Andrea O’Reilly, a professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University, used to get a lot of mail. As the founder of the field of motherhood studies more than 20 years ago, aspiring graduate students would often send her letters asking her to convince their supervisors that they could study motherhood. “I had to sort of vouch that it exists,” O’Reilly explained. However, having recently celebrated the publication of the 40th edition of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative – the first academic journal dedicated to the topic – and after helping to organize more than 50 conferences on motherhood studies, she says she doesn’t get those kinds of letters anymore.
Lately, O’Reilly receives much more exciting correspondence, ranging from regular shipments for Demeter Press – the independent feminist press she founded – to a recent email informing her that the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has honoured her with a 2019 Status of Women and Equity Award of Distinction for her leadership in transforming the lives of mothers around the world. The award, which recognizes faculty whose work has improved the lives and working conditions of academics who belong to historically marginalized groups, was presented to O’Reilly at a ceremony on Feb. 8.
“For me, it’s very affirming,” O’Reilly said, “because this has been an uphill battle.”
When O’Reilly set out on her self-described “defining life mission” of bringing motherhood studies into academia, she was often met with raised eyebrows. According to O’Reilly, she was asked questions like, “Don’t women just do it? Isn’t that just natural?”
Throughout her career, O’Reilly has fought for the study of motherhood to be taken seriously. She designed the first academic course on motherhood in North America, which helped to spur a wide body of literature and theory on motherhood, and more recently coined the term “matricentric feminism” which is used widely in the field today. “I’ve sought to create a feminism that specifically looks at women’s particular needs as mothers,” she continued. “Yes they’re women but they’re also mothers, so what are their needs as mothers that may be different for them than just generally as women.”
“Andrea’s leadership and impact cannot be overstated,” said OCUFA President Rahul Sapra in a speech at the award ceremony. “She is an outstanding scholar, teacher, mentor, publisher and leader within the academy, and is internationally recognized in the field of motherhood studies. Her ongoing commitment to intersectional feminism has greatly improved the lives of other mothers and parents, both on and off campus.”
Indeed, O’Reilly’s list of accomplishments includes being the first inductee into the Motherhood Hall of Fame at the Museum of Motherhood, which houses the Andrea O’Reilly Library.
Despite her own recognition and the increasing recognition of her field, O’Reilly notes that mothers still face challenges pursuing studies or careers in academia. While improvements to maternity and paternity leave have made things easier than they were when O’Reilly commenced her own studies, she says initiatives like universal child care are needed to make a real difference, and that motherhood on campus is still invisible in many ways. “You don’t see a lot of parents on campus with the kids,” O’Reilly states. “To see somebody on campus with a stroller or breastfeeding or bringing a child to class, I think students will say, ‘well that woman is doing it and maybe I can too.'”
She notes that women scholars also face unique challenges if they want to be taken seriously as academics. “They don’t put pictures of their kids up in their offices, they don’t say they have to leave a meeting early because their kid is sick or there’s baseball practice,” she laments. “A lot of women are still very much in the closet and I don’t think that’s something we want.”
Through her teaching and her publishing work, O’Reilly remains committed to empowering and opening up opportunities for other mothers. In addition to coordinating a bridging program at York specifically targeted to women, she has co-edited a book, Feminist Parenting: Perspectives from Africa and Beyond, which will be published in April and will focus on the motherhood experience outside of traditional North American and Euro-centric views.
“It meant something to me that they saw my academic work as activism,” said O’Reilly, noting that OCUFA award winners are typically nominated for work outside of the classroom. “I am really committed to teaching and I really believe that teaching and research is activism.”