Excerpt: 'The Comeback'

After a while I did what you do in the face of any bad diagnosis: I chose to ignore the larger numbers and instead concentrated on the 33 percent who had been successful. This is where the reporting that turned into this book began. I looked for stories from women who had managed to reclaim a career after several years at home. At that stage my aim was solely to hear about how and what they had done and to learn from their experience. Most of the stories I had read about women returning to work were set in a corporate environment. But few of the women I know work in the business world. I wanted to broaden the base, find a variety of careers, and see what the similarities or differences might be.

A reporter's instinct when she hears an interesting story is to retell it, and that's what happened with me. I identified with the women I talked to, and I began to think about telling their stories for the benefit of other women in the same situation. At the same time, I began to find out what women had done historically. Certainly my mother's story loomed large: if she had managed to start writing again in the 1960s, the idea that you could restart a career after children couldn't be new or impossible.

I was born in 1961. In October of that year, Barnard College began a pilot program under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to stem the "waste of talent and abilities among educated women." This was essentially a job-hunting program for married, middleclass and middle-aged women. The average attendee had married young and was the mother of several children, ranging in age from college to grade school. Money was not an issue to her; she wanted paid employment for her own self-esteem. As she prepared to reenter the job market, both her husband and her children stood behind her. "Employees are beginning to appreciate that maturity and judgment are dandy," said Anne Cronin, the director of the program, in an interview at the time. "And that stability is worth its weight in pearls."

The idea that women with school- or college-age children can be a valuable asset to the labor market isn't new now, and it wasn't particularly new then. But back then it didn't sound revolutionary for a mother who had been at home for some time to think about returning to work. In 1960 the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study was established to help married housewives resume and progress in their professional development. (This is not to be confused with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the remaining segment of Radcliffe College, whose dean, Drew Faust, was named first female president of Harvard University in 2007.) A New York Times story from February 1962 claimed, "Seven million additional women are expected to enter the labor market in the next decade, a majority of whom are in their forties." The story further noted, "Increasing numbers of educated women are seeking work after marriage and child-bearing."

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