THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
” ‘Click’ is my contribution to all these years of activism.”
Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, VFA Board, September, 2020
RT: Jane, it’s exciting that we’re finally getting to do this. My name is Rosemary Trowbridge. I’m interviewing Jane O’Reilly. Start by giving us your full name.
JO: Jane O’Reilly.
RT: When and where were you born, Jane?
JO: In St. Louis, Missouri, in 1936.
RT: What is your family background, including ethnic background?
JO: Sort of upper middle-class. My family is Irish Catholic, descendant of pilgrims and I have lots of interesting immigrant ancestors. Jane O’Reilly is my full name, but I was born Jane Conway O’Reilly. When I got married I became Jane O’Reilly Jenckes. The first thing I ever wrote and published had a byline of Jane Jenckes. When I got divorced I dropped Jencks, but then I got married again; my name was Jane O’Reilly Fisher. By that time I was writing a lot and I thought, that’s ridiculous I’ll just be Jane O’Reilly. But my son’s name was Jan Fisher, at that point I still had Fisher tacked on. I’m glad to say that people do not change their names that way anymore.
RT: What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
JO: I graduated from Radcliffe College, which was part of Harvard, in 1958. We were really smart and really privileged in whatever category of privilege we could possibly be, but we had been raised to live according to the ideals of the previous generation. This was the generation of picking out silver and crystal for weddings, of reflexively getting married by graduation, of reflexively having a couple of children.
There were certain inherent, terrible frustrations, which is why only two of my eight friends from college were still married to their original choices. It was really happenstance: we married what looked like a good thing. We weren’t adventurous enough to be crazy, but we didn’t pay any attention to who we were or they were. We didn’t know we were at the end of an era. We just thought we were continuing, looking at silver patterns.
RT: How did you get involved in the women’s movement?
JO: I was living in Washington with my first husband and I left him. It was scarce two years after we were married with all the bells and whistles and I went to New York. It was like the moon pulling me to the tide. I wanted to go to New York, New York, New York. On the Fourth of July in ’63 I was invited to go to Jones Beach with the man who turned out to be my next husband, an old friend of his from Prague named Zbigniew Brzezinski and his wife and another very nice couple whose name I’ve forgotten – I used to know them – and this very interesting woman named Gloria Steinem.
Actually, the weekend was just the afternoon at Jones Beach, but I remember it most because Gloria and Mrs. Brzezinski both had on bikinis. Despite the fact that I had not very long before spent two years living in Europe, I had on a rather modest two piece bathing suit. Gloria and Emilie Brzezinski taught everybody the cha cha cha.
Gloria was a freelance writer and this was just before she published her infamous “A Bunny’s Tale” when she was employed as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. And she was great. I had begun writing freelance articles for magazines which existed in abundance there. I somehow figured I’d do more, but I married the man who was my host on the beach and moved to Washington and I didn’t see Gloria.
I had a baby, plunged into Washington, the Kennedy Years and assassination. Mostly women of my class and education had small jobs, if any, and our most important duty was giving elaborate dinner parties. On our social level, if you could get an assistant secretary of something that was a big plus, [we] lived in Georgetown and had nice parties. It was just what you’d think it would have been like if somebody like Jackie Kennedy was setting the tone. Then he was killed and people were actually marching in the streets for civil rights and I realized things were probably going to be different. But I had a young child so it took awhile for me to get back to New York.
When I got back to New York, I looked up Gloria and she explained how to be a freelance writer. Back then there were certain ways if you had any capacity at all, you just suggested a story, if they liked it they might let you do it. They might possibly even pay you a bit. But they might ask you what else have you got? And there were plenty of magazines and they paid plenty. So that’s what I was doing. It was my second time I moved to New York.
Back then they had semi rent control for professional people. I got a nice apartment and my son came up. Eventually his father moved to New York – not with me. Gloria invited me to a meeting with everybody from New York magazine that became famous later and we did a great big group shot. Publicity was about to be published. And Gloria insisted that I be in it. I was very good looking then, I didn’t know I was so good looking. At least I did catch this particular opportunity.
