons of working people, a little more than a century ago. Then black writers (1950 was the watershed year). The last decades, more and more writer-mothers. Last of all, women writers, including women of color, of working class origin, perhaps one generation removed; rarest of all, the worker-mother-writer.
  • The power and the need to create, over and beyond reproduction, is native in both women and men. Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.
  • the atom bomb was in manufacture before the first automatic washing machine

Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974)

  • The whistles always woke Mazie. They pierced into her sleep like some guttural-voiced metal beast, tearing at her; breathing a terror. During the day if the whistle blew, she knew it meant death-somebody's poppa or brother, perhaps her own-in that fearsome place below the ground, the mine. (first lines)
  • There is reconciliation in the house where your mother lies weeping (chapter 6, p130)
  • "But there is more – to rebel against what will not let life be.”

Quotes about Tillie Olsen

  • Joining self-assertion with interdependence, Olsen's vision is a strongly feminist one. When women live only through their families, she suggests, they arc denied their own individuality and any possibility for a larger connection to humankind. As Olsen herself recognizes, at its core this vision is also a Jewish one, drawn from her Jewish socialist background. As she explained in a recent interview, this background, which she calls Yiddishkeit, taught her "knowledge and experience of injustice, of discrimination, of oppression, of genocide and of the need to act against them forever and whenever they appear," as well as "an absolute belief in the potentiality of human beings." As Olsen says, "What is Yiddish in me ... is inextricable from what is woman in me, from woman who is mother."
    • Joyce Antler, Introduction to America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers (1990)
  • Tillie Olsen's short story "I Stand Here Ironing" shows the ways in which a woman's ideas about change and progress and growth may be interpreted through her own experience...This is a personal story of a woman's problems, as my friend wrote. But it is also a political overture orchestrated out of the dailiness of Olsen's life and of the women she knew. This story tells us that change comes slowly, across the generations; that there is often damage in growth, some of it irreparable; that men, self-absorbed in their own turmoils, often abandon women and children; that help, however well-meaning, is often steeped in privileges of class (or race), and may in any event, as in this case, be too late.
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • "Few writers have gained such wide respect on such a small body of published work," the novelist Margaret Atwood wrote in the New York Times Book Review, noting that for female writers "reverence" for Ms. Olsen was a more apt word. "This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer."
  • What Tillie Olsen has to say is of primary importance to those who want to understand how art is generated or subverted and to those trying to create it themselves.
  • Tillie Olsen's is a unique voice. Few writers have gained such wide respect based on such a small body of published work...Among women writers in the United States, "respect" is too pale a word: "reverence" is more like it. This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer. The exactions of this multiple identity cost Tillie Olsen 20 years of her writing life. The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance but, as at a grueling obstacle race, for the near miracle of her survival.
    • Margaret Atwood, New York Times Book Review (30 July 1979). included in Jewish women fiction writers (1998)
  • A passion and a purpose inform Silences pages: love for my incomparable medium, literature; hatred for all that, societally rooted, unnecessarily lessens and denies it; slows, impairs, silences writers. It is written to re-dedicate and encourage.
  • The current possession by women of literature by women writers is a phenomenon novel in my lifetime, and perhaps in general, I can remember when women students were annoyed with my syllabus because it contained mostly "lady writers." But now there are not enough Kate Chopins to satisfy. And when Tillie Olsen, whose stories we had read at the beginning of the year, was to visit the class, the anticipation was greater than anything I have known..., "Tell us, Tillie," the students asked, "how you came to be a writer." "Who encouraged you?" "What made you decide you could do it?" Some of the women asking the questions were her age. How could she not tell them about her life? Especially since her life was like theirs. Indeed, her life, she said, was in stories. She had written "I Stand Here Ironing" on the ironing board, in between chores. She knew that immigrant woman. Her life was in those stories and we must not be embarrassed to announce that we recognize the life as our own.
    • Florence Howe, "Feminism and Literature," Images of Women in Fiction Feminist Perspectives, Susan Koppelman Cornillon, ed. (1972). included in Jewish women fiction writers (1998)
