Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story told from the perspective of a young mother during the Great Depression. The woman reflects on the hardships she faced while raising her first-born child, Emily. The mother’s experiences were common to many women. The 1930s was a time when patriarchy was prevalent. Women were expected to adhere to domestic duties and pass these practices on to their daughters. Women strove to find husbands to care for them and start families with. Few women obtained the satisfaction of fulfilling their personal ambitions. After years of striving to fit the socially constructed role of a “woman,” the mother in the story regrets the decisions she made and feels a lack of accomplishment. Emily shares this realization as she witnesses and learns from the mistakes of her mother. She refuses to conform to societal norms in the hopes of achieving a fulfilling life. From the feminist critical perspective, I interpret this story as a depiction of women in a male-dominated society who progress from blind subjugation to realization, resulting in the desire for their daughters to accomplish the things they could not.
The mother’s husband abandoned her, leaving her alone at a time when being a young, single mother was unconventional in society. The difficult circumstances led her to unknowingly accept subjugation in an attempt to fit her role in the patriarchal society. Because males were so dominant in the society she grew up in, the mother discredits herself and capitulates her power to the men in her life: “I had to bring [Emily] to [her father’s] family and leave her” (925). Society instils in her the idea that women are powerless. Rather than fighting it, she succumbs to societal norms and victimizes herself through her femininity. She describes how her “breasts ached with swollenness” (925), suggesting womanhood is painful and vulnerable. Women were given little autonomy, which is evident as the mother continually allows people she
Cited: Olson, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.” Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary. Charles Bohner, Lyman Grant. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc, 2006. 924-925. Print.