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How to write about scientists who happen to be women
March 31, 2013 10:33 AM   Subscribe

The New York Times has faced criticism after an obituary of Yvonne Brill, rocket scientist, opened with "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."

Christie Aschwanded proposes a test for writing about women in science similar to the Bechdel test: the Finkbeiner test. To pass this test,
the story cannot mention:

- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”

This was proposed in light of Ann Finkbinder's post, What I'm Not Going to Do, on writing a profile of an important (woman) astronomer. The resulting article about Andrea Ghez. an astronomer doing groundbreaking research on black holes conveys all the excitement of scientific discovery while pretending "she's just an astronomer."

Other exemplary profiles of scientists that pass the "Finkbinder test" include geneticist and behaviorist Hopi Hoekstra, climate scientists Susan Solomon, and hyena behavioral ecologist Kay Holekamp.
posted by ChuraChura (90 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
I groaned audibly reading that obituary. What a fascinating woman! What a sorry-assed excuse for a seeming tribute!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:34 AM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oops, sorry. Christie Aschwanden.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:36 AM on March 31, 2013


Yeah, in this day and age, this kind of obit is deeply weird, especially for someone this accomplished.
posted by jonmc at 10:39 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


The article has been changed, but it's only marginally better. It's like the author didn't really get why people are irritated at the way the obit was written -- "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."

The article still qualifies her scientific role with the fact that she followed her husband.
posted by spiderskull at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


Strooooooganoff.

Doesn't work. Back to Hamburger.
posted by phaedon at 10:43 AM on March 31, 2013


It's clear that they don't even get why people are bothered -- I mean, charitably, maybe they mean to say she "was not only a pioneering rocket scientist, but a pioneer for career women and work/life balance," but they can't even manage that.
posted by tyllwin at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I read the first paragraph of the revised article and thought "that was supposed to be an improvement?" NYT, I am disappoint. (as I so often am with the whole thing.)
posted by immlass at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


spiderskull: "The article has been changed, but it's only marginally better."

Here are the changes.
posted by brundlefly at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [19 favorites]


(although, maybe all obits for scientists should mention their culinary prowess. I hear Einstein mad great spaetzle, and Enrico Fermi's gnocchi was delicious. Oppenheimer on the other hand, just nuked everything in the microwave)
posted by jonmc at 10:53 AM on March 31, 2013 [60 favorites]


Hey NYT, equality, get it right, it isn't rocket science!
posted by chavenet at 10:53 AM on March 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


Grandma Got STEM
posted by homunculus at 10:55 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yvonne Brill's inventor Hall of Fame profile.

Also: .
posted by chavenet at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Brill not only made a mean stroganoff, but launched it into space at incredible speeds! And the sauce didn't separate, even during atmospheric re-entry! That's an accomplishment to be praised. Stroganoffs are tricky things, even under laboratory conditions, much less under field testing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2013 [14 favorites]


I am become death, destroyer of popcorn.
posted by dr_dank at 10:58 AM on March 31, 2013 [16 favorites]


I read the dead tree version a little while ago and was floundering in WTF. So glad to see this post.
posted by rtha at 10:59 AM on March 31, 2013


Hey, cut the obit writer some slack: he was trying to dress two toddlers, prepare breakfast and deal with a backed-up sink while writing that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:09 AM on March 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


Ugh, that is crigeworthy...

A few minor niggles with Christie Aschwanden's test, though: I think pointing out when someone really was known for nurturing "underlings" (important for the progress of science) should make sense whether the profile-ee is male or female, and being the first woman to do something important in a particular field is a big deal. Women who break into hostile fields and make significant progress or major discoveries deserve to be noted for that.

But for their stroganoff? Not so much. Lordy, that obit is awful!
posted by Wylla at 11:14 AM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


Actually now that you bring it up a substantial portion of Oppenheimer's biography focused on his skill at making varieties of vindaloo during his camping trips around New Mexico. Which led to the eventual selection of Los Alamos as the secret nuclear laboratory site.

Not joking.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 11:17 AM on March 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


You know, the FPP wording itself is interesting:

conveys all the excitement of scientific discovery while pretending "she's just an astronomer."

I find 'pretending' to be a very strange word choice. She is just an astronomer, one who happens to be female. That's not pretending, that's real.
posted by Malor at 11:24 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Eh, it's awkward but also a tribute from one of her kids. There are worse obits.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:29 AM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I took that right from Ann Finkbeiner (whose name I also butchered, yikes):
I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman. I’m not going to mention her husband’s job or her child care arrangements or how she nurtures her students or how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field. I’m not going to interview her women students and elicit raves about her as a role model. I’m going to be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant of her gender.

