The Great Depression
The narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing” describes her daughter as “a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.” Though the story was published in 1961, it too has been seen as having ties to the Depression era and to the socially conscious literature of the thirties. Regardless of whether Olsen’s work in 1961 bears much resemblance to writings from the 1930s, the Great Depression remained very much a part of the American psyche long after the decade was over. Even during the more prosperous 1950s and 1960s, many people still remembered the severe deprivations caused by the country’s disastrous economic collapse in the 1930s and lived in fear of repeating the experience. Differences in values present in those old enough to remember the Depression years and values held by children too young to remember those years have been cited as a major cause of the “generation gap” that came to characterize America in the 1960s.
Many people who lived through the Depression, including Olsen, were radicalized by their experience and joined communist and socialist movements. The United States government began massive efforts to provide relief to the poor through programs like the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Writers from the period such as John Steinbeck, Katherine Anne Porter, and Richard Wright hoped to inspire reform by creating literature that depicted the plight of the poor in a realistic manner.
The Eisenhower Era
The relatively prosperous 1950s were characterized by a growing conservatism and mistrust of radical intellectuals. Having won World War II after dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, the United States began its Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. Many people felt it was important to root out radicals living in the United States and to neutralize the “threat” these people were believed to represent. Thus began the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, a series of public “trials” of suspected American Communists conducted by members of the U.S. Congress, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy. The HUAC hearings have since come to represent one of the darkest moments in American history. Before Senator McCarthy was exposed for falsifying evidence and otherwise violating the civil rights of those he accused, the lives and reputations of hundreds of innocent people were ruined.
The 1950s also saw a rapid expansion of the middle class and the rise to prominence of the suburban lifestyle. Some have seen it as an era of rigid conformism. For many of the women who had worked outside the home during World War II, the role of a housewife into which they were recast seemed particularly oppressive. The repressed frustration and anger of suburban, middle-class housewives contributed much to the new “women’s liberation” and feminist movements of the 1960s, particularly following the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Tillie Olsen, Published by Gale, 1997.