Clay Felker, who was the editor, did not draw a line between whether you were a man writing a story or a woman. It was the greatest opportunity women writers had for years and it was for the New York magazine, which was the hot stuff. He told me they needed a shopping columnist. I agreed to do it because I was new to New York and I’d get to go around the city and find out all about it, which I did. I did a story on how to buy men’s custom shirts and how to buy a camera. Seven hundred and fifty words for two hundred dollars.
You may ask how I was living on that. The big magazines like McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal would pay you two thousand dollars for an article on how much to Tip at Christmas. In those days, for two thousand dollars, I could live. My rent was four hundred dollars a month. I used to walk around with twenty five dollars for the week’s expenses in my purse. We’re only talking ’67 and it was about to become extremely tumultuous and historic.
I was working on setting up the poverty programs of President Johnson, both for public television and for some magazines. The third shopping column I did was so interesting to me, I have no idea what I was supposed to be shopping for, but it turned into a cover story called “How to Be Poor on $80,000 a year in New York.” How can you possibly be poor on $80,000? I started with some neighbors of mine who lived entirely on credit, had two children, five dogs, and an apartment, and never paid a bill. They told me all their tricks. At that point I had met John Kenneth Galbraith, and he was completely fascinated by how these people lived.
And then I moved up the line. The $80,000 people had inherited money, which I think was actually their secret. They had a brownstone in the east ’60s. They had five children, and they explained to me how difficult it was to make ends meet and that turned into a cover. Then I got invited to be on” The Tonight Show”. Gloria was famous, so I had gone to support her when she was on “The Tonight Show”. I borrowed a dress from her, unfortunately, her legs were four or five inches longer than mine. So the dress was a little long and I wasn’t a hundred percent terrified, I was just terrified. It wasn’t Johnny Carson, it was Dick Cavett trying out.
There were three famous movie directors that thought it was the most ludicrous thing in the world that you could be poor and make $80,000 a year. I hate to think how much they probably had. I was, of course, completely unprepared. I wouldn’t say I was a big success or even a big failure. But I know that José Greco didn’t get to go on. He was pounding around backstage and I took up his time. But I remember distinctly leaving that studio and thinking, I’ve been on “The Tonight Show”, now my mother will leave me alone – I can do anything I want. That’s how I was introduced to the women’s movement.
If I’d stayed in Washington, it would have been the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. And it was to some degree. But because I knew Gloria, who’d already been through all the movements to arrive at the central one, I remember thinking she’d gotten way too interested in this stuff. I was a little retrograde. I didn’t understand why lesbians wanted to be included. I didn’t understand. I was a little concerned about abortion because at that point I’d had an abortion. But I thought, well, this sounds right. More often I would think that sounds right.
My mother was quite cross that I had never remembered that when she was 18, her father died and it was the Depression and she had to support her mother and two brothers through college, much like someone running for office right now. Mother turned out to be a genius copywriter for advertising companies that were very big in St. Louis. And one day she noticed that she was making thirty dollars a month and the men were making forty or fifty.
She wrote the ads and said, I would like to have more money. They said, but these men have a family to support. I can’t remember if she succeeded or not, but she never told me any stories like that. When she got married, she never let any of us think she was still working. There was apparently a room in the house where she still carried on working as long as she could, but we didn’t know that.
I did a tremendous amount of book reviews, and I was very lucky I was given Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will and that was that “click” for me. Even now it’s very important. Against Our Will, is about rape. There’s a great deal to say about rape as a social weapon as well as a private one. There are three books that have clicked for me. That was one. The second one was Backlash by Susan Faludi, which was at least 10 years later. Just recently, the third book was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.
I grew up in St. Louis. Black people were still called nasty things. My mother tried very hard, but it was all in her head and underneath was still post civil war. Her mother believed there was a separate heaven for Black people. So my mother was really trying. St. Louis was pretty bad but it wasn’t as overt as some places. I remember taking a train to New Orleans and seeing signs saying colored water fountain. And I thought it was a different color of water.
When I read the first two chapters of The Warmth of Other Suns, which is about what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South and about the migration from the south to the north, I felt so foolish. I felt so grateful because I had no idea the number of things I had no idea about. Her new book Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents, is similarly wonderful. And I’d say a half click for Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed. I’ve heard young men in handsome suits attending Harvard Law School attack Nickel and Dimed for preposterous falsehoods. Everybody should be forced to have a job where they work at a dime store or Dunkin Donuts or whatever.
