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Virginia Woolf and Tillie Olsen: Inventing Women’s Literature

“I Stand Here Ironing” is Olsen’s classic; Virginia Woolf was a heroine

We didn’t always have women’s studies.

I remember clearly the independent study I took with a part-time professor of English, a faculty wife who had an advanced degree in literature. Her husband had fought to job-share so that she could teach one class.

It is embarrassing to remember what a big deal that job share was because she was not the one hired. She was capable and talented in her own right, but as I remember the English faculty was nit-picking. They were hiding behind the rules and they intended to keep the classic curriculum.

The English faculty, of course, were men.

We, the two of us, invented an independent course study of women’s literature. This was before women’s studies or a course in women’s literature existed on many college campuses.

I read most of Virginia Woolf’s books that semester, and remember taking on the mantra of “A Room of One’s Own” as if that would solve all women’s problems. Virginia Woolf opened the door of feminism and I tip-toed in.

I started to understand the diminished role of women in most realms of life, fifty years ago. Oh, I was a long way from being a feminist, or calling myself a feminist. That independent study, the difficulty of arranging it, and a study of women’s literature (one course) began the journey.

It’s one of the reasons it’s important to read and write. We never know what leaps we’ll make in personal and cultural development, what new worlds we’ll join, and who we’ll influence.

Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing” was her signature work.

I remember that Tillie Olsen was one of my teacher’s favorites and also on my list of women writers. She wrote about working-class women in their daily lives.

The short story “I Stand Here Ironing” is reminiscent of the style of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a stream-of-consciousness approach to writing that ignores paragraphs and punctuation. They were published about the same time, in 1956, and 1957.

The subject matter couldn’t be more different— Tillie Olsen wrote of the guilt of a mother who has a child at age 19, is left by the child’s father, and must cobble together child care and a job. She remarries a few years later. The metaphor of ironing is how to smooth out life’s paths, for children and mothers. Ironing also represents the endless housework that got in the way of creativity.

Virginia Woolf was one of Olsen’s heroines. Olsen also wrote the book Silences about the many ways women’s voices were silenced and a list of women writers who should be read.

Her {Tillie Olsen’s} interest in long-neglected women authors inspired the development of academic programs in women’s studies, especially at the university level in the United States.

— Panthea Reid in Britannica

Tillie Olsen is read less nowadays, as is Carol Gilligan. Gilligan’s book, In Another Voice, explores the difference in moral development between boys and girls. When her book first came out in 1982, with its justice orientation, it shattered the male model of ethics as logical, rational development.

Carol argued that girls, and women, find relationship development as or more important than a logical approach. She argued that valuing relationships was a key part of moral development for girls.

The independence of these women!

While some of the Second Wave feminists are regularly read and listed in bibliographies today, some who were important at the time have faded just a bit.

Their education and intellect proposed new ideas, models, and perspectives. Seeing things only from the male point-of-view was not defective, it was insufficient. These women’s ideas have become incorporated into more mainstream coursework and the course of work.

Even the word feminist fell out of favor but was embraced again by a younger generation. The gains of fifty years ago are being reversed and undermined by judicial decisions and culture wars, so the tactics and strategies are being revised.

We have expanded the understanding that diverse perspectives matter in the points of view of many voices, of many cultures and identities. We have benefited from writers of many backgrounds who tell many different stories.

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