Grad applications, ca. 1961: Writer Phyllis Richman gets the last laugh, and a Harvard proffie remains clueless

File this post under reader and commenter Indyanna‘s notion that effective teaching can only be measured in the obituaries of our students. Via Echidne, we learn that in 1961, Phyllis Richman, writer and longtime restaurant critic at the Washington Post, applied to the graduate program in City and Regional Planning at Harvard’s School of Design . She received the following letter from Assistant Professor William A. Doebele, Jr., which read in part:

[O]ur experience, even with brilliant students, has been that married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers in planning, and hence have a 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 decision [on your application], could you kindly write 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?

Richman recently answered his letter:

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your letter from June 1961. As you predicted, I have been very busy. Recently, as I was cleaning out boxes of mementos, I came across your letter and realized that, even though we discussed it in person 52 years ago, I had never responded in writing.

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?

Read the whole thing!  And guess what?  Doebele is still alive, and responded defensively and disingenuously:

My 1961 letter to you states that you were potentially admissible to the professional program in city planning at Harvard University, but should consider the fact that finding a fulfilling career might come in conflict with potential family obligations.

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.

What a concern troll.  His letter wasn’t at all about “employment conditions as [he] then perceived them.”  His letter clearly stated that he wanted her to answer questions that I’m sure were never asked of married men.  He could have written a letter with a little humility congratulating her on her successful life and admitting that they were wrong back in 1961 to ask her to justify her application to them, but he chose to be a jerk.  But this isn’t a post about William Doebele, it’s an appreciation of Richman’s moxie.  Her review of her education and her professional and personal life is worth reading and thinking about.

14 thoughts on “Grad applications, ca. 1961: Writer Phyllis Richman gets the last laugh, and a Harvard proffie remains clueless

  1. A-HAhahahahahaha!!!!!!!

    Actually, I wonder if he’s getting hate-tweets? (Is there such a thing?) Or maybe just a pie in his face at his next conference. (The real thing, banana cream, b/c he’s so anxious about carbs.)


  2. I didn’t think he was so much choosing to be a jerk as choosing to be a douche.

    But definitely a great article that illustrated a lot of what has been going on the past few decades with a personal narrative. I hope things continue to get better with each successive generation, but I also hear my mom and my aunts lamenting that they thought these things would have been fixed by now. But of course, they haven’t.


  3. What a smart response – and kind of shocking how Doebele responded. It would have been nice had he admitted that this was a terrible question.


  4. There’s a nice batch of “this happened to me, too” letters (including one from a former college president) posted today: .

    One of the underlying themes of Richman’s piece is the extent to which the expectation that marriage would be a lifelong economic partnership underlay many such exchanges, and the extent to which, for women (and men) of her generation, that turned out not to be the case. She pretty pointedly mentions that both she and Dr. Doebele have both been divorced (with the implication that not only she, but also his first wife, needed the further education, and careers, they both eventually pursued). I’m not sure whether she wrote the piece and showed it to him before asking him for a reply, or whether the references to his own personal history were, in part, replies to his huffy reply to whatever inquiry she did make. Either way, he doesn’t come out looking good (and, given the passage of time, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to at least partly redeem himself). Some people just have trouble admitting they were wrong, I guess, even 50 years ago (and I have a vague suspicion that such an attitude may not be entirely a handicap in becoming, and remaining, a Harvard professor — at least if one is male).


  5. Thanks so much for this, CC! I also like the fact that like Richman, the women whose letters were published named names of universities and specific departments.

    Like you, I also got that subtext about divorce and the importance of women having an education & an employment record.

    I saw someone the other day pushing that meme in some article that “no one on his deathbed wished that he had spent more time at work,” a nostrum that’s meant to shame us all into spending more time with our families, or spending more time trying to make a family. But I think there probably are a lot of middle-class, educated women who *do* wish on their deathbeds that they had done more with their lives beyond organizing family life for a husband & children.

    A recently published Alice Munro story featured a character who had 4 or 5 children. When running into a man in her past on a train, he–who never had children–remarked that having her family must be very nice. She said something like, “well, yes–they’re yours, of coruse, but at some point, they grow up and they just become people you know.” I thought that was an interesting way to think about the experience of parenthood from an older person’s perspective.


  6. Interesting and sad in equal measure. I’d like to have a more detailed account of how it was different in Philly and at Penn than it would have been at Harvard. I used to live six doors down the street from the legendary city planner Edmund Bacon, and I have a visual memory (more than once) of Mrs. B., in a robe, at six a.m., on their top step, putting the old boy in a cab to a big conference or client meeting that soon after got covered in the press. Penn’s president then was also a legendary urban planner, ably backstopped by an accomplished spouse who ran the manse and did all of the institutionally uncompensated work that enabled big careers then and now. And the link below, if it *is* a (live) link, is to a recent story about how even if you were an architect-partner married to the legendary Louis Kahn, you could get muscled off of a huge, career-summarizing project by the boyz in the other offices. And then, yeah, there’s the Scott-Brown story.

    If the link’s not blue, as the saying goes, youse could always cut and paste it into your browser, or google “Constructing a New Kahn.”‎


  7. Nicoleandmaggie: but I also hear my mom and my aunts lamenting that they thought these things would have been fixed by now.

    My mother, who majored in psychology at Penn State in the early 1950s, says this as well. It took me until 2008 (specifically, the Democratic party primary that year) to understand why my mother pushed me in the ways she did when I was thinking about college. I didn’t listen and it worked out okay but upon reflection, I think she was right.

    The (science) department I left a few months ago has employed three female tenure-track* faculty over the whole of its 50+ years. Two of us overlapped for most of our time there and left within a year of each other. Now they are poised to hire two men to replace the two of us. What did they do, look at each other across the staff room table and ask, “hey, what don’t we have enough of here?”

    *The woman I’m thinking of from the wayback might not have been t-t; not sure.


  8. So I learned that a douche isn’t a jerk and I guess vis a versa. No, things have not reached equality. Power and access will always prevail.

    Phyllis, “the Martian appetizer lacked salt,” Richman took her sweet time, but he is a fossil. Fossils are natural; they’ll stay with us.

    It’s a nice story.


  9. Job market in 80s the same kind of thing happened, unwise to let your dissertation director or job search committees know if you were married, because that would be it for jobs and was for some.

    I was on a search committee in 90s where they seriously discussed not hiring nonwhite women because they would allegedly get pregnant for sure, or their husbands “would not let them take” tenure track jobs, and so on. That contingent did not win, but thought it would, because it had always done in the past.


  10. I was on a search committee in the 21st Century during which a member of the committee opined that the one female candiate would not be able to learn how to use the technical equipment in the lab that came with the job. Did I mention that she had applied in, and the lab was built for, her area of expertise? The chair of the committee, not exactly a feminist himself, saw the potential for disaster and leaned in to restrain me.


  11. One more sentence would have made Doebele’s whole letter awesome:

    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.But back then, even back then, I was wrong.


  12. Pingback: Grad school confidential: back by popular demand! | Historiann

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