June 13, 2013
A 1961 female applicant to Harvard responds to the department’s letter half a century later.
When Phyllis Richman was sorting through boxes of mementos recently, she ran across an old letter she had received from a professor in the city planning department of Harvard University’s graduate school in 1961. She had applied to study there but was asked to first write and send a page or two “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, who went on to have a successful career in journalism and was for many years The Washington Post’s restaurant critic and food writer, decided to answer that letter this past week, 52 years later. She wrote in part: “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. I was so discouraged by it that I don’t think I ever completed the application.” Read her entire letter, published in the Washington Post, and then the professor’s brief reply. Related Reading: In thinking about Richman’s letter, you might also enjoy reading this article from the Ms Blog, which draws a comparison between the impacts of two books: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (written during the same time period as Richman’s application to Harvard) and Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, Lean In.
Wow–must reading! Thanks for the link.
By 1981, the feminist word on the street was, “Career and kids? No problem.”
In the later 1980s, I learned that employers routinely asked, “Do you have children? How many?” and hired accordingly.
I also learned that trying to combine children and work life is very difficult–two full-time jobs, essentially. By the time they were 17, 14, and 12, I took an eight-year break from paid work to try to deal with them (and write).