Moving off campus and skipping most classes, O’Reilly was determined to hide her secret in order to graduate.
“It was like the Scarlet Letter era,” she said. “It was the worst thing that could happen to you.”
In May 1958, right before she was set to graduate, she took her general exams in history in Longfellow Hall (now part of the Graduate School of Education), wearing a large raincoat to conceal the fact that the baby was late—she was past her due date.
Just a few days later, O’Reilly gave birth and quickly put her newborn daughter up for adoption, only reuniting with a woman named Emily 32 years later.
The resolve she exhibited to stay at Radcliffe and get her degree was emblematic of the strength necessary to become a leading force in the impending feminist movement.
BECOMING ‘ALPHA FEMALES’
After growing up in St. Louis and attending an all-girls Catholic school, O’Reilly was eager to escape the confines of a conservative society when she came to Cambridge. “I was a square peg in a round hole,” she said. “I was in the wrong school, the wrong city. I was being raised to be a lady, which I certainly was not interested in.”
O’Reilly described her arrival at Radcliffe as “unspeakably joyous liberation,” although she said she felt “totally unprepared.”
Even English, which she considered her forte, proved daunting. In her first English class, the professor asked the class if they had ever been published. “They all raised their nasty hands,” O’Reilly said.
While O’Reilly enjoyed the freedom of college life, Radcliffe was still in many ways a conservative institution. The College hosted teas, and deans and officers wore hats. Boys were never allowed in girls’ rooms, and Radcliffe girls weren’t allowed out past 1 a.m.
Memorial Church even had a room set aside for women to lie down if they had cramps. Girls almost never wore pants except for the occasional pair of blue jeans during reading period.
But despite these clear gender divisions on campus, O’Reilly’s former roommate Lilla Lyon ’58 said she didn’t think any of their group of friends felt that they were treated as “second-class citizens.”
“I don’t remember a single discussion about anything you could call ‘feminism’,” Lyon said. “It wasn’t part of our thinking...We were all caught up in our romantic life and our study, all mixed up together.”
O’Reilly in particular had been “gorgeous and very popular,” with many suitors, Radcliffe friend Helena F. Lewis ’58 said.
“We were all pretty feisty and sort of ‘alpha females,’” Lewis said. “But at the same time we all bought into the ‘you get engaged senior year and then you get married and that’s it, and then you be a good wife.’”
In 1972, following her second divorce, O’Reilly went to New York with her son to become a freelance writer. Her first friend there was Gloria Steinem, whom she met when the two were working at New York Magazine.
That year, O’Reilly, Steinem, and others co-founded Ms. Magazine, a feminist publication. O’Reilly’s essay “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” was the cover story of the first issue.
“Decide what housework needs to be done,” she wrote. “Then cut the list in half... Do not feel guilty.”
O’Reilly said she considers the essay her “contribution to the revolution,” and “Click!” marked one of her first works in a career of writing and public activism devoted to women’s rights.
“People were against us. It was against the flow. It was seen as bewilderingly outrageous,” O’Reilly said. “It was so revolutionizing to think about it in those terms. It was also my conversion moment.”
Lewis said it took women of their generation a few years of “being out in the real world...to become conscious feminists.”
O’Reilly went on to write other feminist articles, including a regular newspaper column about the effects of public policy on women.
“I wrote with such determination and passion, sure that we would bring about the revolution immediately,” she said.
NO TIME TO NAP
But after decades of activism in New York, O’Reilly began to feel “really burned out” and left a career in writing to run for public office.
She moved to Vermont in 1994 and served on local governmental committees, such as the library board and the planning commission.
Looking back today on her work in the feminist movement, O’Reilly said she has had a “revelation.”
When she started out, she felt sure the problems of the world could be solved if only they were addressed.
“I was shocked there was poverty in America, and I was delighted to think we could solve it,” she said. “Then came the women’s movement, and surely that would get resolved very quickly.”
O’Reilly said she devoted herself to the feminist cause, firmly believing that eventually the issue would be solved and she “could take a nap.”
In many ways, she said, women have succeeded in leveling the playing field. “It’s a great revolution that [men] realize their hands are capable of washing dishes,” O’Reilly said. “The separate spheres are no longer so separate.”
But O’Reilly said she realized, “It’s not ever over. It’s not ever solved...It’s just like housework and paperwork and taxes, you just have to do a little bit every day.”
—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at email@example.com.