Liza Mundy is a journalist, a program director at the New America Foundation and the author most recently of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.”

For a professional writer, there are few truly good reasons to write a memoir. Most writers lead boring lives, spending swaths of time sitting at their desks or in coffee shops, rifling through notes, gazing about, looking with despair at the sentence or two they have eked out, wondering if it’s lunchtime yet, and finding other ways to procrastinate.

Given the uneventfulness of the average writer’s workday, the only valid reasons to publish a soup-to-nuts autobiography are (1) to chronicle historic events they have witnessed; (2) to explain things they did that might need justification; (3) to settle scores; and, related to that, (4) to share noteworthy gossip about other writers they have known and perhaps warred with.

All of these motivations seem to lie behind Gail Sheehy’s decision to chronicle her life — that, and the fact that an editor suggested she do it — but the upshot is a rather cautious passage. The memoir is titled “Daring,” yet there is little material in it that is truly, rashly daring. During her prolific career — Sheehy has published more than a dozen books, including her 1976 bestseller, “Passages,” and scores of magazine articles — she has worked alongside Tom Wolfe and Gloria Steinem, studied with Margaret Mead, supped with Henry Kissinger and Katharine Graham and David Frost, profiled Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, plotted story ideas with Tina Brown, sat knee-to-knee on a plane with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Along the way, she rose from suburban obscurity to become one of the A-listers she wrote about: people so larger-than-life that they hardly seem real, even though they must be — or must have been, once.

All of which could have had the makings of a revealing tell-all. If she had been more willing to betray her social set, perhaps she could have retained the authority and alienation to produce a well-observed memoir about the influencers she has crossed paths with. But in the end she avoids hard reflection or big revelations: She drops names, but when it comes to delivering gimlet-eyed details about the anthropological habits of the high and mighty, she respectfully declines.

“Daring: My Passages: A Memoir” by Gail Sheehy. (William Morrow)

That said, I’m glad to have read this memoir and glad she did write it, mostly because I am obsessively interested in the 1970s, a liminal moment when women who grew up thinking they were consigned to one kind of future abruptly perceived that a more expansive one might be possible. She belongs to a generation whose lives took place on both sides of a major American fault line. The ’60s might be more famous, but the ’70s were, I’d argue, our true cultural inflection point: a time when women with drive and a deep sense of their potential — Sheehy calls them “aspirational women” — realized that they might have a chance; unlike their mothers, they did not have to pickle their dreams in alcohol or play out ambition through their husbands.

By the end of the decade, young women had become much more likely to predict in surveys that they would still be working 10 or 20 years after college. Part of this identity shift was due to the pill, which gave women the ability to reliably control their childbearing and avoid unexpected career interruptions; part of it was the spirit of the era.

The fault line transformed the life of Sheehy, who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s with dreams of being a writer, but majored in home ec (along with English) in college and married at 23 for fear of passing a woman’s “sell-by date.” She took a newspaper job to support herself and her then-husband, Albert Sheehy, while he attended medical school — an accepted wifely function known as Putting Hubby Through, which society regarded as a temporary measure before a marriage achieved its rightful balance of male provision and female dependence.

But when the couple moved to Manhattan for his medical internship, she went to work for the women’s page at the New York Herald Tribune and quietly began making transgressive crossings to pitch gritty street-life stories to the Sunday supplement editor. That editor was Clay Felker, who was just then creating the Trib’s New York magazine (later a stand-alone), the iconic urban weekly that became the epicenter of New Journalism, a yeasty, bold, experimental place where an astonishing number of major journalists got started.

Felker emerges in these pages as a man who was unthreatened by women’s talent and pragmatically willing — eager — to put it to use. At a time when newspapers and magazines were routinely underpaying women and relegating them to the “back of the book”; when women were beginning to file class-action, equal-pay lawsuits; when many male journalists looked upon female colleagues as sexual playmates or prey, Felker saw them as an untapped market and advanced them. In science, this is known as a “founder effect”: A man’s early willingness to hire women — who often then attract more women — has a long-term impact on the gender makeup of the field. Felker helped Steinem launch Ms. magazine, becoming a midwife — midhusband? — to the second-wave feminist movement. But he was also a creature of his time: He was fully capable of hitting on women who worked for him — Sheehy, for one, but according to this memoir, not only her. Sheehy and Felker had a long-running love affair and eventually married, but only after a lot of breaking off and resuming and fooling around with other people.

Sheehy also recollects the men who were less supportive: her father, who she says never read her writing; her first husband, who didn’t either, and who she says resented her earnings and had an affair that precipitated their breakup; the psychiatrist who sued her for plagiarism. Even Felker expected her to handle his dinner-party logistics and wanted to pick her hostess dress to ensure it was good-looking. Trying to make sense, in retrospect, of her decision to break with him for a time, she concludes that to grow as a writer and a person, she had to get away from his influence.

