08 June 2013

What Nobody Planned



June 21, 1961

Mrs. Alvin Richman
3055 16th Street, NW.
Washington 11, D. C.

Dear Mrs. Richman:

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 careers in planning, and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professonal 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?

Sincerely yours,

William A. Doebele, Jr.
Assistant Professor 
 for the Department


"Mrs. Alvin" is, in fact, Phyllis.  She was the Washington Post's restaurant critic from 1976 until 2000.  

Ms. Richman also managed to write books about food--including "food mysteries" as well as numerous articles on other topics for other publications.  And, oh yeah, she raised three kids, who are successful professional who report fulfilling lives.

But, as you can see, that was not what she envisioned in 1961.  She wanted a career in urban planning. A few years later, she would follow her husband when he got a job teaching political science at Purdue University.  She thought about enrolling in that school's urban planning program, but it was part of the engineering schoolThus, the program emphasized things like land use and architecture. But Ms. Richman opted against it because she was more interested in people and the impact that urban planning has on our lives. 

She would, like many ambitious, intelligent women of her time, fashion a career around the "duties" to which Professor Doebele alluded in his letter.  

Fifty-two years after receiving that letter, she wrote back to Professor Doebele, who taught at Havard until 1997.  And he responded to her.  To be fair, he said he wouldn't write such a letter today, though he defended having written it.

I chose to write about Ms. Richman's story because, while interesting in its own right, it's also relevant now, as more states and countries are legalizing same-sex marriage and passing laws (or amending laws currently on the books) to ban discrimination based on gender identity, expression, history or appearance.  These things simply would not be happening were it not for the gains that women have made in the workplace, education and other areas of life.  While, as Professor Doebele says, things are "far from perfect," they are better.  And the fact that women are still fighting and making gains offers us lessons in the struggle for LGBT--and especially transgender--equality.

(You can see a copy of the original letter here.) 

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