52 years ago, Dr. William A. Doebele of Harvard University wrote to one Phyllis Richman. Doebele asked Richman, quite plainly, how she planned on combining her marriage with a demanding career in city planning that she wanted to pursue. Now, over half a century later, Richman penned a patronizing, if polite, response in The Washington Post—a response that garnered 1,111 comments.
It is always good to think about how much has changed in the intervening 52 years, even if Dr. Doebele did not. Nowadays it seems wrong and heinous that someone as smart and hardworking as Ms. Richman undoubtedly was, could be denied a shot at an opportunity to pursue a career-based education solely on her marital status.
In a way, though, I can understand Dr. Doebele’s motivation for asking his question. He wanted to know how this future graduate student planned on using her education, given the fact that she was married and presumably going to have a family.
What makes his question wrong now is that it was only asked of newly wed women. Still, I think for college admissions counselors it just might be a fair question to ask all prospective applicants.
This is painfully true as we enter into an era where the probative value of a college education is becoming a painful issue for any prospective student. Yes, Ms. Richman had to face numerous obstacles in pursuing her dreams and raising a family, but she did not have to face the staggering college loan debt.
When you are 22-25 years old and have over $100,000 in student loans to pay over the course of a reproductive lifetime, just having a wedding and a baby seems out of reach. This doesn’t even include the challenge of finding a suitable spouse to share these life experiences with you, much less a well-paying job or internship.
That debt is an even larger obstacle, one that has already ruined the lives of many young (and not so young) people. The raging debates that still persist about combining work and family seem oddly old fashioned, but they are still important for prospective students of both sexes. Perhaps incoming college students should read Dr. Doebele’s letter with themselves in mind.
Yes, many things have changed since Dr. Doebele wrote that letter to Ms. Richman, but have they really changed for the better?