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On The Subway With Tillie

by Rhea Hirshman

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, a significant rite of passage for my friends and me was being allowed to ride the New York City subway for the first time without the presence of one or the other of our parental units.

Among the rites of subway riding, eagerly dissected among our adolescent set, were the rules associated with subway reading. One had always to consider the impressions created by the selection of reading material, and to choose items that did not induce extreme reactions. Chuckling lightly, for instance, was acceptable on public transit. Wild guffawing was not.

But one day, some years later, I inadvertently broke that rule. I took Tillie Olsen with me on the D train, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably on the subway.

On that day, 30-plus years ago, my fellow passengers would have seen a young, dark-haired woman clutching a damp bandana in one hand and, in the other, a paperback copy of Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle — consisting of the title novella and three short stories.

In language by turns harsh and tender (and which won Tell Me a Riddle, the 1961 O’Henry Award for best American story), Olsen — rediscovered in the 70s and 80s by a new generation of feminist readers — chronicles a marriage in which an elderly husband and wife, confronting the disappointments of their lives, seem unable to make peace. They are unable even to agree on what “peace” might be in their final years, until the wife’s dying takes them into an intimacy neither could have imagined.

How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached no one could say — but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots...split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.

Olsen also tore out my heart — so much so that I scrapped my plan to teach the story to my English classes for fear of bursting into tears.

The woman responsible for my underground meltdown was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, social justice activists who had emigrated to Nebraska. Olsen (then Lerner) left school at 11th grade, began her only novel (Yonnondio) at the age of 19 but published it 40 years later, and published her much-anthologized first story (I Stand Here Ironing) when she was 43.

Olsen’s slim output, barely a few hundred pages, was in itself testimony to a major theme of her writing and her life, and the subject of her 1978 nonfiction work Silences. That book both portrays Olsen’s struggles to write as she raised four daughters while holding low-paying jobs, and examines obstacles faced by writers — particularly women — who were not part of the mainstream of “literature” or the realities of whose lives overwhelmed the yearning to create.

“What are creation’s needs for full functioning?” Olsen asked. “....I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.”

Still, she wrote, enough so that we wonder what miracles on the page might have been available to us if life were different, or what would have been lost to us if she had not received in 1955 a fellowship that provided the economic stability to pursue her writing.

I thought and spoke of Olsen again recently, when students in my Women’s Movement course were discussing the feminist activism that led both to the rediscovery of voices like hers and to the flowering of a feminist cultural movement that redefined patriarchal notions of what were “important” or “appropriate” matters for creative endeavor; another of Olsen’s stories, after all, is entitled I Stand Here Ironing. The silencing of women across time and place has been accomplished by measures ranging from legislation, to ridicule, to physical or psychic brutality. As long as that silencing continues — and make no mistake, it does, covertly in some quarters, overtly and violently in others — we need to remember and recount the extraordinary courage, persistence and imagination required by those outside of the mainstream to have their voices heard. As Margaret Atwood wrote about Olsen: “The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance, but…for the near miracle of her survival.”

April 30, 2010

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Rhea Hirshman, a New Haven-based freelance writer specializing in health, politics, public policy and legal issues, is also an adjunct professor of women’s studies at the University of Connecticut. In days gone by, she was an English teacher. Contact her at

Also see "Grace Paley's True North: Justice in Writing and Action" by Judith Aranca in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Poem "My heroines" by Marge Piercy in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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