Even though Olsen secured her literary reputation on the strength of one collection of short fiction, her voice as a humanist and feminist extended her influence beyond this small output. Olsen wrote about working-class people who, because of class, race, or sex, have been denied the opportunity to develop their talents. Frequently she focused on the obstacles women have experienced. She understood them well. She herself was exactly such a victim of poverty during the 1930’s, and then she worked and raised a family for more than twenty years until she could begin writing. Both her fiction and her nonfiction deal with the problem women face: developing individual talents while combating socially imposed views.
Olsen was also known as a leading feminist educator. Her courses introduced students to forgotten writings, such as journals, to teach them about women’s lives. The reading lists she developed have provided models for other women’s studies’ courses throughout the United States. Besides the O. Henry Award for the best American short story of 1961 for “Tell Me a Riddle,” Olsen has also won the Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her other awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1975-1976, an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska in 1979, a Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Women’s Federation in 1980, a Bunting Institute Fellowship from Radcliffe College in 1985, and a Rea Award for the short story in 1994. Her short fiction appears in more than one hundred anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories for 1957, 1961, and 1971, and Fifty Best American Stories, 1915-1965.