At first, I was outraged by the way the New York Times started its obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill by describing her cooking skills. I calmed down, though, when I remembered that I once built an entire obituary around a much-loved (male) minister’s talent for pie crust. Then I got mad again when I thought of how hard it is for female scientists to be recognized for anything besides their gender or how rare it is for women to rate staff-written obituaries.
On Monday, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in with a column that distills why Brill’s gender should not have been the central theme of the obituary:
The way (Brill) handled her role as a wife and mother certainly had a place, given the era in which she did her work. Cultural context is important. But if Yvonne Brill’s life was worth writing about because of her achievements, and all agree that it was, then the glories of her beef stroganoff should have been little more than a footnote. The emphasis on her domesticity — and, more important, 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.
I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Brill’s obit, although I’m fairly certain I would not have included the words “beef Stroganoff” anywhere in the first three grafs of that particular story. It is, however, heartening that a major news organization like the Times heeded criticisms and rewrote the lede.