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“How Are You Planning to Combine Family and Career?”

What no employer dare ask today

In 1961, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard. She received a letter asking how she would balance a career in city planning with her “responsibilities” to her husband and possible future family. Fifty-two years later, she responds. Here’s how she begins:

June 9, 2013

Dear William A. Doebele Jr.,

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your letter from June 1961. As you predicted, I have been very busy. Recently, as I was cleaning out boxes of mementos, I came across your letter and realized that, even though we discussed it in person 52 years ago, I had never responded in writing.

In 1961 your letter left me down but not out. While women of my era had significant careers, many of them had to break through barriers to do so. Before your letter, it hadn’t occurred to me that marriage could hinder my acceptance at Harvard or my career. I was so discouraged by it that I don’t think I ever completed the application, yet I was too intimidated to contradict you when we met face to face.

At the time, I didn’t know how to begin writing the essay you requested. But now, two marriages, three children and a successful writing career allow me to, as you put it, “speak directly” to the concerns in your letter.

I haven’t encountered any women with “some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.” I’ve never regretted a single course.

… As you predicted, a “possible future family” became a reality five years after my husband Alvin and I married. When my first child was born, I took a break from employment and raised him — just as your first wife was doing full time when we spoke in 1961. You may not remember, but she was the example you used to explain how wives’ education tends to be wasted. The problem, I suspect, was the narrowness of your time frame. Google tells me that your wife earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and built an impressive resume in research, conference planning and social action. Do you still think of her graduate studies as a waste of time?

Voices - How are you planning to combine family and career

 


From The Washington Post, June 6, 2013.

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