When former Washington Post restaurant critic and Very Accomplished Woman Phyllis Richman applied to Harvard University’s City Planning graduate program in 1961, she received a letter from an assistant professor asking how she could possibly balance a career with her "responsibilities" as a wife and future mother. She was so discouraged by it that she never responded — or completed the app — until recently, when she found the letter.
The entire letter detailing how the professor's patronizing query changed her life is worth a read, but here are some excerpts:
In 1961 your letter left me down but not out. While women of my era had significant careers, many of them had to break through barriers to do so. Before your letter, it hadn’t occurred to me that marriage could hinder my acceptance at Harvard or my career. I was so discouraged by it that I don’t think I ever completed the application, yet I was too intimidated to contradict you when we met face to face.
I think being admitted to Harvard would have propelled my career path to the level of my husband’s. While I ended up with a rewarding and varied professional life, your letter shows just how much Harvard — not to mention my husband, our families and even myself — didn’t give my career the respect it deserved when I was just starting out.
As you predicted, a “possible future family” became a reality five years after my husband Alvin and I married. When my first child was born, I took a break from employment and raised him — just as your first wife was doing full time when we spoke in 1961. You may not remember, but she was the example you used to explain how wives’ education tends to be wasted. The problem, I suspect, was the narrowness of your time frame. Google tells me that your wife earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and built an impressive resume in research, conference planning and social action. Do you still think of her graduate studies as a waste of time?
Ok, seriously, just go read the whole letter and then come back — it's brilliant.
Dr. William Doebele, the professor who was so concerned about Richman's multitasking skills way back when, wrote her a rather ungracious letter back. In part:
You were about to make a considerable investment of time and money. I thought it fair that you be aware of employment conditions as I then perceived them.
This is not a letter that I would write today. While far from perfect, conditions for women working in the profession of city planning are, I believe, far more accommodating than in 1961.
Ew. "I'm sorry" would've been nice to hear from someone who helped contribute to said "conditions."