I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:33 AM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well, I don't know of any mother who would not enjoy the title of "Best Mom Ever," but there's other issues here and maybe they need to get talked about.
posted by jonmc at 11:34 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


To pass this test,
the story cannot mention:

- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”


So the first one is just dumb, because anybody who's the first not-white-man to achieve really high success in most fields is going to have that noted.

But apart from that first one, the Times obit for Grace Hopper meets those criteria, so it's certainly possible.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:35 AM on March 31, 2013


I think child care arrangements should be in everyone's profile, male or female, if they have kids, in order to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that this sentence needs to be written because we don't have any sort of national system for childcare and paid family leave. Also, health insurance.
posted by Maias at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2013 [28 favorites]


I understand the general feelings here but as I read it its a tired literary device. The entirety of the obit covers her amazing career, and she, in her own words, followed her husband's career first. She's not (as most scientists gender aside are not) famous and I read this as "beloved mother and wife passes on.... But wait there's more she was a rock star of science in a time when that was a feat on its own... Here's the details of her career as a scientist"

honest question: do I need an adjustment of perception?
posted by chasles at 11:41 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Christie Aschwanded proposes a test for writing about women in science similar to the Bechdel tChristie Aschwanded proposes a test for writing about women in science similar to the Bechdel test: the Finkbeiner test.est: the Finkbeiner test.

No reason to confine that to articles about women in science. It would just as useful for examining articles about women in tech, women in politics or women in business, etc.
posted by octothorpe at 11:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


chasles, compare with the Times obituary for Feynman.

Sagan

S. J. Gould

ad infinitum et nauseum

An obituary for a male scientist mentions his accomplishments in his field and takes his gender as assumed. A female scientist's gender is seen to be extraordinary, and her accomplishments in her field are seen as secondary to her performance of the role ascribed to her gender (cooking, child-rearing).
posted by kavasa at 11:50 AM on March 31, 2013 [21 favorites]


The only reason that I am positing this is just to say that we are superimposing what we would want people to remember about us and what is important to us instead of ...maybe the family member (i.e.the son Matthew interviewed for the obituary).

When I read the revised and original obituary, I was very GRAR GRAR because .... if I stop to read the obituary of scientist/researcher, the motivation is to learn more about the scientific work, not what the person cooked or if the person took time off to take care of children.

It bothered me so much that I went to the NYT web page to do a bit of googling, because perhaps this was a new writer/or the NYT has cut back on editorial staff (have you read their science news in the past year? I think they cut the editorial staff significantly....).

But when I read other obituaries that the writer made for other scientists, this was not reflective of what he normally does at all. See his obituaries for other female and male scientists who died. Families are mentioned at most in the last paragraph or two.

So the other possibility is that the person who died was early to work in her field but was not necessarily a world leader in the field. A quick google scholar search turned up nothing but a patent.

So at least for myself, I have to take a step back. If you read the first few lines of the obituary, they are citing the son. Maybe this is how he wants his mother to be remembered.

Not sure what I'm saying but I don't think this one obituary means that the writer is sexist but ...wrote it according to the material that he had in front of him.

Also saying this as a person who stopped subscribing to the NYT because I do think that their news coverage for science is abysmal.
posted by Wolfster at 11:59 AM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Uggh, unbelievable and terrible indeed. And I am super curious about her stroganoff recipe, which might mean I am a bad person.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe the beef stroganoff really was that good! I would be psyched if my cooking were obituary worthy. And I mean that seriously, as both a mother and a scientist (and a feminist)! Without knowing more about who Yvonne was and what she valued most, I don't have a problem with the original obituary. If anything, I think what is sadder is that all three of the male scientists in the obits posted by kavasa had marriages that ended in divorce. Sure, these guys did some amazing work, but at what cost (to both them and their families)?
posted by TheCavorter at 12:14 PM on March 31, 2013


I would be psyched if my cooking were obituary worthy.

Yeah, I would, too. But as a woman, I would like to think that it wouldn't be literally the first thing mentioned about my life unless I was actually a professional chef.
posted by scody at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2013 [30 favorites]


As much as I do and want to hate on this, I also want to say, in my book it's way more important and better being a great dad, mom, wife or husband, than it is to be a rocket scientist. There's nothing little or demeaning about that. So hats off to you, Mrs. Brill.
posted by phaedon at 12:52 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


So the other possibility is that the person who died was early to work in her field but was not necessarily a world leader in the field. A quick google scholar search turned up nothing but a patent.

