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.
When we moved to Philadelphia — a city with the top urban-planning school and a legendary planning commission — at first I shied away from planning. I felt more confident applying for magazine writing jobs because I had some journalism experience. One editor told me 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. Another said he couldn’t risk “an act of God,” meaning, of course, that I might get pregnant.
Eventually I found a job as a researcher with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and then on a project rehabilitating and relocating the homeless. Both jobs allowed me to fit in a planning course or two at the University of Pennsylvania each semester; I didn’t finish the program because doing so required me to attend full time.
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?