The Post prints a truly remarkable document!

MONDAY, JUNE 10, 2013

What happened in 1967, only six years later: Among other accomplishments and undertakings, Phyllis Richman was a restaurant critic for The Washington Post from 1976 to 2000.

But that came later. In 1961, Richman, a recent Brandeis graduate, applied to graduate school at Harvard in the department of City and Regional Planning.

After applying, she received a remarkable letter from the department—a letter she recently found, some 52 years later.

To read that remarkable letter, click here. The letter was written on the other side, though just barely, of an era of remarkable change.

In the letter, Richman was told that the department had qualms about admitting a young married woman. “To speak directly,” the letter said, “our 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 feelings of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.”

For that reason, the department asked Richman to “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.”

From this vantage point, it’s easy to tut-tut about people who would have written such a letter. In yesterday’s Outlook section, we'd have to say that Richman came close, one or two times, to doing that herself.

Who knows? It may be that other married women had been bailing on their training. That said, Richman evocatively recalls her reaction when she received that letter.

Her recollection is very much worth reading.

For ourselves, we were struck by the year—1961. We were surprised to think that such a letter would still be written at that late date. Here’s why:

We got very lucky in the summer of 1960. As we were entering eighth grade, our family moved from the Boston suburbs to the suburbs of San Francisco.

At the time, this was something like a rocket trip into the future. In various ways, suburban San Francisco was light years ahead of suburban Boston. One major example: We’d have to say the west coast was way ahead of the east in terms of gender relations, at least on the eighth grade level.

Boys and girls related to each other in different, better ways. And boy, were we lucky in the attitudes displayed by the youngish teachers at our brand-new public high school.

In 1961 or 1962, when we were in the ninth grade, one of our teachers, the late Peter Drobac, said the best thing we have ever heard anyone say in our presence. To an entire classroom of kids, he said this, with great feeling: You will not make fun of [Name Withheld]. For the fuller story, click here.

(We see that we didn't tell the story in much detail a few years back. Mr. Drobac told us that we would not laugh at a ninth grade girl who was being mocked for a bit of unfortunate sexual judgment and conduct. He told us that she was "a very good person" and that she was "very smart." He told us that she wouldn't be coming back to our school, and that she was going to need a lot of help. And he told us that we were not going to gossip about her when we heard other kids do so.)

God bless Peter Drobac for telling us that Name Withheld was a very good person—and for stressing the fact that she was very smart. God bless him for telling our class, in no uncertain terms, that we would not make fun of her, the way other kids would be doing.

Every year that goes by now, we are more grateful that Mr. Drobac said what he said in our presence that day. We can’t believe how lucky we were to have a youngish teacher who stood up and said what we said:

You will not make fun of The Girl.

In 1963, our older sister graduated from that brand-new high school—and Mrs. H, the youngish wife of our youngish history teacher, gave her a copy of The Feminine Mystique, which had just been published. And how weird!

Four years later, in 1967, our sister graduated from college. She headed on for graduate work at Columbia, in—what else?—urban planning. (She met her husband there.) It was only six years after that letter was written to Richman. It’s hard to imagine anyone writing a letter like that at that point in time.

Things were changing amazingly quickly during that particular period. In our own experience, one way to speed the change was to move from the east to the west.


  1. Fabulous essay, fabulous.


  2. Didn't know San Mateo was considered a suburb of San Francisco.

  3. There may be a little something to the east/west distinction you are making (pioneer women and all of that), but I'd hesitate to generalize too far. (To this day, suburban Boston tends to the highly conventional, but suburban Boston is not the entire "east.")

    As someone who graduated from a NJ high school in 1968, I can assure you that I had many teachers of Mr. Dobrac's ilk. In college in the midwest, none of my professors treated me or other women with different expectations than they had of men. (In fact, the few women physics majors, to cite one example, were encouraged to think grad school, not simply high school teaching.) The problems began in grad school, where men received more encouragement (though not necessarily more financial support), but still, at least by the time I was applying for jobs, grad school profs were wising up a bit about how, for instance, they wrote their letters of recommendation (thanks largely to the efforts of the few women already in the professorial ranks -- many of them at places like Wellesley, btw, so three cheers for suburban Boston, after all).

    But the real problems came when you got a job. I don't think the term "sexual harassment" had even been invented; there were certainly no sanctions against those who practiced it. There were no maternity leaves, no childcare centers, and women were routinely paid less than men, without apology. Hell, I and my fellow assistant profs who were women couldn't even get a credit card, though the local banks issued them routinely to our male compatriots. (That WAS illegal, but since when do banks worry too much about what's legal?)

    Why did things change? Because people agitated for change, worked for it, demanded it. In so doing, we were not afraid to risk a lot -- and many people did lose out, professionally, because they agitated.

    I am loath to use epithets for entire generations, but I do worry some times that younger generations too readily feel "entitled," not in the sense that they take for granted certain hard-won rights and policies (we fought so they could take them for granted), but because in their ignorance (often willful) of the HOW those rights and policies were achieved, and how recently, they have developed few skills for effecting institutional change and, indeed, have far too much faith in the institutions that govern their lives. They buy into a lot that they should be questioning. I'll stop there.

  4. Great essay, Bob. Being slightly older than Bob, I can recall many examples of severe discrimination against women. Symphony orchestras would not hire a woman musician, except for a harpist. The UC Berkeley Math Dept had precisely one woman math professor, the late Julia Robinson. She was the wife of an outstanding man in the department, Raphael Robinson.

    I worked at New York Life Insurance Company the summer of 1962. They had an corporate officers' washroom for men, but not for women. A woman named Nora Beattie completed her actuarial exams in 1959. Company procedures then required that she be made a corporate officer. Rather than build an entire new bathroom for female corporate officers, the company put a lock on one of the stalls for Beattie's personal use.

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