She wasn't an academic, which would explain the not publishing. Some people with her job history would have published a fair bit, some wouldn't, but I don't think that would allow us to conclude much about their importance to their field. For comparison, Grace Hopper turns up a whopping three results on Google Scholar, none of which is the article publishing material from her thesis.
posted by hoyland at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2013


What did her family think about the obit?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:56 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also for comparison, I have two results on Google Scholar (though it tends to collapse them to one). Grace Hopper is more than 1.5 times as important as me. Yvonne Brill is rather more than half as important as me. Granted, she could be almost totally useless and be several times more important than me.
posted by hoyland at 12:57 PM on March 31, 2013


I think it's much more important to be a great rocket scientist than a parent, but I don't object to an obituary describing the whole of what and who someone was.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:58 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, I don't know of any mother who would not enjoy the title of "Best Mom Ever," but there's other issues here and maybe they need to get talked about.

I don't know. As a scientist, she might expect a little more rigor and and clarity of scales in the assessment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:00 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


The point is, for those who continue to miss it, that if Yvonne Brill, rocket scientist and mother, were Yvan Brill, rocket scientist and father, there is no way in hell that the first paragraph of his obituary in the NYT would ever read that way, no matter how good his beef stroganoff.

Every other point you might make about work/life balance, or how much you love your kids, or how good your beef stroganoff is pales in comparison to the sexism on display. Women should not have to be Marie Curie for their life's work to be respected in their obituary in the exact same way that any man's work would be.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:12 PM on March 31, 2013 [52 favorites]


That link should obviously have been to the xkcd strip which for some reason keeps getting stripped out when I paste it in. http://xkcd.com/896/
posted by hydropsyche at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course the NYT original beginning is egregiously objectionable but the criteria of the Finkbeiner Test seem to be post-feminist - is it intended as such? Following its rules seem to make writing about feminist traliblazers' struggles and achievements harder?

Anyway, The Economist's obits are the gold standard in my opinion, at least in the distinctive British obit tradition. Here's their one on the Italian biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini

http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21569019-rita-levi-montalcini-biologist-died-december-30th-aged-103-rita-levi-montalcini (la bella figura means the Italian special attention to carefully groomed fashionable style and flair, for men as well as women- I had to look that up) . It probably doesn't pass the test but is still awesome
posted by Bwithh at 1:44 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


While those who are saying that being an excellent parent and such are more important than being a rocket scientist are correct, being an excellent parent is not an important criterion for getting a NYT obit. Being a rocket scientist is.
posted by matematichica at 1:46 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


More's the pity.
posted by Longtime Listener at 1:49 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are worse obits.

Wow, Brandon; you're usually astute on this stuff, but you've missed the boat here. There was no reason at all to lead with her son's reminiscences of her beef stroganoff; it's impossible to imagine an NYT obit about a male scientist doing that.

And the fact that the NYT corrected the obit without any mention of a change is disgusting. We'll see how public editor Margaret Sullivan handles that one, I guess. Given her past history of covering for NYT reporters with lame "well I don't think there was any malice here" nonsense, I don't have high hopes.
posted by mediareport at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Every other point you might make about work/life balance, or how much you love your kids, or how good your beef stroganoff is pales in comparison to the sexism on display.

Also, nobody will ever get an obituary in the NYT for any of these things. The sole reason she got an obituary is her science career, not her being a loving mother/wife.

As it is, even the amended version, is a texbook example of how womens' contributions to science or, well, any field really are constantly being minimised -- her real value was in her cooking and her self sacrifice, not in anything she did outside the household.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:08 PM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


Why the Finkbeiner Test does not apply...

This is not a story. This is an obituary. The point of the Finkbeiner Test is to evaluate whether an article was able to discuss the scientist completely out of the context of female/mother/etc. and focus only on her work, but to do so in an obituary would be to ignore what was clearly an important part of Mrs. Brill's life, her children and husband. This is not to say that in 2013 we should hope that a woman's career, even when discussed in an obituary, should not be considered only in light of her being a woman, but the writer also can't ignore the fact that Mrs. Brill achieved what she did in a time when being a female scientists was just that, a female scientist rather than just a scientist.

Why the first paragraph is being misread...

