Atlantic Cities

In 1961, Harvard Told Married Women They Probably Shouldn't Bother Studying Urban Planning

In 1961, Harvard Told Married Women They Probably Shouldn't Bother Studying Urban Planning
Prelinger Archives

Longtime Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman originally wanted to be an urban planner, although she never got much farther than sending off an initial grad-school application to the Department of City and Regional Planning at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

An assistant professor in the department, William A. Doebele, Jr., sent her back this letter, which was reprinted 52 years later in Sunday's Washington Post:

Although we have not yet received your official transcript from Brandeis, on the basis of your letters of recommendation there would seem to be a possibility of your admission to the Department of City and Regional Planning even at this date.

However -- to speak directly -- our 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?

Richman never replied – at least, not until after recently stumbling across Doebele's letter among boxes of old paperwork. Her belated and wonderful response ran in yesterday's Post, alongside a tremendously unsatisfying mea culpa from Doebele ("This is not a letter that I would write today"). Richman explains that she was so discouraged by Doebele's assignment that she never completed the application, and she wound up instead following a career in writing that seemed to offer less resistance.

"While I ended up with a rewarding and varied professional life," she writes, "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."

Doebele's original letter, now worn along the folds, is particularly jarring for the date. It was sent in June of 1961, the same year that Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out. Gail Collins' fantastic book chronicling the last 50 years of women's history in America is full of jaw-dropping stories just like this one from would-be professional women who were told they couldn't do serious work and make their husbands dinner every night at the same time. But the timeline still astounds: All of this was so... recent.

So recent, in fact, that Doebele still doesn't seem to get it. As he assessed the situation today, half a century later, "I thought it fair that you be aware of employment conditions as I then perceived them." Of course, his letter had nothing to do with warning her of her rough employment prospects. It was perpetuating them.

A younger woman just wants Richman to rip into the guy. But her reply is patient and measured, slipping in a perfect last word for anyone in the design field today still steaming over gender bias. Be sure to read it.

Above image courtesy of the Prelinger Archives.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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