In the film, [Alice] Walker credits Olsen with “changing the landscape of feminist writing and reading,” alluding to Olsen’s role in getting the Feminist Press to republish forgotten works by women, among them Rebecca Harding Davis’ 1861 “Life in the Iron Mills” and Agnes Smedley’s 1929 “Daughter of Earth.”
In the film, Olsen says she started writing about the lives of the working people she grew up with because “it was nearly impossible to find them in any of the books I read.” While still in her teens, she began writing the novel “Yonnondio,” which she took up again and published in the early ’70s. In this Depression-era tale of a family struggling to survive, the mother, Anna, dies of a botched abortion she performs on herself.
Many women were forced to terminate their own pregnancies at the time, “and Tillie wanted to write about that. She was a woman writing about her life and her neighbors and her community,” Hershey says. Like many women, the filmmaker discovered Olsen during what she calls “the resurgence of the feminist movement” in the ’70s, when Olsen became a feminist heroine, a role she took to.
Olsen’s work spoke to people “because she was telling our stories, our family stories, writing about our grandparents, their lives and struggles,” says Hershey, who is in her 60s. Other writers were dealing with those subjects, she adds, “but there was something about Tillie’s writing that was accessible to us, that made such sense and was so moving.”
Tillie Lerner worked all kinds of jobs – waitress, laundress, pork trimmer in a packinghouse. She moved to San Francisco in 1934, and plunged into the local labor struggle, which she wrote about for the New Republic and Partisan Review.