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

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 Denise Scott Brown comes in, after the break...

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown © Frank Hanswijk
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:Vanessa Quirk. "52 Years Later, A Would-Be Urban Planner Responds to Harvard's Sexist Letter" 12 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/386824/52-years-later-a-would-be-urban-planner-responds-to-harvard-s-sexist-letter/>