52 Years Later, A Would-Be Urban Planner Responds to Harvard’s Sexist Letter

Courtesy of Phyllis Richman. Published June 6, 2013 on The Washington Post.

In 1961, Phyllis Richman, a student at Brandeis University, was considering applying to the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Department of City and Regional Planning. The response from Professor Doebele, which you can read above, was to question the validity/practicality of her desire to enter into higher education, being, as she would surely be, a future wife and mother.

While today it sounds almost quaint in its blatantly sexist assumptions, Ms. Richman’s letter remains, unfortunately, all too relevant. In her article for The Washington Post, Richman says: “To the extent, Dr. Doebele, that your letter steered me away from city planning and opened my path to writing [a career Richman later describes as "remarkably well-suited to raising children"], 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.”

She’s absolutely right, of course; the decision was hers and hers alone to make. However, there’s no avoiding that Richman eventually found success in a job that allowed her to live flexibly as a professional and parent. How many women, and for that matter men, can claim that of architecture? How many architects are convinced, just like Ms. Richman, to pursue success in other, more flexible careers?

More about Richman’s letter, and where comes in, after the break…

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown © Frank Hanswijk

Richman finishes her article questioning Dr. Doebele’s attitudes today: has he changed his mind? Does he still feel as he once did? It’s all too fitting that her litmus test is to ask Dr. Doebele if he has yet signed the petition to recognize Denise Scott Brown for her long-standing contributions to the work of her husband, Robert Venturi, who won the Pritzker Prize in 1991.

“Dr. Doebele,” Richman concludes, “have you signed the petition yet?”

In his lackluster response, which appears after Richman’s article, Dr. Doebele neither says yes or no. He only writes: “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.”

Sexism and political correctness aside, you could write that letter about architecture today. As in 1961, today’s architecture education makes it nearly impossible to balance a life in architecture with parenthood.

What do you think? Is Doebele’s letter a relic? Is it still pertinent in architecture today, re: the perception of women architects or the difficulty of the work/life balance? Let us know in the comments below…

Story via The Washington Post

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "52 Years Later, A Would-Be Urban Planner Responds to Harvard’s Sexist Letter" 12 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=386824>
  • Elina Rozulapa

    I was 25 when i started to study architecture. I had a bachelor degree in business administration and was already master of public administration. My daughter was 4 then, and my husband was last year architecture student. Now – 12 years later i’m applying for registration 6 years after my graduation, i am a highly appreciated council member of my country’s Architect association, have a practice in a small office together with my husband and few another colleagues. And my daughter is one of best students in the best school in the country – and really nice person as well. Any questions?
    Don’t be afraid, girls!

    • alexandra

      no questions! just congratulations for your courage and determination :)

  • brandon pass

    Wow. What a wretched letter. To think of the undue pressure that puts upon Mrs. Richman. Personally all the women I know and that are a part of my life are a hell of a lot more dedicated to family and profession, have the ability to balance all aspects of life and understand its intricacies woven together into a seamless life-long pursuit as so demonstrated by Mrs. Richman’s life achievements. Guys….we tend to work, hard at times, and then obsess over the spread of the next big sporting event and justify its cultural importance….even if we are passionate designers.

  • virginia charitaki

    “Is Doebele’s letter a relic?” It could be for some and not for others. Nevertheless, I believe that Professor Doebele’s letter honestly portrayed the difficulties of that time in the field. Thus, although Ms. Richman says that “the choice of how to balance family and graduate school should have been mine.” I would like to argue that it was indeed hers in the end. She decided that any difficulties suggested in the letter were enough for her to change her career choice at the time. So I tend to believe that this letter has nothing to do with a woman’s potential to balance life/work, nor the perception of women in the field, but rather the life choices we make, and the little incidents that can work in favor of those choices.

  • Gustav

    Транслирую – по проооооооооооостенькому Вас всех в рот ебал. ( трансляция от слова транс ( задержка, состояние потерянности ) отнёс к значению перевод текста.

  • Emily K

    It is absolutely NOT relavent. It will never be relevant to assume that a woman should delay a life passion for societal expectations, as this letter absolutely does. Rather, the question posed, should be, how do we change societal expectations and the definition of home life to adapt to a profession and education that is incredibly demanding of time and energy, not only for just women? Until we avoid asking questions singling out the difficulty as if it’s just for women ie: “Is it still pertinent in architecture today, re: the perception of women architects or the difficulty of the work/life balance?” we will not be able to properly see the overall problem that our creative, problem solving minds should be well-suited to change and lead by example.

  • MHA

    such letter was not uncommon in the context of its time. It took 50 years to be able to -politically correct- respond to it. If this letter is going to make us think again about academe the profession of architecture, I would suggest we consider what we accept today. How many of us, or our students, received rejection letter from a graduate school that says nothing on how they should proceed or what was the weakness in their application, leaving them with ‘wish you the best’, yet it is accepted. How many of our teaching colleges, who might be brilliant researchers or designers, know next to nothing about how to teach and guide students. Yet, we accept that. There is something wrong when we accept and even encourage (it becomes a pride) a specific strain of ‘studio culture’. Maybe we would receive a letter (email) in the next 50 years from one of our students.

  • gerald

    Only when the task of child caring is really shared 50-50 between men and women equally (or enforced intelligently by legislation) will the risk any employer faces when hiring a women (under 45) be equal to that of hiring a man and the reason to discriminate vanish. Until that point is reached it is basically only an issue of risk management and not sexism. (just imagine that if men 50+ :) could have babies they would get exactly the same treatment). So I think these 2 very different issues often get horribly mixed up.

  • le_corboozier

    The truth is that women are many times less likely to register and stay in the profession.