The iron in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Her Ironing" is symbolic of the mother's attempt to straighten out her feelings about her daughter Emily, and about herself. The movement of the iron parallels the internal and external monologue of the mother as she moves back and forth from memory to the present in her reconstruction of the daughter's past in order to explain Emily's present behavior to the school official who has questioned her:
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
In addition, the iron represents the mundane tasks which have demanded so much of the mother's time that she was not able to nurture Emily as she should have. A single mother in a time in which there were little other than menial jobs for women, the mother has been forced to place Emily, who becomes ill, in a convalescent home where "They don't like you to love anybody here." As a result, Emily has had to deal with life on her own; and, in this aloneness and vulnerability she has developed her comedic personality with its "control...and deadly clowning."
In a sense, then, the iron is a symbol of the movement of the mother's thoughts and of the restraints upon her, as well as hers and her daughter's apathy--the mother towards her motherhood, the daughter towards her future. As she rests the iron, the mother concludes, "I will never total it all"; however, she realizes that Emily is her own person apart from her, and she urges the school official to help her daughter out of her apathy:
Only help her to know--help make it so there is cause for her to know--that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.