June 17 2013

Lessons from Phyllis Richman: Lean In, Write Back

Julia Shaw


I totally get Phyllis Richman's outrage.

She dreamed of going to Harvard.  In 1961 she gets a letter from the school saying she’s a candidate for admission (How exciting!).  But the professor wants to know how she’ll care for her family while pursuing her career (Did Harvard ask this of all prospective candidates?).  Disheartened and annoyed, Richman didn’t even finish the application.

Many readers get it too.  Some experienced similar discouraging situations. Many celebrated her belated response, published in the June 6 Washington Post.  The best revenge, after all, is a life well-lived.  And Phyllis Richman got to tell Dr. Doebele and Harvard how well she lived without their precious degree.

Reflecting on Dr. Doebele’s letter and Richman’s bleated response, though, Richman’s Post article sets a bad example for contemporary young professional women.  If young professional women want to get degrees and have fulfilling careers, then they must write back to advocate for themselves at every opportunity.

It’s true that Harvard would never have asked this question of a male applicant, and it’s no wonder that Richman was annoyed. Still, she may have let annoyance take her out of the running for a Harvard degree she very much wanted.

Dr. William Doebele’s 1961 letter indicated that Richman was a good candidate for admission.  “On the basis of your letters of recommendation there would seem to be the possibility of your admission . . . even at this late date.”

He then asks (albeit somewhat tactlessly) how she will use her degree and pursue a career in light of her personal situation.  Charitably read, this is a reasonable question, albeit one that probably should be left up to the applicant to decide privately.

Potential grad students—men and women alike—should ask themselves similar questions about their ambitions and careers.  Why am I getting a degree?  What kind of job do I want coming out of school?  Is a grad degree necessary for that career?  Which schools will best equip me to get those jobs?  Do those schools work with my family situation?  How will my career ambitions affect my family?

Prospective students should answer these questions—especially when asked by a professor who can help achieve those goals. 

Then, Phyllis Richman had no response.  She didn’t get into Harvard, because she “never completed the application.”  She didn’t apply, and instead waited 52 years to write back to Dr. Doebele about her professional and personal ambitions (although she did meet with the professor back then).  She got discouraged and became a successful writer instead.

You aren’t likely to get this kind of question nowadays. The university official who asked it would likely get in a lot of trouble. But Richman’s experience still serves as a reminder that few career paths are straight lines to the top, and professional disappointment happens to men and women alike: your dream school rejects your application, the boss promotes someone else instead of you, the client cancels your contract, or the company downsizes your division.

Moreover, young professional women can’t be quick to cry sexism and give up.   Perhaps Richman’s timely response could have cinched Dr. Doebele’s support for admission and mentorship during the graduate program.  As Richman reports, Dr. Doebele’s wife took time off to raise children, “earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and built an impressive resume in research, conference planning and social action.”  What if Phyllis Richman had responded: “I’ll hire babysitters to help me while I work,” or “I’ll take breaks from employment to raise the children,” or even “this is a private family matter that Mr. Richman and I are already considering”?

We don’t know how Dr. Doebele would have responded, because Phyllis Richman didn’t write back for decades.  

To be sure, women can learn from Phyllis Richman’s experience.  Find another way to get the degree you want.  If your first career path doesn’t work, try a new one.  Richman did, working for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission even without the coveted graduate degree in city planning from Harvard.  Success is possible in careers you had not even considered.  She says she became a writer in part because it was something she could do while also taking care of her children.

Even if you don’t like the question, the tone, or the presumption, write back ASAP. Before you can “lean in” to an opportunity, you’ve got to write back.

 

Julia Shaw is a writer in Washington D.C.

 

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