Look to paragraph two of the original obit. The first word you will read is But. This is because the author was intentionally beginning with details of her life that would then take a backseat to the impressive career almost every other paragraph after the first is devoted to describing.

Why the "what if it were a man?" argument does not apply...

If a male scientist had achieved what she had while also taking years off of his career to raise children full time, had followed his wife from job to job, and perfected his beef stroganoff recipe in the process, then this first paragraph would be a perfectly good way to introduce his obituary and would point to how impressive both his personal and professional accomplishments were.
posted by jrking at 3:32 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


As much as I do and want to hate on this, I also want to say, in my book it's way more important and better being a great dad, mom, wife or husband, than it is to be a rocket scientist.

You know, I don't agree with that. I love my children with a fierce devotion, but it's not the key thing about my identity, not by miles and miles. And on top of that -- being a great mom is a pretty damn low barrier to entry; it's something lots of people manage to do. Ask just about any five-year-old who the best mom or dad in the world is.

An obituary is a moment to remember what someone meant, not just to their family but to society as a whole. Not everyone can be a rocket scientist, and so the lead-in to what makes this woman important to the world is... not her stroganoff.

It's great that she was a loving mother who meant a lot to her family, but the right moment in grief to bring that up is at the funeral, not the NY Times obit, which is supposed to be spelling out her newsworthy relevance to the reader, not to her son.
posted by Andrhia at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2013 [20 favorites]


- How she nurtures her underlings

I think that if you think mentioning this in a scientist's obituary is a bad thing, you're thinking of gender first and science second. A scientist who does great things and has one or more students who also do great things is much more impressive than one who has, instead, a bevy of graduate students who get jobs in industry somewhere and spent the rest of their days writing memos of no significant note.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:55 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that if you think mentioning this in a scientist's obituary is a bad thing

It isn't, when taken in isolation. When put together with a bunch of other gendered stuff that doesn't come up in obits about important male scientists, it is less benign. Especially, to my ear, when "nurtured" is the chosen word. Why not "strong mentor", for example?
posted by rtha at 4:22 PM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't quite understand one point in the io9 article which talks about the WITI Hall of Fame video.

Does the fact that it is Brill who is speaking make it okay for her to mention her husband's career while receiving an award for being an influential woman in technology?

I watched the whole video and it shifts from first person to third person. Is that Brill or is it someone narrating the video with quotes from Brill?
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:40 PM on March 31, 2013


If a male scientist had achieved what she had while also taking years off of his career to raise children full time, had followed his wife from job to job, and perfected his beef stroganoff recipe in the process, then this first paragraph would be a perfectly good way to introduce his obituary and would point to how impressive both his personal and professional accomplishments were.

Yeah, but what the obituary probably would actually say in that case is it would have some prominent expert talking about how much more he could have done if he had focused more on his scientific work and less on his personal life.
posted by immlass at 4:45 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but what the obituary probably would actually say in that case is have some prominent expert talking about how much more he could have done if he had focused more on his scientific work and less on his personal life.

I have never read an obituary that spoke to what someone did not accomplish because of his commitment to family. Sorry, but that's pretty far fetched.
posted by jrking at 4:50 PM on March 31, 2013


If a male scientist had achieved what she had while also taking years off of his career to raise children full time, had followed his wife from job to job, and perfected his beef stroganoff recipe in the process, then this first paragraph would be a perfectly good way to introduce his obituary and would point to how impressive both his personal and professional accomplishments were.

You know, I can think of one person who approaches this insofar as (IIRC) he moved to follow his spouse. But I'm pretty damn sure that when he dies, which ought not be for a loooooong time, his obit will not start by mentioning that he was a trailing spouse when he followed his wife to Michigan.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have never read an obituary that spoke to what someone did not accomplish because of his commitment to family.

That's because what you read about with male scientists is primarily about their achievements and work commitments, not about their family at all. I find the concept of a male scientist's NYT obituary that discusses his family commitments in the first paragraph to be pretty far-fetched. That is, in fact, the objection: that a woman scientist's obituary should be held to a similar standard.
posted by immlass at 5:05 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


If we're deciding what the proper gender-neutral way of describing scientists should be, could we start adding discussion of child care to the descriptions of male scientists rather than removing it from the descriptions of female scientists? "Euler could often be found bouncing a baby on his knee as he worked" is an objectively worthwhile statement to read, and a common factoid in conversations among both my male and my female colleagues as we compare how slowly the sleepless-infant-induced IQ damage recovers for each of us as the little ones grow up.

