Tillie Olsen is considered one of the classics of American literature of the first half of the 20th century, and in her books, she raises important social issues through everyday stories. One example of such works is the short story “I Stand Here Ironing”, in which a woman speaks in the first person, or rather thinks, about her years of youth and relationship with her eldest daughter. At first glance, readers may feel that they have witnessed a household scene and heard the everyday thoughts of a worried mother. However, the short story “I Stand Here Ironing” reflects the unequal position of women and gender relations typical for the post-war times in the United States.
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The story begins with a description of an everyday scene in which women iron their linen. The moment her hands are busy with mechanical work, the narrator has the opportunity to remember and reflect on her past. These reflections were provoked by the request of some authoritative person, probably a teacher, who turned to the narrator to help her eldest daughter, Emily (Olsen 5). In search of an answer, the narrator delves into her past and recalls the key moments of her relationship with her daughter. She recalls her first marriage, the birth of Emily, the leave of her husband, separation from her daughter due to the inability to support her. Although the situation soon improves and the narrator remarries, she again has to part with Emily to send her to a boarding school to improve her health (Olsen 7). However, Emily shows unexpected successes in stage performances, acting, and comedy, which her mother encourages. Reflections are interrupted by Emily’s arrival home with the thought that the young woman still has time and chances to find her happiness, even if she needs help to understand her strengths.
The narrator’s monologue shows typical of her time society’s notions of gender roles. The first of these roles is manifested in motherhood as the primary purpose of any woman’s life. This stereotype is most evident in the fact that the narrator speaks of herself only as a mother but not as a wife, an employee, or a woman during the monologue. The woman feels that she was a bad mother for Emily because she did not give her all attention, care, and concern that a good mother should provide. The narrator says, “… She [Emily] was a child of anxious, not proud, love… I was a young mother; I was a distracted mother… My wisdom came too late” (Olsen 13). The woman feels guilty that she was forced to work instead of devoting time to her daughter, since the stereotypes of a “good mother” were imposed on her by society. As Shah et al., note that in those days, the working woman was not perceived by society as an “adequate” or good mother because she could not devote all her time to children (153). According to this logic, if a woman delegates the care of her children to other people or social services, she is a bad mother.
This aspect demonstrates that the need for women to become the workforce after the war did not change the gender role of women as a mother. In other words, a woman had to be, first of all, a good mother, and society did not care that more and more women were forced to provide themselves financially. Simultaneously, there is almost no mention of Emily’s father and stepfather in the story, which also demonstrates the role of a man as a father in society’s perception. Emily’s father left the family and was no longer responsible for his child, but the narrator takes this fact for granted and hardly talks about his guilt. Emily’s stepfather is also barely mentioned in the story, suggesting that he is not responsible for carrying about children. The role of a man in the post-war period of western countries is to provide for the family financially, while a woman should take care of their upbringing (Davis and King 72). Consequently, Olsen demonstrates that society had a typical gender perception of women as mothers despite changing socioeconomic conditions but did not impose those demands on men as fathers.
Another feature of the story that demonstrates the typical gender roles of the post-war era of the United States is the setting itself. The narrator is portrayed while doing household chores, and the ironing is described as a moment of relaxation rather than work. Yahnke notes, “Ironing is also a perfect metaphor for the limited roles imposed upon women – of wife, homemaker, and mother – and all that is lost to women because of those narrow roles” (para 1.). At that moment, the narrator has time to delve into her thoughts, although even this short pause is interrupted by the need to change her son’s diaper.
In general, the life of the narrator demonstrates a set of social stereotypes regarding woman’s responsibilities. Shortly after divorcing his first husband, the narrator remarries, gives birth to four children, fulfilling his role as wife and mother. These steps were expected of her by society, since an unmarried single mother was stigmatized in any community (Shah et al. 153). The woman says, “I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her [Emily]. She had to be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper” (Olsen 12). This fact demonstrates that typical gender roles were imposed on girls from an early age, in part due to social influence and in part due to economic reasons. Nevertheless, even though many families found themselves in a similar situation, the gender roles of women as mother, wife, and housewife persisted, although they created significant stress.
The social roles and gender stereotypes are also evident in Emily’s life. The narrator notes that Emily is beautiful “to the seeing eye”, but such people were few, since Shirley Temple was considered the standard of beauty (Olsen 6). According to her mother, Emily’s appearance cost her more social and emotional struggle, unlike Susan, who is beautiful by the standards and did not have to fight so much (Olsen 11). Hence, this description shows the inequality among girls that was created by beauty standards.
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Moreover, Emily’s childhood away from her mother, in boarding school, and as an older sister who lacked care made her more withdrawn from her surroundings. While young girls were prized for being affable, friendly, and submissive, Emily did not live up to these characteristics, which also prevented her from “blooming.” For this reason, everyone was surprised by Emily’s talent in performing on stage, during which she felt open and free. The narrator also notes that Emily “was not glib or quick,” which made her a “slow” student in her teachers’ eyes, although she immediately notes that these qualities are usually not associated with the intelligence or talent of children in reality (Olsen 10). All of these features demonstrate the typical social standards of a “good” woman who can become a good wife, which has caused girls like Emily to feel pressured by society, teachers, and often parents.
However, while the narrator feels guilty about her relationship with Emily, many of her actions show that she has always tried to support and care. For example, she often allowed her daughters to skip school even if she knew their illnesses were imaginary (Olsen 10). The narrator also supports Emily in her endeavor to perform on stage, although comedy was usually not a woman’s occupation. In addition, as Snodgrass notes, the story ends with a prayer that Emily will understand that a woman’s life does not have to constantly submit to fate and the demands of society, “like the wrinkled dress before the iron” (para. 3). This narrator’s hope makes it clear that the younger generation of girls will be able to achieve changes in social perceptions of gender roles and achieve a better life than their parents.
In conclusion, Tillie Olsen, in her short story “I Stand Here Ironing”, demonstrates the typical society’s perception of gender roles in the first half of the twentieth century. The narrator’s guilt that pervades the monologue is a manifestation of influence created by public perception of a woman and stereotypes that define her as a good or bad mother. The memory of the difficult years of motherhood, work, and housekeeping shows high expectations and requirements for women as creators of home comfort, although social and economic conditions make them impossible to fulfill. The description of Emily’s average comparing to expected learning skills and appearance shows that a woman’s success largely depends on her beauty and ability to behave in society appropriately. Thus, Olsen insightfully describes the pressures that women experienced due to the injustice and inequality of gender roles in post-war American society.
Davis, Angela, and Laura King. “Gendered Perspectives on Men’s Changing Familial Roles in Postwar England, C.1950-1990.” Gender & History, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 70–92., Web.
Olsen, Tillie. Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Shah, Mujahid, et al. “Stereotyping of Gender Roles and Norms by Society: a Feminist Analysis of I Stand Here Ironing.” Review of Education, Administration & LAW, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020, pp. 149–156., Web.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. “‘I Stand Here Ironing.’” Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature, Second Edition, Facts On File, 2013. Bloom’s Literature, Web.
Yahnke, Robert E. “I Stand Here Ironing.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition, 2006, p. 1. Web.