Other women were making starker decisions. One of the buried themes of the book is the feeling, widespread among aspirational women, that marriage and family life as then constructed would be an insurmountable barrier to any kind of career. During her first marriage Sheehy had a daughter, Maura, and later, after her divorce, she adopted another. “I loved having a child,” she writes, but as a single breadwinner she lived the experience drearily familiar to so many working mothers today: scrambling for babysitters, “running a minimarathon” each day, parking Maura at hotel swimming pools while she wrote, worrying about money. Other women renounced family life altogether.

Sheehy recalls a Felker-orchestrated, battle-of-the-sexes dinner party that included her, Steinem and the anthropologist Lionel Tiger, who she says told them that the “seriously competing woman between the ages of thirty and forty must forget about having children.” Amid our talk about work-family balance, it’s useful to be reminded that at least women today are allowed to aspire, reasonably, to have both.

Sheehy at times has had a bit of a truthiness problem, and it’s hard to know how reliable she is as a narrator. Maybe all these men did undermine her; doubtless some did; maybe they have a side to tell. During her early days at New York, she immersed herself among prostitutes and wrote an exposé that focused on one, nicknamed Redpants. After the story was published, it emerged that Redpants was a composite, and Sheehy suffered a lot of blowback. She claims that a paragraph explaining her technique had been removed without her knowledge and that Felker later fessed up to deleting it for the sake of narrative flow.

In 1988, The Washington Post Style section did a long profile of Sheehy and quoted her immediate editor at New York magazine, Jack Nessel, who said that he never knew the central character was a composite and that any explanatory paragraph must have been taken out early on. If it was taken out early, would she not have noticed during editing? Especially if, as she says, it was originally the third paragraph of the piece?

It was a forgivable lapse during an experimental era, but her persistence in referring to a composite as a “literary device,” as if making up a nonfiction character is akin to allegory or metaphor, comes off as defensive. In later pieces, and in this memoir, she reconstructs a lot of dialogue. It is painful when — recalling clashes with Felker’s housekeeper — she also reconstructs ethnic accents.

But that early professional trauma, the one allegedly brought on by Felker’s editing, contributed to her major achievement. During a reporting trip to Northern Ireland, she saw a boy shot in the face, and was seized by awareness of her mortality and the sense that life was passing. Back home, she experienced a full-blown anxiety attack — fueled by the Redpants controversy — and feared that she was “cracking up.” Receiving a modest book advance for an “untitled work about couples,” she spent years researching what became “Passages,” in which she argued that adult life, like childhood, has developmental stages and that the true measure of character is how well a man or woman emerges from periodic, inescapable life traumas. Her work presaged much of today’s emphasis on resilience, post-traumatic growth and the lessons of failure, and pioneered the authorial technique of illustrating social science with the life accounts of real people.

Like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or “Coffee, Tea or Me?” — but better — it captured the tumult of an era when so many Americans were losing and finding themselves, divorce rates were peaking, and lives were in upheaval. She also intuited that women may have a different life course from men: She posited that men in midlife might be starting to feel bitter and washed-up, even as women are beginning to feel that, with domestic responsibilities behind them, life is opening up. She played out this theory in her long-standing fascination with Hillary Clinton. It also emerged in her own life. Even as her career was accelerating — she applied her psychological life-course approach to major political figures in profiles for Vanity Fair — Felker’s career hit a rough patch: New York was bought by Rupert Murdoch against Felker’s wishes, a devastating blow for him. He went on to a series of editing ventures, but New York remained his golden moment.

Given the circles in which Sheehy traveled, she could have made a real contribution by pushing herself to reconstruct this time and think it through. She dismisses Nora Ephron (she “didn’t like competing with the other women writers” and “mined the self-hating feminine eye”) but in a way that seems thin and unexamined: If female writers back then felt the world wasn’t big enough for all of them, it would be useful to drill down on why that was.

But she redeems herself with chapters on taking care of Felker as he was dying. He had throat cancer, and she became his primary caregiver, pureeing organic food, straining it to broth, pouring it in a feeding tube, taking him to doctors, trying to find opportunities to write. On an impromptu trip to Paris, she experienced an impulse toward joie de vivre and decided, what the heck, to pour cafe au lait into the feeding tube. “Clay bolted upright.”

It’s a startling gesture that feels ambiguous — a welcome jolt for him, perhaps, or maybe a tiny gesture of payback for the paragraph he removed, if he did remove it, long ago, damaging her even as he helped launch her.

Liza Mundy is a journalist, a program director at the New America Foundation and the author most recently of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.”


My Passages

By Gail Sheehy

Morrow. 484 pp. $29.99