We're in a relatively prosperous subfield, too, so most of us have been fortunate enough to be able to reasonably decide to start families. As the market for PhDs in general saturates, and as public funding for research gets cut, it might be nice to keep up a public discussion on which specialties of scientist can still afford families and which ones are becoming 21st century monks.
posted by roystgnr at 5:30 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Good husbands are harder to find than good jobs", Mrs. Brill.

She sounds like an accomplished woman, a great mother, and a product of her times. I think the obituary should have been written as if it was 2013 though not 1963.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:22 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


> This is not a story. This is an obituary. The point of the Finkbeiner Test is to evaluate whether an article was able to discuss the scientist completely out of the context of female/mother/etc. and focus only on her work, but to do so in an obituary would be to ignore what was clearly an important part of Mrs. Brill's life, her children and husband.

This isn't a memorial advertisement, a death notice, or a eulogy. It's an obituary, which is a news story, from the New York Times. Yvonne Brill's death is primarily newsworthy because of her role in science, not her stroganoff or parenting skills. Family stuff doesn't need to be excluded, but it's not the lede.
posted by desuetude at 6:31 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


I find 'pretending' to be a very strange word choice. She is just an astronomer, one who happens to be female. That's not pretending, that's real.

I took "pretending" to be a bit of something like free indirect discourse: obviously she is "just an astronomer", in the sense that her also being a woman isn't some shocking qualification of her astronomer-ness, "woman astronomer" style. But from the way obits are often written, you'd think that it was, and that anyone writing an obituary of a female astronomer would have to engage in some extra cognitive/imaginative labor to avoid portraying her as some kind of exotic specimen.
posted by kenko at 6:34 PM on March 31, 2013


Double X Science proposes a similar obituary for a male scientist:
His grill skills rivaled George Foreman’s, and he treated his wife like a queen. Even though he coached his son’s baseball team, he still had time to keep his lawn looking the best in the neighborhood. His golf swing was poetry in motion, and no one could make a better martini. “The best father and husband anyone could want,” said a bereaved member of the immediate family.

Oh, and he also was a scientist who was top in his field, whose innovations basically made it possible for us to live the way we do today. And he won some awards and stuff.
posted by grouse at 7:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [23 favorites]


> Eh, it's awkward but also a tribute from one of her kids

Her cooking is not what qualified her for an obituary in the NY Times.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:47 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was at an academic conference two years ago where the chair introduced three plenary speakers: two men and one woman. The men where introduced as is usual in academia, with mentions of prominent places they have worked, editorial roles they have held, praise of recent publications, etc. The woman was introduced as "the most fashionable person I have ever met in academia - she really knows how to pull an outfit together." To the audience's credit, there was a loud rumble of outrage throughout the hall.
posted by lollusc at 9:41 PM on March 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


It's hard for plain ordinary women, much less rocket scientists, to be remembered as something other than Women. When she was declining, I told my grandmother that I would try to make sure that she was remembered as something other than a great hostess, and I'm not sure I've even succeeded at that.
posted by skbw at 9:52 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's entirely possible that the obit writer got a lot of this from the family. I've been interviewed for an NYT obit, and the writer also spoke to the widower, children etc.. Certainly the great British obituaries give a full sense of the deceased's life, not just that person's professional resume.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:29 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Richard P. Feynman, arguably the most casually dressed and iconoclastic of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists, died Monday night in Los Angeles of abdominal cancer wearing a rather tatty bathrobe. He was 69 years old and is survived by a string of failed relationships - mainly younger girlfriends - as well as a set of worn bongo drums and a rather dog-eared little black book full of phone numbers, each number labeled with one to five stars.

The confirmed and self-admitted slut was an architect of quantum theories, and the brash young group leader on the atomic bomb project was often seen wearing rumpled khaki slacks, plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled up and plain navy blue plimsolls and who was also the inventor of the indispensible ''Feynman diagrams'' of particle behavior, he took half-made conceptions of matter and energy in the 1940's and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could understand and calculate with.

Although his handiwork and fashion sense permeates the foundations of modern science, millions of Americans heard his name for the first time in 1986, when he brought an inquisitive and caustic presence to the world of baked beans, offering new recipes with daring ingredient choices like honey-glazed pan-roasted mustard seeds.

