I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
I Stand Here Ironing Theme of Women and Femininity
"I Stand Here Ironing" looks at the themes of women and femininity through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. Struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, the narrator works long hours and is unable to care for her daughter. The narrator is a single, working mother at a time when a more traditional, middle-class, stay-at-home mom was the norm in mainstream American society. Olsen's story takes us inside the mind of the narrator as she juggles the role of mother and breadwinner. The story also gives us a sense of the challenges faced by her daughter, who comes of age in a society that values a Shirley Temple model of girlhood and adolescent femininity. Although the mother-daughter relationship in Olsen's story doesn't fit the mainstream stereotype, it reveals a strong bond; their love for each other is palpable as they share their struggles.
Questions About Women and Femininity
- Consider the difficult choices the narrator had to make as a single, working-class mother. Do you think she is a good mother? Why or why not?
- Compare and contrast the ways Emily is represented throughout the story: as a baby, a child, and a teenager. Compare Emily with Susan, the narrator's second child. What do we learn about femininity from these different representations?
- What kind of relationship does the narrator have with Emily? What is Emily's attitude toward her mother?
- Do you think Emily will have a better life than her mother? Why or why not?
Chew on This
Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" considers how women's choices in life can be constrained by social circumstances.
Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" challenges stereotypical images of womanhood and femininity through its representation of working-class women.