Tillie Lerner was born on a tenant farm in Nebraska, the second of six children of Samuel and Ida Lerner, Russian Jewish immigrants who left their homeland after their involvement in the failed 1905 revolution. She grew up in Omaha where her father worked as a painter and paperhanger and served as State Secretary in the Nebraska Socialist Party. Tillie was strongly influenced by her parents' revolutionary heritage and by their humanistic and socialist beliefs. From a young age Tillie was a voracious reader, and though she dropped out of high school after the 11th grade ending her "formal" education, in her words, "public libraries were my sustenance and my college."
In 1929, Tillie embarked on what would be a lifetime odyssey of low-paying jobs (hotel maid, packinghouse worker, linen checker, waitress, laundry worker, factory worker, secretary, etc.) in Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota, eventually finding her way to California. An activist and a member of the Young Communist League, Tillie was jailed for organizing packinghouse workers in Omaha and Kansas City, and became involved in labor, social and political causes of the depression-era. It was while recovering from pleurisy and tuberculosis contracted as a result of factory conditions and weeks in jail, that she began to write her novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties
, which would not be published until forty years later. In 1932, her first daughter, Karla, was born, and the next year they moved to San Francisco.
In the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, Tillie was jailed on "Bloody Thursday" along with the man who would become her life-long partner - Jack Olsen, a waterfront warehouseman, union organizer and educator who shared her commitment to human rights and the struggle for justice. Two poems and a series of reports written in the course of that historic strike and published in the New Republic
and The Partisan Review
, brought Tillie's writing to the attention of the nation, and she was invited to attend the American Writers Congress of 1935 in New York City as one of a few young writers.
In San Francisco’s Mission district, Jack and Tillie raised their four daughters, Karla, Julie, Kathie and Laurie, and their home became a refuge and gathering place for people from all walks of life who shared their values and commitment to build a more just world.
The conditions of working class life, raising a family and activism did not permit Olsen to pursue her writing for many years, although she continued to keep notebooks and to write on tiny slips of paper, "capturing voices, words, thoughts"
in the small moments she could. Throughout the years of child rearing and maintaining a family with few resources while working on "everyday jobs" Tillie organized in her neighborhoods for parks and playgrounds, was a founder of the city's first Parent Cooperative Nursery school, fought for quality child care programs, became a leader in the PTA, served as director of the California CIO War Relief and President of the Women's Auxiliary of the CIO during the second world war.
During the McCarthy era, Olsen was accused of being an "agent of Stalin working to infiltrate the city's schools through the PTA"
- and though she was never charged, Jack was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Commission for his labor organizing activities - which lost him his job and ushered in years of financial difficulty for the family.
Although she was deeply proud of her Nebraska mid-western roots, for 70 years San Francisco was her home and her community. She and Jack raised their four children in the Mission District, and then lived for twenty years in the Western Addition in the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehousemen's Union) built St. Francis Square Cooperative Housing "dedicated to the belief that people of all races and walks of life can live together in harmony."
In 1989, Tillie's life-long partner, Jack Olsen, passed away.
Tillie Lerner Olsen, internationally honored writer, human rights and anti-war activist, a formative voice of the women's movement, and a cherished friend, deeply loved Mother, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother, died January 1, 2007, two weeks shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. Her family legacy includes four daughters and their husbands, eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, fifteen nieces and nephews - and many dear friends of all generations across the globe who have been deeply impacted by her enormous capacity for joy and celebration of human life, her powerful use of language, and by her compassion and profound commitment to create a more just world dedicated to human rights, dignity and peace.