Tillie Olsen's powerful story "I Stand Here Ironing" denotes a strong feminist influence. It is evidenced in the way that the narrator does not try to make excuses to explain her meager living conditions and her failure to raise a daughter properly. Quite courageously, the woman offers no mercy to herself and firmly accepts that she, from a young age, added on to the epidemic of poverty and bad parenting that enveloped the nation during "the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression".
Fully aware of her role in creating a dysfunctional family, the woman openly explains to "the person" who is asking her questions, how she has made ends meet, considering that she and her daughter were abandoned by the child's father. As a result, she becomes unable to provide for her daughter the love that she wished she could have shown her.
She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily's father, who "could no longer endure" (he wrote in his goodbye note) "sharing want with us."
Feminism colors the story by showing a clear example of first-wave feminism, which occurs historically at the same time that our main character would have suffered the most as a single mother with no prospects of work, no social beneficence, and little chance for an education. Instead, she falls within the cracks of a system that is barely beginning to take shape and, in the process, many women such as herself will find themselves basically stuck in a rut.
In addition to accepting her mistakes, she also warns her daughter from following her steps. She is realistic and quite secure of this statement, bringing no-nonsense about it.
My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Hence, she accepts that her choices occurred during a time where things were not favorable, but that things are changing now. That, just like she refuses to find excuses for her current situation, her daughter should not use their dysfunctional past as an excuse to not move forward in life. There is more to life than the ironing board by which she stands.
There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know-help make it so there is cause for her to know -- that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
“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.