  • For women writers the systematic discouragement even to attempt to become writers has been so constant and pervasive a force that we cannot consider their literary productions without somehow assessing the effects of that barrage of discouragement. Often discouraged in the home, often at school, often by families and spouses, the rare woman writer who does not lose her determination along the way is already a survivor. That one should next have to face the systematic discouragement of a male-oriented literary establishment is absurd and sad but nonetheless a real fact of life for many women writers. (Footnote: No one has chronicled this repression better than Tillie Olsen in her splendid book Silences.)
    • Erica Jong "Blood and Guts: The Tricky Problem of Being a Woman Writer in the Late Twentieth Century" in The Writer on Her Work edited by Janet Sternburg (2000)
  • Tillie Olsen, another superb woman writer, has warned that whenever writers are put in a special category, whether it be "women's writer," "proletarian writer," or "black writer," their work is being subtly devalued, someone is putting them on a reservation.
    • Passage from Imagination on Trial, included in Conversations with Grace Paley (1997)
  • Tillie Olsen helps those of us condemned to silence-the poor, racial minorities, women-find our voices.
  • So I spent much of my childhood on picket lines and tagging along on meetings because she didn't have childcare. She had four daughters. So part of being Tillie's daughter was really inheriting that legacy of both understanding that the world isn't just and must not be allowed to be anymore. But she also had this incredible belief that people could change history...It's just the sheer beauty of Tillie's words, that the way she uses the words touch your heart and rip it wide open.
  • I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there. Meanwhile, the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie (Olsen) was more like a cupful.
  • She's about ten years older than I am, and she really grew up into the Depression, and was married at that time, and had kids at a very hard time. She went into really hard times when she was at that age, which I didn't. But we come from very similar backgrounds, really. Our families were Socialist Russian Jews mostly and we have very political feelings in common, and the sense that that tradition and that history have been really subverted and mocked, and a strong feeling for the lives of women. We have disagreements, too, I have to say, but of course I admire her an awful lot. And I think she's really our scholar, our own. I mean people have spoken to me and said I haven't done enough work; that I've been doing all this politics and stuff, and that's true. But she hasn't been doing a lot of her fiction work; she's been doing a lot of feminist scholarship. She's really done that for everybody, for all of us. So she means a lot.
  • When I go to California, I spend time with Tillie [Olsen]. I mean time, like hours and hours; I stay at her house, we have taken long walks, you know. And I don't have really literary discussions with her. I don't have the knack. I mean we talk a little bit about it, but mostly we talk about women's lives, about different ideas. We have talked recently about language and Mary Daly. I guess that is literary. We've had long talks on that subject. But again I'm really more interested in political life than literary life. So Tillie and I talk about politics, women, the world. And we've done different things in our lives. She'll tell me about the thirties and forties which is terribly interesting to me.
  • I think a lot of what she writes is really for others, she's speaking for other people, and she feels their pain keenly.
  • Tillie Olsen's Silences will, like A Room of One's Own, be quoted wherever there is talk of the circumstances in which literature is possible.
  • As daughters we need mothers who want their own freedom and ours. We need not to be the vessels of another woman's self-denial and frustration. The quality of the mother's life-however embattled and unprotected-is her primary bequest to her daughter, because a woman who can believe in herself, who is a fighter, and who continues to struggle to create livable space around her, is demonstrating to her daughter that these possibilities exist. Because the conditions of life for many poor women demand a fighting spirit for sheer physical survival, such mothers have sometimes been able to give their daughters something to be valued far more highly than full-time mothering. But the toll is taken by the sheer weight of adversity, the irony that to fight for her child's physical survival the mother may have to be almost always absent from the child, as in Tillie Olsen's story, "I Stand Here Ironing."30 For a child needs, as that mother despairingly knew, the care of someone for whom she is "a miracle."
  • Every line is measured, compressed, resonant, stripped bear so that paragraph after paragraph achieves the shocking brevity and power of the best poems.
  • There are a few writers who manage in their work and in the sharing of their understanding to actually help us to live, to work, to create, day by day. Tillie Olsen is one of those writers for me.
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