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?
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?
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.
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