Of all the photo essays that LIFE magazine published over the decades, a 12-page 1948 feature known simply as “Career Girl” remains among the most moving and, in many ways, one of the most surprising. Chronicling the life and struggles in New York City of a 23-year-old Missourian named Gwyned Filling, the article — and especially the essay’s photographs by Leonard McCombe — struck a nerve with LIFE’s readers. Seven decades later, McCombe’s pictures have lost none of their startling intimacy, or their empathy.
A 1947 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Gwyned Filling moved to New York with a friend a week after commencement. Less than a year later, LIFE selected her, from more than a thousand other candidates, to serve as an emblem of the modern “career girl” — the smart, driven young woman who viewed post-World War II America, and especially its big cities…
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