Dear Harvard, My Career Deserved More Respect

In 1961, Phyllis Richman started applying to graduate school at Harvard. But she was discouraged when a professor asked how she would balance her professional life with 'responsibilities' to her husband. Host Michel Martin speaks with Richman about a response letter she wrote 52 years later.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we turn to another college admissions story. In 1961, Phyllis Richman was a young writer and researcher who developed an interest in urban planning. After taking a couple of courses at one Ivy League school, she decided to try pursuing a graduate degree full time at one of the country's most prestigious, Harvard. And she started the application.

But before she could put the finishing touches on it, Richman received a letter from one of the professors serving on the admissions committee. He said they liked her application, but he asked her to consider her quote, responsibilities to her husband and a possible future family, unquote, and describe to the committee how she planned to make it all work. Richman says the letter so discouraged her, she didn't bothered to finish it, or answer the letter.

But 52 years later, after an award-winning career as a restaurant critic and writer, Richman changed her mind, and she did pen a reply, and the Washington Post recently published it. And she's with us now in our Washington D.C. studios to tell us more about it. Phyllis Richman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PHYLLIS RICHMAN: Oh, thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: When you started that application, did you think that there would be some resistance to you going to grad school full-time?

RICHMAN: I didn't expect resistance from that end. I did worry about how I was going to do it, about how I was going to pay for it. It never occurred to me that I would be given less consideration because I was a woman. I knew women in the field, and I had grown up in a planned community in Greenbelt, Maryland which was a project of Eleanor Roosevelt. Women and planning were very well-connected in my head.

MARTIN: So when you got the letter, can you just describe for us, you know, all these years later just what went through your mind? I mean, how did that feel?

RICHMAN: I had forgotten that there was a letter. But I had had a talk with the man who wrote the letter, an interview with him, and he told me that his prime example was that his wife had a planning degree, and she was home raising children. That didn't seem much of a deterrent to me. Children grow up. And it turns out that they had three children in four years - of course one of them would have to be raising these children. And she went on to have a - what seemed to me - an illustrious career in planning. But she certainly inadvertently played a role in my not going into planning.

MARTIN: The professor you're speaking about here, was a professor - William Doebele. Did he say that his wife felt that her education was wasted, or that he felt her education...

RICHMAN: No, he felt it was wasted.

MARTIN: He felt that it was wasted.

RICHMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: It wasn't just him, I mean, one of the things you wrote in your piece is, 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 starting out. I mean, talk about that for a minute. I mean, was it really all Professor Doebele being a jerk?

RICHMAN: You know, why didn't I fight him on it? Well, it wouldn't have been in me to fight authority, for one thing. I accepted what he said, and I certainly didn't like it and I didn't think it was fair, but it was what the world was like for me at that point.

MARTIN: What made you want to write this response, all these years later? You mentioned you were going through a box of mementos, and you came across the letter, and you said, even though you'd met with him, it occurred to you'd never really responded to the letter. What made you want to do that now?

RICHMAN: I have a daughter and I have a niece, two nieces, who look to me as a model for their behavior. I felt very proud, humbled by that. So when I saw this letter, I thought, this is the kind of thing that she's talking about, that she's proud that I'm a model for her in standing up for my rights. So I thought, now it's time to respond to this. I showed this letter to my daughter, my niece.

They were appalled, they were horrified. And I was relieved that they were appalled. I didn't know whether women today took it for granted that they had a rightful place that was given to them when it was appropriate.

MARTIN: One of the things that you said in your letter, in your response, was that the arc of a career can be long. That it doesn't have to be that a woman pursues a career in the same way that a man does, that you can take breaks or divert from task and then return to the task and you cite again, Professor Doebele's own wife, who did return to the academy, did return to the profession, and went on to have quite a distinguished career.

RICHMAN: Well, women's careers, at least then and perhaps now, just take more circuitous routes. I was taking graduate courses for the time that I was raising children. I was working on a thesis, a Master's degree. I started freelance writing. So at one time, I was raising three small children, and writing, and in school. You have to be flexible when you're trying to do this. And I was flexible enough that I found writing - that I recognized writing as a career that I really wanted at that point.

MARTIN: So your beef is not that the question is asked, but that it was only asked of women - that why weren't the men being asked, what do you plan to do with this.

RICHMAN: Right.

MARTIN: How do you plan to make it work?

RICHMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. You did get a response - Professor Doebele.

RICHMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell - were you surprised that you got a response?

RICHMAN: Well, actually, this was the Post editor's idea. I thought it was a great idea. I had been trying to contact Professor Doebele for weeks and they managed to track him down, and send him a copy of my article, and ask him if he would reply. I was delighted, excited that he was going to do that. I was disappointed in the reply, but I was glad that at least he knew this was coming and had a chance to participate.

MARTIN: People can go to the Post website and look up both the original article, your original letter, your piece, and his reply. But he says, in part, "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." He also goes on to say he would never have written such a letter today. But you said you were disappointed with his response. What did you hope for?

RICHMAN: It was not employment conditions he was concerned about in that first letter. It was whether I would continue my career - use my education. And in fact, I did, after that, work in the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the Redevelopment Authority and City Planning Project. And I did use the education that I managed to eke out. And I think it also informed what I wrote in food, as well.

MARTIN: When you look at the whole thing together, what feeling are you left with?

RICHMAN: Well, I do wish that I had been bolder, but I'm glad that I had the chance to embolden my daughter and my nieces. And I've loved my career. I've had a wonderful professional life. But I also would have been excited to have the chance to go further in planning.

MARTIN: What would you want people reading your letter today to draw from it? I noted that you got a lot of responses to the letter...

RICHMAN: Oh, it's been amazing.

MARTIN: ...And many, many story from people telling their own personal stories.

RICHMAN: It's worthwhile making sure the next generation knows what happened with your generation. You still have to be aware of whatever injustices you participate in or you're affected by. And you still set your own general path and keep on that as best you can.

MARTIN: Phyllis Richman was restaurant critic for the Washington Post from 1976 to the year 2000. She responded 52 years later to a letter she received in 1961 from a Harvard professor who cautioned her to consider her family responsibilities before applying to her program. And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington D.C., studios. Phyllis Richman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RICHMAN: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure, Michel.

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