Mothers of Reinvention

Meet 20 women who launched second acts before it was fashionable.

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Mary Kay Ash (1918-2001)

When yet another man she had trained was promoted above her—at twice the salary—Ash quit her sales job and, at age 45, started her own business with just $5,000. Within two years, sales of Mary Kay Cosmetics reached $1 million, and the company eventually became one of the world’s largest direct sellers of skin care products.
Courtesy Mary Kay Inc.

Julia Child (1912-2004)

When she was 49, Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking captivated American foodies. Her TV show The French Chef made her a celebrity at 51. As a young Smith grad, she wanted to be a spy, and during World War II she worked for the OSS, a forerunner of the CIA. But her marriage to a diplomat, followed by a posting in Paris, sealed her destiny.
Courtesy of The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)

She first became famous as a wife—first of President John F. Kennedy, then of Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. It was not until age 46 that she took a job in publishing, as an editor at Viking and, later, Doubleday. There she became a senior editor, working with such disparate authors as singer Carly Simon and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

Emily Post (1873-1960)

Post survived a high-profile divorce to become the country’s leading authority on etiquette. She wrote five novels before discovering a talent for dispensing advice. In 1922, at age 50, Post published the original edition of Etiquette, an 81-page guide to the practices and manners of "Best Society" and went on to write a syndicated column, host a radio show, and advise the White House on protocol.
Courtesy of the Emily Post Institute

Millicent Fenwick (1910-1992)

The congresswoman from New Jersey started her career as a fashion model and Vogue editor. For twenty years she climbed the political ladder in New Jersey before winning a seat in the House of Representatives at the age of 62. The patrician, pipe-smoking Republican championed civil rights and campaign spending reform in Congress-and became the inspiration for Lacey Davenport, Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury character.
Photo: Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

?Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927)

When the Savannah-born socialite and widow met the founder of the British Boy Scouts, she was so inspired by his ideas that in 1912, at the age of 51, she recruited 18 girls and began the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. Today, with 3.7 million members, it’s the world’s largest educational organization for girls.
Courtesy of Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, Girl Scout National Center

Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987)

A journalist and Broadway playwright (The Women), she reinvented herself at age 39 by running for Congress. She won the seat and represented Connecticut from 1943 to 1947. At 50, Luce became the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to a major nation (Italy).
To learn more, Clare Boothe Luce program

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Barton worked as a teacher and a clerk before becoming a nurse at 40. Dubbed the Angel of the Battlefield for her work during the Civil War, she founded the American Red Cross at 59.
To learn more, visit the Clara Barton National Historic Site at

Katherine Graham (1917-2001)

After her husband’s suicide, 46-year-old Graham took the reins of the Washington Post and transformed the second-tier newspaper into a national powerhouse. As publisher, she printed the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate investigation in spite of political pressure to can the stories. Her autobiography Personal History won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Mary Harris Jones (1830-1930)

A longtime dressmaker, she lost her four children and husband in the 1867 yellow fever epidemic before becoming a labor activist at the age of 50. The woman scorned as an "agitator" in Congress was considered an "angel" by the copper miners and garment workers whose rights she championed. Mary Harris Jones-or Mother Jones as she was known-inspired the investigative magazine that bears her name.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

At 42, Parks, a department-store seamstress, famously refused to surrender her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, an act of defiance that cost Parks her job and sparked the citywide bus strike led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks became known as "the mother of civil rights movement" and earned wide praise for her courage and strength.
Photo: Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) (1819-1880)

George Eliot spent a decade ghost-editing the Westminster Review before publishing her first novel at the age of 40. In 1959, her first novel Adam Bede earned accolades from Queen Victoria and became an instant success. Eliot went on to write The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch and Silas Marner.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became a leader in her own right at age 61 when Harry Truman appointed her to represent the U.S. at the first-ever United Nations General Assembly. The former First Lady, known for her shyness as a young woman, was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt at the U.N.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

At the age of 55, Carson published Silent Spring, which exposed the dangers of DDT and led to a national overhaul of pesticide use. A zoologist by training, Carson became an environmental crusader when she saw how pesticides were poisoning her friend’s property. Today’s green movement can trace its roots to Carson’s pioneering work.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee photograph, 1940

Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

A frail child beset by back problems, Bird ducked domestic life and found sustenance overseas. At 41, she set off on a journey to Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, India and the Middle East and recorded her experiences in a series of best-selling travel books. In 1892, Bird became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society and in 1897, at the age of 66, she made her last trip up the Yangtze.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

She was home raising seven children when she decided to write a serial novel denouncing the evils of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in book form when Stowe was 41, became an instant success and launched Stowe’s second act of activism. The following year, in 1853, Stowe was invited to Britain to lecture and became a columnist for the New York newspaper, The Independent, where she urged U.S. women to fight slavery.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Marianne North (1830-1890)

Daughter of a British MP, North became famous in midlife for producing a prodigious collection of plant paintings. In 1871, at the age of 41, she sold her family estate to bankroll trips to Canada, the U.S., Jamaica, Brazil and other countries, where she documented plant life with scientific accuracy. Her body of work is of great botanic importance; one genus and four species were named in her honor. She completed 848 paintings in 13 years, of which 832 were given to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Marianne North at work, courtesy of RBG Kew

Margaret "Molly" Tobin Brown (1867-1932)

The 45-year-old American aristocrat was traveling abroad when she got an urgent telegram about her grandson’s illness. She booked a passage on the Titanic and survived the disaster—for which she became known as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The near miss inspired her to do good: Brown spent her later life advocating for maritime reform, women’s right to vote and improved conditions for miners.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)

The first woman founder of an American-based religion struggled with chronic illness for much of her life. At age 44, Eddy experienced a profound spiritual healing, which convinced her that prayer was the key to good health. She developed a Bible-based system of healing, outlined in Science and Health with Key to the Scripture, and at age 54, opened the Christian Scientist’s Home in Massachusetts.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872)

Despite a haphazard education, this British woman became a mathematics maestro in midlife. After her husband died, Somerville studied astronomy and physics and, at the age of 45, conducted experiments in magnetism. In 1826, she became the first woman to present her research to the Royal Society and went on to write the hugely popular The Mechanisms of the Heavens. She published her last scientific book Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1869, when she was 89.


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Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

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