Early on, he stunned a Washington hearing room by calling for ice water, plunking in a piece of the critical O ring seal from the rocket booster and then pinching it with a small clamp. It was a turning point in the investigation - a simple experiment, taking half a minute and no money, that perfectly demonstrated both the vulnerability of the seal and the absolute confidence of the experimenter, who then dispensed advice that cold water was also great at getting certain stains such as red wine out of khaki pants.
posted by loquacious at 11:03 PM on March 31, 2013 [44 favorites]


Brilliant take, loquacious.

Glad the New York Times is getting called on this bs. I had a run-in with an obit writer there, William Grimes. His obit regarding my biological mother was packed with factual errors. I and others wrote him a number of time times for several days after his obit was published, trying to get him to correct the mistakes he made but he refused completely, which was totally frustrating.
posted by nickyskye at 3:02 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would be psyched if my cooking were obituary worthy.

As an actual rocket scientist she was able to impart an actual emotional state into the stroganoff. First versions were cruel-mean and after the commenting on the bosses plastic pocket pen protector they were unwelcome at company potlucks. Later versions were passive-aggressive mean and they were favoured by later management.

The effort was an attempt to get a breeding program for an Ameglian Major Cow going.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:23 AM on April 1, 2013


I told my grandmother that I would try to make sure that she was remembered as something other than a great hostess, and I'm not sure I've even succeeded at that.

Now we know she was a great hostess.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:25 AM on April 1, 2013


There's an issue here that I think is being overlooked in all the GRAR over stroganoff. The opening to the obit was handled terribly, but I think the writer's intent was to set up the notability of Brill in terms of being a pioneering woman in science.
Mrs. Brill ... is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.

It was a distinction she earned in the face of obstacles, beginning when the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend....After the University of Manitoba barred her from the engineering program, she studied mathematics and chemistry instead and graduated at the top of her class. ...

Part of Mrs. Brill’s rationale for going into rocket engineering was that virtually no other women were doing so. “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person,” she said in a 1990 interview.

Throughout her career Mrs. Brill encouraged women to become engineers and scientists, starting by telling high school girls to stick with math. In her last week of life, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.
So it seems misguided and a disservice to her memory to call for some sort of content standard whereby we pretend like her breaking down of gender barriers was not one of her--one might argue the most important of her--legacies. Again, the NYT writer did a terrible job of making this point. I do not think we are even at the point today where we can talk about women's accomplishments in many fields and act like gender doesn't matter--let alone in the context of a career retrospective of a women who clawed her way into a man's field with great determination in the 1940s.
posted by drlith at 5:33 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


This isn't a memorial advertisement, a death notice, or a eulogy. It's an obituary, which is a news story, from the New York Times. Yvonne Brill's death is primarily newsworthy because of her role in science, not her stroganoff or parenting skills. Family stuff doesn't need to be excluded, but it's not the lede.

It may be the lede, but it's very clearly not the point. It's a (poorly chosen and executed) narrative device that contrasts the personal accomplishments typical of what was expected of a woman at the time with the career she achieved in spite of those limiting expectations.
posted by jrking at 7:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


So it seems misguided and a disservice to her memory to call for some sort of content standard whereby we pretend like her breaking down of gender barriers was not one of her--one might argue the most important of her--legacies.

I believe it is perfectly possible to write an obituary that addresses these issues with respect. (I would say that is actually a key part of her professional accomplishments, where "stroganoff" and "world's best mom" were not.) However, as you said, that was not it. If the NYT wants to be the national newspaper of record, it needs to do a better job than this.
posted by immlass at 7:58 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do not think we are even at the point today where we can talk about women's accomplishments in many fields and act like gender doesn't matter

Of course it matters (to men who insist upon focussing upon the unusualness of women being in the field, and thus to the rest of us who want them to stop focussing on irrelevancies), but that's not the point. We should act as if it didn't matter. (Or better yet, not talk about it at all when discussing her work - you know, the thing that qualified her for the NYT obit - which is the point of the Finkbeiner test.) Her gender is irrelevant to the actual work she did; it was neither a requirement nor a disqualification for doing rocket science.
posted by Philofacts at 8:27 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


mediareport: "We'll see how public editor Margaret Sullivan handles that one, I guess. Given her past history of covering for NYT reporters with lame "well I don't think there was any malice here" nonsense, I don't have high hopes."

On Twitter: "To the many who've tweeted at me about the Yvonne Brill obituary, I sure agree. And here's some more perspective: http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/finkbeiner_test_gender_gap_fem.php"
posted by zarq at 8:53 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see a sort of middle ground between Philofacts' and drlith's stances here -- the problem to me isn't that gender was mentioned. Of course it's relevant and newsworthy when you have to overcome as many barriers as Mrs. Brill did to have a career in rocket science.