I ended up doing the cover story, which was called “Click: the Housewife’s Moment of Truth” for the very first issue. The first issue was in New York magazine. It was the one that had the Hindu goddess Kali on the cover. The reason I wrote that was this was an era of consciousness raising groups of incredible, endless conversations, sexual experimentation and I was just plodding along with my child, writing articles about “Tipping at Christmas” to support myself.
Kate Millett and all the theorists, the first academics had already given up – thought it was not going to happen. And the next ones, they’re writing ferocious intellectual books, which didn’t touch me in any way. But I was Gloria’s friend. I was a pretty good writer. So I was at the group that was starting Ms., which was easily accessible and just smart. Gloria wanted us to put in everything because we’d never have another chance. I volunteered to do housework. I know about housework. I can do housework. I was a Georgetown housewife. And it took three months to write.
Joan Didion is the one who said, “I write to find out what I think.” And if ever I doubted that process, I certainly learned [it] doing this, because I started with an irritating incident at the Aspen conference the summer before. It’s a very straightforward story about demonstrations of lack of consciousness on the part of husbands and women’s willingness to put up with it and him. There it was, it was the cover.
When I finished, I had thought my way to full feminism and apparently a lot of other people did when they read that. In some ways, “Click” is my contribution to all these years of activism. It’s not much, but it’s something. Even now I’ll get a letter saying, click thank you, which is very nice. I was a full fledged journalist and a political journalist but I didn’t exactly concentrate on that. I had booked book contracts I never fulfilled because I was off to the next thing. I just really like going around and meeting people and talking to them and gathering everything they had to say.
RT: What years was that?
JO: The first issue was ’71. The first free-standing one was ’72. Susan’s book came out which I read before I wrote click. That was the one that finished me off. I really wasn’t fully there. I still didn’t know anything about people of color. I knew quite a lot about poverty by then. I started writing a newspaper column which had very few buyers.
RT: What issues were of greatest concern to you?
JO: Do you remember the Houston conference? This was the international year the Mexico conference had taken place but I didn’t manage to be there. Bella Abzug deployed the plan the UN set forward and that was 1977 in Houston. It was to prepare all the countries with their own conferences to attend. The plan was every single town to city to state would have their own conferences where women would talk – what’s the problem, what do they want – and all of those would come together in every state and produce a report. The reports would be put together at a great national conference in Houston. It was one of the most extraordinary things in our history.
By that time I had been uncovering the right wing. I was supposed to be writing a book. We got to the conference hall and a lot of women there had never checked into a hotel before. We were very innocent but we were very, very informed and they worked it out. I didn’t know what to cover. Every aspect of life was covered. And there was one plank that had not one single dissenting vote – everybody agreed. And I was completely baffled. [And that was] credit.
I was so removed from practicality that I never connected the fact they wouldn’t give me a credit card unless I had a husband – not one single dissenting vote. That was the one everybody agreed on: power, money. Alas, right across the parking lot was Phyllis Schlafly. And I was a little distracted by the right wing because it was exactly what it is right now. I saw it coming. Phyllis Schlafly and I went to the same Convent school in St. Louis. She was 10, maybe 15 years older than me. I got very, very interested in the right wing. They were in our way, and I spent a huge amount of time covering the Equal Rights Amendment, but I was writing this column.
RT: What got voted on?
JO: You’d have to look it up. We were all supposed to go back home and get them moving and bring them to Africa to the Nairobi conference. Bella and some other congresswomen and even some congressmen got pushed forward. I’m remembering what it took to get everybody in one place. There were many brave people involved. By the time I was interested in the right wing, New York magazine had been bought by Fox News, Mr. Murdoch.
RT: When did you go to Oklahoma? Oklahoma wasn’t until 1982 for the ERA.
JO: First I went to Nairobi. That was the U.N. World Conference. There were women there from every corner of the globe who had already figured it all out. There was a reason that the women from Africa had 700,000 yards of fabric printed with a women’s international symbol. We were not news to them, but we were still the United States and what we did would infinitely affect their lives and has. There was the official, heavily programmed meeting full of speeches. There were women who had been forced to be comfort women in World War II by the Japanese organizing.
