Jane O'Reilly outpaces the girl she left behind; Confidence, self-reliance replace her apologetic self

If Tuesday was a typical day in the life of Jane O'Reilly, and there's no reason to suspect otherwise, then the author of "The Girl I Left Behind" (Macmillan, $10.95) is living proof of her own title. What's more, the Jane O'Reilly who's caught up may be even more interesting than the one she's left behind.

Both O'Reilly reside in the same place, a rambling West Side apartment crammed with the kind of heavy Victorian furniture that makes one give serious pause to moving. Seated at her dining room table, now an object of editorial rather than culinary sacrifice, Ms. O'Reilly seems the protagonist in an on-location feminist film. The air bristles with industry and activity. Papers rustle; phones ring; people rush; and, in the distance, a kettle hisses.

At the center of it sits Jane O'Reilly, calmly delegating a litany of lists to her assistant, Roz; not apologizing that grocery items number among them; not feeling guilty that she can now afford to hire a bright young assistant. The old O'Reilly, riddled with apology, would have. Just as she would have been horrified that her male guest from New Orleans was serving herm lunch. A man who puts slivered lemon peel in tap water no less. Now, though, she doesn't even bat an eyelash when he places a grilled cheese sandwich ringed with apple slices in front of her. She just thanks him. And with a calm authority that might stun the most self-commanding New Yorker, a breed she contends sends her packing to Vermont on weekends, she continues ordering her increasingly hectic schedule.

Jane O'Reilly is the first to tell you it hasn't always been so easy. The competence and the confidence it implies have been earned. A single parent since 1967, faced with the exigencies of rent and role-modeling, the author admits she initially "thrashed bitterly against the discovery that the only way out was forward." With the support of other women friends, among them Gloria Steinem, Ms. O'Reilly forged a role in the workplace, and later in the burgeoning women's movement, as a free-lance writer.

While declaring that "trying to be the perfect feminist is as crazy as trying to be the perfect wife or mother," nonetheless her own record is impressive. Supporting herself and her now 17-year-old son, Jon, as a writer for Time and New York magazines, she sparked national attention as a syndicated columnist for United Features, specializing in women's issues.

"Click! The Housewife's Moment of Truth," an article published in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, won her a large and diverse following. To this day, her readership mirrors her subject matter: Everywoman. And nowhere is this correspondence more evident than in "Click!" Considered a feminist classic, it tackles the nettlesome problem of who does the housework, probing its deeper implications of sex roles and responsibilities. "Housework," she writes, "is not a trivial matter to be worked out the day before we go on to greater things." Rather, she sees it as a pivotal issue, testing the rhetoric of willingness with the reality of domestic doing.

If "Click!" commemorates the symbolic parting of the ways between the old and new O'Reilly, it also serves as her book's centerpiece, a focal point against which old conflicts and new consciousness are gauged. A compendium of essays, some published previously in Ms., McCall's, and The Nation, "The Girl I Left Behind" charts Ms. O'Reilly's personal evolution, the linking of the private self with public issues. A subtle study of the relationship between society and self, the book documents a decade of social change seen through a woman's eyes.

In a style hallmarked by razor-sharp insight and wit, the author covers a spectrum of subjects ranging from nonissues like "dress for success" to more serious meditations on ERA, inflation's impact on working women, child-rearing, and third- world women. Many of these topics seem obvious to us now, but it's to her credit that years of active hard work went into making them obvious. She is one who has made them living issues.

The book's great charm -- its intensely human and honest insight -- is the very quality the author radiates in person. Purple socks winking out from under her blue corduroy cuffs, she muses and mocks her very fallible feminist self. "Being able to take a joke," she notes, "is perhaps the first sign you're taking yourself seriously."

As we talk, Jane O'Reilly, the model of Emersonian self-reliance, is delightfully sabotaged by the girl she left behind. There's the tart-tongued child of Irish descent; the St. Louis schoolgirl rueful about her own romanticism ("Have you any idea how much energy can be expended waiting for the lilacs to be delivered?"); the Radcliffe graduate painfully aware when Click! thuds Clunk! at the dinner table; the veteran feminist angry that younger women are "confusing feminism with money."

As in her book, the disparate Jane O'Reillys coalesce into a compelling portrait of today's modern woman. Devoted mother, dutiful friend, demanding feminist, Ms. O'Reilly has commitment for her credo, a force she finds "liberating" as it "frees the energies for other things."

Those other things are the statistics that stubbornly resist change. The grim fact, for example, that women with five years of college still earn less than men with four years of high school. And of those working women, 40 percent still earn less for the same work done by men.

"Issues are not settled, only enlarged. We are nearer to seeing a woman on the Supreme Court than we are to solving the problem of housework and love and families, but at least we know now that the questions asked apply to both," she says, adding, "Of course I am happy being a feminist. After all, consider the alternatives."

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