However, the right way to do that is to lead off talking about those specific barriers and how she overcame them -- not highlight the ways in which she conformed to the expectations of her time anyway.
posted by Andrhia at 9:07 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


(zarq, I'd seen that tweet, and am glad Sullivan is on board with the critics of this ridiculously tone-deaf episode, but was talking about the revision to the article without any notification that it has been revised. I do tend to think Sullivan often lets NYT reporters off the hook too easily.)
posted by mediareport at 10:08 AM on April 1, 2013


Ah, yes. I agree.
posted by zarq at 10:14 AM on April 1, 2013


thanks kavasa. I guess my feeling which was echoed by wolsfter is more this: This scientist was not on the level of sagan or feynman. this scientist did in fact break gender barriers as part of this scientist's career. i'm in no way saying there isnt sexism or that this whole topic ISNT a thing, just that this really fails to set off my personal alarms for it here...
posted by chasles at 11:32 AM on April 1, 2013


Hard and fast rules are crap. Shaming writers who emphasize traditionally feminine attributes will lead to more emphasis of traditionally masculine values and a devaluing of traditionally feminine attributes. We're not talking about hard and fast science reporting anyway, we're talking about human interest biographical stories. A person's gender identity doesn't matter to science reporting, but it sure as heck matters to biography. What if the answer is to start more obits of men with humanizing tidbits about family and beef stroganoff instead?

I'm not saying that this lead was any good, (it really was crap) but any editor needs to find balance and this set of rules is a bad start. For instance, I don't think it should be an automatic paddling to point out that mothers and fathers who create great accomplishments have also made trade-offs between family and career.

Deleting gender from biographical reporting for women only is a form of white-wash bias.
posted by Skwirl at 11:34 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


> It may be the lede, but it's very clearly not the point. It's a (poorly chosen and executed) narrative device that contrasts the personal accomplishments typical of what was expected of a woman at the time with the career she achieved in spite of those limiting expectations.

Yes. This is exactly what many of us are complaining about. Her professional accomplishments are framed in the context of her role as a wife and mother.
posted by desuetude at 11:44 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I meant to say colorblind bias earlier. Or, more to the point, genderblind bias.

Following one of the proposed examples, we can say: "Bill is a great, nurturing role model to his peers."

We cannot say, "Mary is a great, nurturing role model to her peers."

We can say, "Bill is a strong leader in his field." We can also say, "Mary is a strong leader in her field."

This dichotomy where we are allowed to emphasize traditionally masculine traits but we are not allowed to emphasize traditionally feminine traits is really troubling. It's okay for everyone to be strong now, but it's not okay to be nurturing.
posted by Skwirl at 12:58 PM on April 1, 2013


If someone was a famous nurturer, it would be appropriate for their New York Times obituary to mention that. This is not the case here.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:17 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "Following one of the proposed examples, we can say: 'Bill is a great, nurturing role model to his peers.'"

Would we, though?

Are there any obituaries of male scientists that describe them using the adjective "nurturing"?

Perhaps there should be, but if there aren't, does continuing to use it for women and women only reinforce the notion that women's primary role is as "nurturers" -- whether or not that is a positive trait? Doesn't that actually still just reinforce the notion that it is a "feminine only" trait?

If you can find as many as, I don't know, three obituaries of male scientists that describe them as being "nurturing", I will completely concede the point.
posted by kyrademon at 1:25 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree that there needs to be a general societal shift towards encouraging the appreciation of scientists as role models, scientists as important mentors, and the importance of family and a work-life balance to successful scientists.

The place to break new ground and make this happen is not the obituary of a female rocket scientist.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


And the NY Times public editor responds.
posted by Andrhia at 2:30 PM on April 1, 2013


I talked to William McDonald, the obituaries editor, on Monday morning about the reaction.

“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.


An "aha" moment? Are you fucking kidding? "OMG, I couldn't imagine that someone who makes a mean stroganoff could also be a rocket scientist! I am surprise!" Please.
posted by rtha at 2:38 PM on April 1, 2013 [14 favorites]


I'd rather not get caught up in the specific example. The proposed Finkbeiner Test explicitly promotes genderblindness for profiles of women scientists in almost all cases. That is ridiculous.

Swap the adjectives however you want, but ultimately that means that masculinity is rewarded and femininity is erased. The message is: "Say whatever you want about manly traits, and fear public retribution for womanly traits." Writers and editors should question their gender and sexuality biases *with everything that they write*. Not just women's science profiles and not just exclusively to delete feminine description.

