Everyone is getting worked up about The New York Times’s obit on the rocket scientist, wife, mother and excellent cook Yvonne Brill.
She died at age 88 and the NYT marked the passing of a remarkable woman with a beautifully written lead obituary that noted her extraordinary achievements in an age that discouraged women from doing much more than the housework.
The Twitterverse exploded into splutter-shock, with tweets denouncing the obit’s emphasis on Mrs Brill’s domestic accomplishments, not least her ability to cook up “a mean beef stroganoff”. This prompted Margaret Sullivan, the NYT’s public editor, to weigh in with a nicely judged, well argued comment on the apparent “tempest in a crockpot”. It was, Ms Sullivan said, “fine for the obituary to point out how unusual it was for a woman to be a successful rocket scientist at mid-century and what the obstacles were.” She added that her home-maker skills were also important “given the era in which she did her work.”
But the obit made too much of her domesticity, Ms Sullivan said, adding with acid emphasis, “the glories of her beef stroganoff should have been little more than a footnote…the obituary’s overall framing as a story about gender — had the effect of undervaluing what really landed Mrs Brill on the Times obituaries page: her groundbreaking scientific work.”
It was a reference to Mrs Brill’s 1970s invention of a propulsion system that kept communications satellites in orbit.
It is hard to argue with the NYT’s public editor, but it’s worth pointing to one of the quotes she includes in her piece. Ms Sullivan quotes Australian journalism student Jennifer King, who is studying obituaries for her master’s thesis, to say that the controversial obit seemed to be “subtly pointing out the irony of a woman in that era not only being a remarkable scientist but also a great wife and mother. The reference to her cooking was, I believe, to add context to Mrs. Brill’s extraordinary achievements in an era where women were not encouraged to be anything other than Domestic Goddesses.”
Jennifer King is spot on. The problem with insisting on gender neutrality in gauging achievements is that it blinkers people to what it really takes to get to finish line. Even in this day and age (not just Yvonne Brill’s time) women have to go the extra mile to achieve almost anything at all. They are required to be home-maker and office goddess, as well as perfectly groomed, well turned out professional divas. For many, gender neutrality is a goal that must be passionately pursued but it is virtually impossible to transcend the perspective of gender altogether.
Why should we?
That’s the way God, Bless Her, made us.