Phyllis Richman addresses Harvard’s concerns about her home life

In 1961, Harvard University sent a letter to Mrs. Alvin Richman noting that while she seemed like an excellent candidate for their Department of City and Regional Planning, they did have some concerns about her personal circumstances.

[O]ur experience, even with brilliant students, has been that married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers in planning, and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education. (This is, of course, true of almost all graduate professional studies.)

Therefore, for your own benefit, and to aid us in coming to a final decision, could you kindly write us a page or two at your earliest convenience indicating specifically how you might plan to combine a professional life in city planning with your responsibilities to your husband and a possible future family?

Busy woman that she was, the missus never actually got a chance in 1961 to sit down and jot a couple of pages to Assistant Professor William Doebele justifying her decision to wear pants, go outside without a hat on, and study urban planning whilst married. But 52 years later, award-winning writer and restaurant critic Phyllis Richman has finally taken the time to write Doebele’s requested essay, which you should read in its entirety.

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.

At the time, I didn’t know how to begin writing the essay you requested. But now, two marriages, three children and a successful writing career allow me to, as you put it, “speak directly” to the concerns in your letter.

I haven’t encountered any women with “some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.” I’ve never regretted a single course. In all, I attended graduate school for a dozen years, though only part-time, since my “responsibilities to [my] husband,” as you so perceptively put it, included supporting him financially through his own graduate studies, a 10-year project.

This might seem to reinforce your belief that marriage and a family would stunt my career, but 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?

In 1970 we moved to Washington, so I continued working on my master’s degree long-distance, dropping it when my thesis hit a last-minute snag. During those child-rearing years of my life, I specialized in multitasking. When I had one child, I could strap him on my back and take him along on errands. With two, I could still manage them as I researched doctors’ influence on breast-feeding or studied my assignments at the playground. With three, and research for a master’s thesis on children’s perceptions of race, I was outnumbered. I needed some babysitting, but hiring felt like an extravagance since I was earning barely any money. So I furnished the attic in our Chevy Chase home, cobbled together a kitchen in the basement and offered rent-free accommodations to college students in exchange for babysitting.

Freelance writing, I discovered, was remarkably well-suited to raising children. I could write anywhere — in Rock Creek Park while the kids hunted frogs and lizards, at home late at night when they slept. If I concentrated on topics such as comparative ice cream shopping and home testing of microwave ovens, I could feed and entertain the kids while I gathered material.

Fortunately, in writing my gender mattered less than in most other jobs. Freelancers were increasingly judged by what was on the page more than anything else. Even when my career had momentum, though, my encounters with sexism weren’t over. Two of my children started private school in their teens. Soon afterward I got an assignment to spend two weeks writing about restaurants in China. In 1980, this was a rare opportunity. My husband decided to come along. The school summoned us and badgered me about abandoning our kids, despite my having arranged for three college students as live-in babysitters, plus my parents and siblings as backups. The faculty urged me to cancel the trip. Nobody said a word about my husband going.

We both went to China. Our children thrived anyway and grew up to be everything I could hope — as professionals, as citizens, as parents. They have enjoyed my career and probably miss it more than I do since I retired. I’ve been preoccupied with a chronic illness, a new role as a sometime-writer and occasional community activist, a new (and enlightened) husband and a new generation of grandchildren.

Female students are honing their social action skills on your campus. Two Harvard Graduate School of Design students have gotten more than 10,000 signatures for a petition on behalf of architect-planner Denise Scott Brown, who was already an inspired teacher when I attended her lectures at Penn. She later married architect Robert Venturi, and together they were running an influential architecture practice by 1967.

In 1991, Venturi won architecture’s top award, the Pritzker Prize. Scott Brown did not, then or since. Yet according to Arielle Assouline-Lichten, one of the students who started the petition with Caroline James: “Almost all architecture students have studied her in school. Everyone grew up with her as the female professional who’s always been around and never really gets the recognition.”

Dr. Doebele, have you signed the petition yet?

Sincerely,
Ms. Phyllis Richman

In response to your as-yet-unasked questions: Yes, she did continue her graduate education; yes, she did use that education working with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission; and yes, Doebele did present his own (first) wife as an example of a waste of education.

Richman discussed her essay with NPR’s Michel Martin, all talky-talky like two married women.

RICHMOND: I have a daughter and I have a niece, two nieces, who look to me as a model for their behavior. I felt very proud, humbled by that. So when I saw this letter [in a box of mementos], I thought, this is the kind of thing that she’s talking about, that she’s proud that I’m a model for her in standing up for my rights. So I thought, now it’s time to respond to this. I showed this letter to my daughter, my niece.

They were appalled, they were horrified. And I was relieved that they were appalled. I didn’t know whether women today took it for granted that they had a rightful place that was given to them when it was appropriate.

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3 Responses

  1. Echo Zen
    Echo Zen June 24, 2013 at 6:29 pm |

    I’m surprised, but not shocked… that Doebele still teaches at Harvard, and has issued no apology in response to Richman’s mockery of his sexism. He did respond with a letter pointing out “conditions for women [today] are… far more accommodating than in 1961,” which is as insightful as pointing out minorities nowadays can vote.

    Does he consider it beneath him to “man up” and issue an apology?

  2. pheenobarbidoll
    pheenobarbidoll June 25, 2013 at 5:40 pm |

    That’s a whole lot nicer than I would have been.

    Dear Harvard,

    Fuck you, that’s how.

    Eat Shit,
    Pheeno

  3. Julian
    Julian June 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm |

    My parents were both working when they started having children, and even though they had to use babysitters and help from family they managed to raise 3 boys. By the time i came along(Im the youngest in my family) they didn’t really need that much help anymore,but im pretty sure my older brothers went through a string of babysitters

    So yes, i do agree a woman can balance work and home life

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