06/07/2013 07:14 pm ET

Harvard Admissions Letter From 1961: 'Married Women Find It Difficult To Carry Out Worthwhile Careers'


It’s useful to remember how far we have come. Sure, gender roles are not quite as equal as they might bein the US right now. And true, we are not close enough to solving the eternal life/work conflict.

But it used to be worse.

Or, at least, more blatant.

The Washington Post ran a letter today, mailed back in 1961 to an applicant for one of its urban planning graduate programs. It was addressed “Dear Mrs. Richman,” and asked for an addition to the application the young woman had submitted.

It read, in part:

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 feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education... 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 possible future family?

Phyllis Richman never sent the requested explanation. She went on to a career in journalism, becoming the first woman restaurant critic at the Post, a job she held from 1976 to 2000. Now retired, divorced and with three grown children, Richman recently found the letter in a box of "mementos” and wrote a belated response to its author, William Doebele, now an emeritus Harvard professor.

Her letter, and his answer, appear in this week’s Outlook section of the Washington Post. To read them is to step back in time and THEN hurtle forward. Things may not be perfect here and now. But they sure are better.