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Dear Harvard Grad School: Here's Why I Didn't Apply

A 52-year belated reply to the professor who acknowledged an applicant's intelligence, then insulted it

posted by Suzanne Gerber, June 19, 2013 More by this author

Women studying quietly in a library

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


Women studying quietly in a library
iStockphoto
Phyllis Richman’s recent Washington Post Opinion article on gender inequality in the workplace didn’t cause nearly the brouhaha that Miss Utah’s pageant response did, but its profundity is of an entirely different order of magnitude.
 
In her op-ed piece, Richman, the Post’s longtime food critic (and an author) finally responds to the 1961 letter she received from a Harvard admissions professor, William A. Doebele Jr., regarding her application to the school’s graduate program in City Planning.
 
The thoughtful academic had written to alert Ms. Richman — speaking “directly” — that “there would seem to be a possibility of admission.” But Harvard’s 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.”
 
(MORE: At the Front Lines of the Women's Movement)
 
Count to 10, Then Wait 52 Years
 
Richman recalls her reaction. "In 1961 your letter left me down but not out," she writes. "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.”
 
Richman then proceeds, with grace and confidence, to recap that successful life for the professor. “I haven’t encountered any women with ‘some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education,’” she writes. “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.”
 
She explains how she grew disenchanted by opportunities in city planning and wound up working for magazines, where she felt more at ease. This was in spite of the fact that the editor who hired her initially told her that “although he could pay me less because I was a woman, the savings wouldn’t be worthwhile because I probably wouldn’t stay in the job as long as a man would.”
 
Eventually Richman did wind up "in the family way," and she took time off from her budding career. Here’s how she described that to Herr Doktor Doebele: “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?”
 
(MORE: Why Women Need to Be Mentors, or Find Them)
 
The More Things Change …
 
Sadly, many women posted comments on Richman’s article sharing similar experiences. Contemporaries of Richman’s contemporaries described being relegated to secretarial pools when their skills matched or exceeded their male counterparts’. Their tales of being told they didn’t deserve the same treatment — or pay — because they weren’t supporting families were one slap in the face after another.
 
Yet as Next Avenue contributor Kerry Hannon points out in this week’s blog What Miss Utah Should've Said About the Pay Gap, while things have improved somewhat in recent years,for most women, the pay gap has barely budged: from 59 cents to the man’s dollar in 1975 to today’s 77 cents, on average, for a typical woman working full time.”
 
Hannon hastens to remind us that the pay contrast for women in their 50s and 60s is even more drastic. She cites the Center for American Progress’ statistic that between ages 25 and 29, the annual wage gap between women and men is just $1,702, but in the last five years before retirement, it jumps to $14,352.
 
It’s not just the differential that’s disturbing, it’s the parochial attitudes that are still in effect. Some women are lucky enough to never have experienced discrimination based on their sex, but I’d be willing to bet most of us have a story.
 
Richman closes her letter to the professor by mentioning a current situation at Harvard. Two grad students in the School of Design have started a petition to retroactively grant the top architectural award, the Pritzker Prize, to Denise Scott Brown. She is the  architect-planner and partner (business and romantic) of Robert Venturi, who received the award in 1991 for work their firm did — but Scott Brown, who’d contributed equally to the project, was snubbed. The students note that Scott Brown, a frequent guest lecturer at Harvard’s Design School, is the most studied woman in her field and as deserving of the award as her husband.
 
In closing Richman asks, “Dr. Doebele, have you signed the petition yet?”
 
The surprise ending to the piece is that Doebele is still alive — and actually responds. I won’t reveal exactly what he says, but I will share one reader comment that speaks to the attitudes that have yet to be upended.

It’s disappointing, Lucia C. Biederman of Naples, Fla., writes, “that Mr. Doebele views that conditions for women in city planning today are simply more ‘accommodating.’ For women of my generation, that buzzword conjures up memories of second-class citizenship. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”