The most fun for me, since I was at that point working for Time as a freelancer covering women’s issues, I had this enormous expense account. I had everybody I was interested in to lunch at the Norfolk Hotel every single day. Gayle Lerner would round people up for me – she knew everybody. She knew things I never had any idea about. I was really learning every minute. I also happened to be in early sobriety for that.
I remember going to one particularly grueling day saying to the bureau chief, I have to go to a meeting. He knew what I meant. And I had a driver who I told where I wanted to go. It was some Episcopal church, just like at home. And I went in at my wit’s end. It didn’t become a cover in Time because South Africa was in flames once again for the hundredth time. I was filing for the ages and the other people working with me were, too. There weren’t many. And I went into this very, very familiar basement room and I began to feel better. And then I began to feel even better. I got back in touch with the Serenity Prayer and I realized everyone was speaking Swahili and it didn’t make any difference at all. It was the same.
I was doing this column, not many people were looking at it. I had several books I was supposed to be writing. By 1980 I actually wrote, The Girl I Left Behind: The Housewife’s Moment of Truth and Other Feminist Ravings, which was a collection of my columns and articles. It was tremendous and people were very excited. I don’t think I made any money, but that was nice. After the Equal Rights Amendment failed I decided to hell with it, went to Key West and became a treasure diver.
Up to ’82, I became determined that the Equal Rights Amendment would pass, it seemed all consuming to me, to everyone. They never actually killed it. I spent a month and a half in Oklahoma City watching the legislature not pass it, which was the death knell. Phyllis Schlafly had her little minions running around; and looking back, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening around me.
In Oklahoma, they would ask things like, little lady, are you interested in mud? And I said, why would I be interested in mud? And it turned out they were talking about the kind of mud you drill for oil with. They were offering me airplane rides out to look at mud. I was so intent on equal rights for women – they didn’t give a damn about equal rights. They cared about this nifty law that had been passed that let you create a bank out of old photo printing buildings – it was like an oil gusher.
I didn’t notice and I don’t know what I would have done if I really noticed, but I wasn’t as good a reporter as I thought I was. I got really, really depressed. Barbara Ehrenreich and I went together to Phyllis Schlafly’s victory party. I’m a sucker for punishment. I saved everything from it: all the posters and everything. They had gone to the Radcliffe library and when she died this year, I asked them if they would please pull it out for me. And they did. And I knew someday I’d get to use it and describe that victory party.
It was in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom, the biggest one. It had a dais with special tables on three sides of the room. Every table had a little book with little American flags done by her little minions. And every person seated around the room was either a general or somebody like Falwell. She was a militarist. I knew that and I said that. Her newsletter was two pages. One was on the military and building up the army and the other was on beating down women. She seemed a more nuanced woman. She was a tool of the forces of evil herself.
Leslie Lindsey, Van Gelder and I and three or four other people in Houston set up an interview with Phyllis Schlafly. I’ve only been afraid to interview a few people. Jerry Falwell was one. Phyllis Schlafly was one. And there’s a couple of others. Lindsey said, what if one of your children turns out to be gay? She said that would never happen. It did actually happen.
Anyway, I was very depressed. It was 1982. I was in Key West. My son was in college so I went to Key West and I met these people who were looking for treasure that sank in 1620. There were palm trees and warm water and I was still skinny and a very good diver and I just stayed. They were inventing things like tiny computers and telephones so I could go on working, as people are learning now, through some very odd means. That’s actually when I went to Nairobi.
I went to all the Republican and Democratic conventions. That was always a lot of fun. They were the parties. There was real backroom chicanery. The money wasn’t in it yet. And the industry of making television ads was not around. This morning I counted 36 Facebook messages asking to send money in Kentucky. “Poor McGrath is going to lose. Send money right away. The chinless wonder is growing.” The next one from a different fundraising place says, “McGrath is surging, send more money.” They’re not making any sense. They also don’t include any reason why you might want to vote for them. It’s a corrupt industry.
RT: What were your most memorable and important experiences? Sounds like Houston and Nairobi, but what were the most memorable and important experiences that you experienced in the women’s movement?
