Though she published little, Olsen was very influential for her treatment of the lives of women and the poor. She drew attention to why women have been less likely to be published authors (and why they receive less attention than male authors when they do publish). Her work received recognition in the years of much feminist political and social activity. It contributed to new possibilities for women writers. Olsen's influence on American feminist fiction has caused some critics to be frustrated at simplistic feminist interpretations of her work. In particular, several critics have pointed to Olsen's Communist past as contributing to her thought. Olsen's fiction awards, and the ongoing attention to her work, is often focused upon her unique use of language and story form, a form close to poetry in compression and clarity, as well as upon the content.
Reviewing Olsen's life in The New York Times Book Review, Margaret Atwood attributed Olsen’s relatively small output to her full life as a wife and mother, a “grueling obstacle course” experienced by many writers. Her book Silences “ begins with an account, first drafted in 1962, of her own long, circumstantially enforced silence,” Atwood wrote. “She did not write for a very simple reason: A day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no time, no energy and none of the money that would have bought both.”
In 1968, Olsen signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Once her books were published, Olsen became a teacher and writer-in-residence at numerous colleges, such as Amherst College, Stanford University, MIT, and Kenyon College. She was the recipient of nine honorary degrees, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Also among the honors bestowed upon Olsen was the Rea Award for the Short Story, in 1994, for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in the field of short story writing.
Olsen died on January 1, 2007, in Oakland, California.