Oversimplifying the case may be the only way to put this issue on the table and get some notice, but let's not kid ourselves that it is what reporting in the future of perfect equality will be like, as Aschwanden implies. The world of equality that I want to live in does not just reward traditionally masculine traits. It has room to reward a diversity of traits. Why is exceptional "nurturing," not considered newsworthy in our culture? Why do we debate about motherhood and fatherhood being undervalued economically on one hand and then erase any mention of motherhood (and exclusively motherhood) with the other?

Genderblindness is not the solution to sexism.
posted by Skwirl at 3:09 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, so neither the writer nor editor thinks there's anything wrong with framing a female scientist's accomplishments within the context of wifely, motherly domesticity. They wouldn't do anything differently, they say. The negative response is unwarranted, they say.

Amazing.

It's too bad Sullivan, who leaves her own thoughts to four sentences at the bottom, once again clearly avoids asking sharp, specific questions of the NYT folks she's supposed to be observing on our behalf, instead giving them plenty of space to say what they like without challenging their assertions directly. What is the point to her job, if not challenging defenses like that directly?

For instance, "Don't you think the long history of disparagement of women's accomplishments in the workplace should have been a factor in how you framed the obit?" and "Do you really not understand anything about where the anger at the stroganoff lede is coming from? Can you articulate for me what you think the folks objecting are seeing there?" would have been nice.

It's really shocking that neither McDonald nor Martin could bring themselves to acknowledge *any* kind of point to the objections. It would have been quite easy to put Brill "in the context of her time" without reinforcing one of the most tired old sexist tropes about women in the workplace, and quite easy for Sullivan to make the two men address that point directly. What a disappointing, tone-deaf show at the NYT. All around.
posted by mediareport at 4:06 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


>>An "aha" moment? Are you fucking kidding? "OMG, I couldn't imagine that someone who makes a mean stroganoff could also be a rocket scientist! I am surprise!" Please.

Yeah the explanation crystallised for me why the obit was so infuriating in the first place. It was exactly that News-Of-The-Weird, And-Finally! vibe of the 'gotcha' framing. "Yvonne may seem like an ordinary housewife... but she's also a rocket scientist! What next! Waterskiing squirrels??" I agree that its nice to see the domestic or quirky side of people in obits of all genders, but that wasn't actually the problem here I think. It would have raised a lot fewer hackles had it been an aside in a respectful piece about a fully human scientist, rather than as a 'here's this crazy thing: seemingly normal woman is actually a scientist!' piece of condescending fluff.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:24 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies' man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

People loved this one just a few weeks ago. The man's career as a government and sociology professor for Gulf Coast Community College doesn't appear until the fifth paragraph. Admittedly, it's not the New York Times, but people loved this obit because it captured the man as a human being rather than a list of professional accomplishments. "I am not my job," used to be a pretty popular sentiment, but maybe not anymore?

I'm not saying Brill's value was more as a mother or a cook than a scientist. The order in which things were mentioned was a bit misguided ("and she did everything the men did, but in heels!"), but the actual content doesn't seem out of bounds to me.
posted by vytae at 4:25 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


>People loved this one just a few weeks ago.

There's a gigantic difference between a sweet obit in the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun-Herald written by the guy's own daughter, and the New York Times on the winner of several major engineering awards. And the 'crazy stuff: woman scientist!' vibe pervades the whole piece-- it ends with

"In 2010, when Mrs. Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, The Washington Post began its article about the event by lauding two other honorees, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver, the inventors of Post-its. The article went on to suggest that it took two men to create an adhesive stationery but only one woman to figure out how to keep satellites in place."

The Washington Post piece being an inconsequential fluff piece with a single parenthetical backwards-and-in-heels mention of Brill-- the fact that is what he chose to end it on just cements my image of the obit writer shaking his head chuckling over the craziness of it all.

>"I am not my job," used to be a pretty popular sentiment, but maybe not anymore?

There's a difference between a job and a calling. This woman went to extraordinary lengths up against a great deal of bullshit to pursue hers.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:55 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


The obit for Stamps was a eulogy written by a family member. The obit for Brill was, ostensibly, a news story. Big difference.
posted by rtha at 5:48 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Kinda floored that a direct comparison between Yvonne Brill's obit and NYTimes obits of male scientists is apparently not a clear enough demonstration.
posted by desuetude at 9:17 PM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


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