The New York Times’ public editor has now checked in the continuing controversy over the obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which stressed both her homemaking skills and her rocket propulsion expertise.
First this from the obituaries editor:
“I’m surprised,” he said. “It never occurred to us that this would be read as sexist.” He said it was important for obituaries to put people in the context of their time and that this well-written obituary did that effectively. He also observed that the references in the first paragraph to cooking and being a mother served as an effective set-up for the “aha” of the second paragraph, which revealed that Mrs. Brill was an important scientist.
And the writer, Douglas Martin:
“I was totally captivated by her story,” he said, and he looked for a way to tell it in as interesting a way as possible. The negative reaction is unwarranted, he said — a result of people who didn’t read the obituary fully but reacted only to what they saw on Twitter about the opening paragraph.
It hasn’t changed his mind about how he wrote it: “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
And the verdict:
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.