Answering Harvard’s question about my personal life, 52 years later

In 1961, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard. She received a letter asking how she would balance a career in city planning with her “responsibilities” to her husband and possible future family. Fifty-two years later, she responds.

June 9, 2013

Dear William A. Doebele Jr.,

(Linda Davidson/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Phyllis Richman, a Washington Post restaurant critic from 1976 to 2000, in her home office in Takoma Park in June 2013.
  • (Linda Davidson/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Phyllis Richman, a Washington Post restaurant critic from 1976 to 2000, in her home office in Takoma Park in June 2013.
  • (Family photo) - Phyllis Richman holds her son Joe up to a mirror in 1965.
  • (Ellsworth Davis / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Phyllis Richman samples some wine during a tasting with British Ambassador Sir John Oliver Wright in Washington, D.C., in 1984.

(Linda Davidson/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Phyllis Richman, a Washington Post restaurant critic from 1976 to 2000, in her home office in Takoma Park in June 2013.

Gallery

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?

Women’s careers in the 1960s were often slow and circuitous. When my husband moved on to teach political science at Purdue University in Indiana, I migrated to sociology. Purdue’s city-planning program was in the engineering school, which emphasized the physical aspects of planning — architecture, design, land use — and I was more interested in people and the impact that planning had on their lives.

In 1970 we moved to Washington, so I continued working on my master’s degree long-distance, dropping it when my thesis hit a last-minute snag. During those child-rearing years of my life, I specialized in multitasking. When I had one child, I could strap him on my back and take him along on errands. With two, I could still manage them as I researched doctors’ influence on breast-feeding or studied my assignments at the playground. With three, and research for a master’s thesis on children’s perceptions of race, I was outnumbered. I needed some babysitting, but hiring felt like an extravagance since I was earning barely any money. So I furnished the attic in our Chevy Chase home, cobbled together a kitchen in the basement and offered rent-free accommodations to college students in exchange for babysitting.

Freelance writing, I discovered, was remarkably well-suited to raising children. I could write anywhere — in Rock Creek Park while the kids hunted frogs and lizards, at home late at night when they slept. If I concentrated on topics such as comparative ice cream shopping and home testing of microwave ovens, I could feed and entertain the kids while I gathered material.

Having children in my late 20s, while I was developing my career, and bartering for babysitting, carpooling and cooking made my life complicated — but also encouraged me to be resilient and flexible. (I even wrote a book on barter.)

By the mid-1970s, I was writing for The Washington Post about food festivals, holiday bazaars, ethnic markets and cooking for a family. I timidly queried a few national magazines, astonished when Esquire bought my idea of “The Watergate Gourmet,” reviewing restaurants identified in the Watergate hearings from the point of view of their privacy and discretion.

I co-authored Washingtonian magazine’s restaurant guidebook on the promise that I’d replace the magazine’s critic when he retired. Instead, the editor chose a man who had written nary a restaurant review. I wasn’t really surprised. Besides, in the next year The Post hired me as its restaurant critic. I was the first woman to hold that job at the newspaper, and one of only a handful in newspapers and magazines around the country.

Even in the field of food writing, I found a gender split. When food served home and family, it was considered the realm of women. When it involved sophistication and money, men were the writers. Women wrote about cooks; men wrote about chefs.

I stayed at The Post for 23 years, sometimes running the Food section as well. Later, when life seemed slower with only one child at home — and divorced, with no husband to “be responsible to” — I added three novels to my task list.

I was intensely busy during those years, and happy, too. I drove the kids to school because I relished having time in the car with them. I raced home at 3 p.m. to be there when they returned. The student tenants took care of dinner, often serving recipes they had tested for me. I went out to restaurants late when the kids were young, early when they were old enough to be awake when I returned.

No doubt a lot of luck chauffeured me along in my career: being in the right city at the right time, having the strong support of family and friends, finding that writing was a quick and easy task for me, and countless other accidents of fate. And when I got divorced, I was all the more grateful that my job also provided me a social life.

To the extent, Dr. Doebele, that your letter steered me away from city planning and opened my path to writing, one might consider that a stroke of luck. I’d say, though, that the choice of how to balance family and graduate school should have been mine.

Fortunately, in writing my gender mattered less than in most other jobs. Freelancers were increasingly judged by what was on the page more than anything else. Even when my career had momentum, though, my encounters with sexism weren’t over. Two of my children started private school in their teens. Soon afterward I got an assignment to spend two weeks writing about restaurants in China. In 1980, this was a rare opportunity. My husband decided to come along. The school summoned us and badgered me about abandoning our kids, despite my having arranged for three college students as live-in babysitters, plus my parents and siblings as backups. The faculty urged me to cancel the trip. Nobody said a word about my husband going.

We both went to China. Our children thrived anyway and grew up to be everything I could hope — as professionals, as citizens, as parents. They have enjoyed my career and probably miss it more than I do since I retired. I’ve been preoccupied with a chronic illness, a new role as a sometime-writer and occasional community activist, a new (and enlightened) husband and a new generation of grandchildren.

Dr. Doebele, I suspect that you are more open-minded about women nowadays and welcome them, maybe even encourage them, in your profession. At least that’s what I’d guess from a 2010 speech you gave when you were honored for 40 years of service to Harvard’s Loeb Fellowship: “Over time there will be a kind of tidal pull for the admissions committees to go for the tried and true,” you said. You implored alumni to “insist that the admissions committee continue to take chances.”

Female students are honing their social action skills on your campus. Two Harvard Graduate School of Design students have gotten more than 10,000 signatures for a petition on behalf of architect-planner Denise Scott Brown, who was already an inspired teacher when I attended her lectures at Penn. She later married architect Robert Venturi, and together they were running an influential architecture practice by 1967.

In 1991, Venturi won architecture’s top award, the Pritzker Prize. Scott Brown did not, then or since. Yet according to Arielle Assouline-Lichten, one of the students who started the petition with Caroline James: “Almost all architecture students have studied her in school. Everyone grew up with her as the female professional who’s always been around and never really gets the recognition.”

Dr. Doebele, have you signed the petition yet?

Sincerely,

Ms. Phyllis Richman

Phyllis Richman was a restaurant critic for The Washington Post from 1976 to 2000. She is the author of three food mysteries and many dining books.

Dear Phyllis Richman,

My 1961 letter to you states that you were potentially admissible to the professional program in city planning at Harvard University, but should consider the fact that finding a fulfilling career might come in conflict with potential family obligations.

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.

This is not a letter that I would write today. While far from perfect, conditions for women working in the profession of city planning are, I believe, far more accommodating than in 1961.

Sincerely,

William Doebele

William A. Doebele Jr. taught at Harvard University from 1960 to 1997. He is the Frank Backus Williams professor of urban planning and design, emeritus.

Read more:

Readers respond to Phyllis Richman’s letter with their own stories

Elsa Walsh: Why women should embrace a ‘good enough’ life

Katharine Weymouth: How do you ‘lean in’ when you don’t have someone to lean on?

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