JO: Having a child out of wedlock was one, and giving it up for adoption. That was my senior year in college. I would say that set me on the path in a guilt way. That was a spring to it. Writing a lot of stuff in Washington with brilliant people who were writing policy, who were actually changing laws. It was very exciting because I didn’t have to do it. I just had to write about it, which is what journalists do.
There was at one time a national demographer. A very, very nice man. I’m sure he’s gone by now. I used to call him to check things. One time I called him and I said X number of women appear to be living in poverty, and they are not married, they have children they’re supporting. He said no, that’s not right. I could not blame him for not seeing, this was all about not seeing and it’s all about not seeing now, which is apparently the human condition.
RT: How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life, personally or professionally?
JO: I was deeply involved until the late ‘80s. I stopped drinking, I had broken off the last love affair I ever had, my child was born, my long lost daughter appeared and I went through menopause. My feet were swept out from under me. I did a book with two nuns, pro-choice of two nuns. Two nuns battle with the Vatican over women’s right to choose. I did that to earn money to do the other book, but it was highly praised and reviewed gloriously. It was really a good book. My publisher said, “We’ll get rich.” And I said, “No, we won’t.” “Why not?” She said. I said, “People don’t like nuns.” Then bless their hearts, the nuns are now married and living in Ogunquit, very happy. And they saved their money.
But all of [this] left me in various bits and pieces. And I moved to Vermont, and seemed to become an all purpose troublemaker in civic life. I think if I hadn’t been so passionately determined that the new day would dawn, I would have paid more attention to what you might call a career. Other people finish more books. Other people paid attention to their work much more than me. I didn’t really have any idea how good I was. Nobody seemed to be able to catch my attention, it was not their fault that I was veering off a path that would benefit me.
A lot of feminists made a lot of money. I made none. I went to this really awful convent school before I went to Harvard. I got in because I had cousins on the admissions board and my family went to Harvard for hundreds of years, literally. I never knew what they were talking about. I was totally unprepared for any university, totally. It was the most dreadful education I had beforehand. My family, bless their hearts, they just were good Catholics and good Harvard graduates. And they just always said Jane will go to Radcliffe, her grandparents did. They never noticed in my senior year, we only studied Evangeline in our English class, that I did very badly, I was called a troublemaker.
Thank you, Lord, for getting me in. The first two years I didn’t understand anything anybody said. I wasn’t ever exactly informed. I had no idea I was smart. I knew I could make a lot of noise, but I didn’t know I was actually right. I had no confidence. I had a terrible temper. I never noticed if I was winning so I had no notion of strategy. All those useful things which I learned in time, I guess help.
When my daughter found me, it was very odd. It was very healing. It was very wonderful. It’s been wonderful. I’ve now known her as long as I didn’t know her. I have more grandchildren, but I couldn’t write anymore and I haven’t been able to write. And that’s a rather serious loss, both personally and financially. It’s very odd. I hope I get time to figure it out.
What would I have done if I hadn’t been involved in the women’s movement? What would you have done? What would we be? The nice women that I went to that terrible school with, almost all of them had five or more children. But so did all the non-Catholic women in my class. It was an approved occupation. Last year I went out. I always go out for reunions. We’re dying off fast. Last year they thanked me for what I did. They finally got it. It was so nice. It was really a high spot.
RT: Are you currently involved as an activist?
JO: My secondary interest is city planning and region and neighborhoods and very bad construction. My son is an architect and it rubbed off on me. I don’t like reckless, intrusive zoning. I’m only interested in the environment. I’m really pissed when they want to build a building in front of my apartment windows. I lived in Vermont in a town with six hundred people and we had a fight about what to do about a piece of ground a school owned. There’s some people still not speaking to each other and it was exactly like fights I’ve seen in Boston and like fights I saw in Key West and the weird thing about Vermont is there was no money involved.
RT: Territory here. Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered?
JO: Children. Children are really important. I can’t imagine not having had children. And I certainly didn’t set out [to], but I think that without that, I don’t know what I would have done. And grandchildren are even dreamier. Sorry, I don’t want to increase the world’s population, but that’s probably the most important thing.