March 30, 2013
Attacking the New York Times’ obituary of Yvonne Brill as an example of media sexism is complicated; a discussion of the piece has to go beyond the lede focusing on her cooking.*
Several friends have complained about the obituary. And its lede is obviously wrongheaded, I agree. Yet this is far from a “gratuitous gender profile of a female scientist” (as the Columbia Review of Journalism describes them). It would be absurd to write an obituary of this particular female scientist without describing her life as a woman; I would consider such an obituary a much greater failure than this one, its infelicities included. Erasing the specific circumstances Brill experienced over the course of her career would do nothing to help future scientists, but would instead gloss over the gendered realities of late 20th-century life.
The CJR article linked above describes the Finkbinder test (named for science journalist Ann Finkbinder), a set of rules devised by Christie Aschwanden to equalize the media coverage of female and male scientists. Aschwanden asserts that it is “not ok to turn a story about a scientist’s professional life into one about her personal life or her gender roles”. (I agree, and was delighted when the CJR article was linked widely and commented on by my friends.)
The article goes on to say that Finkbinder and Aschwanden “emphasized that [the Finkbinder test] should apply mainly to the sort of general-interest scientist profiles that one might find in The New York Times or the front section of Nature, which are supposed to focus on professional accomplishments.” That seems to apply to this obituary, which is obviously a general-interest scientist profile, and which is even in The New York Times.
Aside from the aforementioned wrongheaded lede, however, this is an exemplary profile of a woman who was extraordinarily unusual for her cohort, and whose legacy comprises not just her rocket science accomplishments, but her notable efforts to promote the advancement of women in science. From the NYT obituary: “In her last week of life, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.” Dying of breast cancer, 88 years old, in her last week of life, she was writing these letters. I am deeply offended at the thought of an obituary of Brill that strictly follows the Finkbinder rules; she obviously felt passionately about her role as a scientist who was a woman.
This 1100 word obituary does not stint on explaining Brill’s technical achievements. It also includes her observation that a “good husband is harder to find than a good job.” She does seem to have found an exceptional one; a fellow chemist, with whom she shared a 59 year marriage and three children; she also seems to have had a surprising lack of difficulty finding good jobs. Part of my objection to my friends’ objections about this obituary is that I want another 1100 words, all about her life as a woman. How did she do this? How did she only take off eight years, for three kids? What were her daily challenges with men who underestimated her? Yvonne Brill knew that being a role model for other women in science went beyond just showing up; what did she do to help, in addition to writing recommendations? As a reader who is a woman who was born over 45 years later, I’m still dealing with the same crap, and I’d love to know what she did.
Christie Aschwanden’s rules will help keep lazy journalists from writing offensive, boring articles about their female scientist subjects. We’ve all read those pieces; I’d be very glad to see them go. The lede for this obituary should have said, simply, “Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system in the 1970s to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits, died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J.” As it stands, this obituary, bad opening and all, situates Yvonne Brill in her context, the second half of the 20th century into the 21st, where women still cope with intense discouragement from participating fully in society. In the end, I’m weirdly happy the Times made a mess of it. I would never have read this obituary if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by my sharp-eyed friends.
* Note: The original lede was, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.” After complaints from readers, and the attention of the Public Editor, the lede currently reads, “She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.” Both are bad.