Note: I know. It’s been a while since any new content was posted here. This post represents an effort to be more purposeful about blogging regularly. No promises, but feel free to nudge.
This week The New York Times posted an obituary of a rocket scientist named Yvonne Brill. The original version, since revised, led with her cooking skills, mentioned her commitment to parenting, and then got into her professional achievements. The above-linked version, in response to substantial outrage about how no male rocket scientist’s obit would carry a similar lede, has substituted her rocket-scientist status for the original reference to Stroganoff.
The Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, acknowledged the outrage in a tweet, and I was among those who engaged in the ensuing conversation:
As someone who entered the professional world a generation after Yvonne Brill, and someone who is frequently on the lookout for signs of gender bias, intentional or otherwise, I find myself not only not offended by the original version of her obit but also sad that it’s been altered. Yvonne Brill entered the workforce during a time when all that was expected of professional men was work-related accomplishment. They could be wonderful parents and cooks, or terrible ones, but that was irrelevant. Not so for women of the day: They could be outstanding professionals, but they were also expected to be excellent cooks and great parents (think Ginger Rogers — “backwards and in high heels”). By keeping the reference to Brill’s culinary expertise in the lede, the obit offered a more complete picture of what her life was like than would a straightforward recitation of her accomplishments.
I should say at this point that I understand that women who work in science professions are thoroughly tired of being treated dismissively in the news media solely because of their gender, and so they may be particularly sensitive to instances when gender-specific references occur, as in this case. But I argue that this case, as opposed to many, was not gratuitous but illuminatory.
Which brings me to the question: What is the proper role of an obituary? In The New York Times, only high achievers get news obituaries, so a recounting of significant accomplishments is the price of admission. But if that were the only job an obituary needs to do, how will Sonia Sotomayor’s obituary read? “She served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 2009 — XXXX … ” No mention of the challenges she faced growing up and how she overcame them, which I am betting will indeed be part of the lede when that obituary is written.
I find the most engaging obituaries the ones that paint a nuanced, colorful portrait of the person’s life, highlighting the things that most defined it. A defining influence in Yvonne Brill’s life was certainly the societal expectations of professional women at the time. I am old enough to know many women who faced similar expectations, so I know they were pervasive. Just because those expectations were arguably biased and are now outdated, why remove them from the obituary’s lede? Who cares if no male rocket scientist would get similar treatment? None of them lived a similar life.
And I would argue that this is even more important in local obituaries — the accounting of people in our communities who may not have been rocket scientists, but who lived full lives, worked, raised children, coached Little League, and all the other myriad things that comprise an individual’s story. If we start screening those stories for potentially biased content, I fear we lose more than we gain.
In closing I will say that on one level, the outrage over the Brill obit’s original lede is encouraging: So many women fought so hard to ensure that future generations would not need to know the discrimination they faced, and the very fact of this outrage indicates we’re making progress. But I hope we don’t lose an understanding of that history by misunderstanding the reasons for mentioning it.