Tillie Olsen's reputation as an important twentieth-century feminist writer rests on a relatively small but highly respected body of fictional and nonfictional work, which has been praised by Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston, among others. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Olsen's nonfiction essay collection Silences (1978) explores the “relationship of circumstances—including class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born—to the creation of literature.” Like Woolf's fantasy scenario about the limitations that Shakespeare's “gifted sister” Judith might have faced, Olsen's own literary career exemplifies the “unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot” (n.p.), which she takes as her theme in Silences.
Born Tillie Lerner to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1912 or 1913, Tillie was raised in a Socialist, humanist, secular household. Her father, Samuel Lerner, left Russia after the failed 1905 revolution and fled to the United States where he married fellow Russian immigrant Ida Beber. Samuel Lerner eventually became secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party, and Tillie became a political activist in her teens, joining the Young People's Socialist League and the Young Communist League. Her formal education ended in the eleventh grade, but she read widely and eclectically. During the early thirties, she was jailed for helping to organize a strike at a packing house in Kansas City.
At the age of nineteen, Tillie moved briefly to Minnesota to recover from tuberculosis. While there, she became pregnant and began working on a novel (later published as Yonnondio). She moved to California in 1933, continuing to work as a political activist and writer. The following year, she published a few poems and a short story titled “The Iron Throat” (later the first chapter of Yonnondio)