Monday, April 01, 2013

I Make A Mean Pesto And Know How To Iron A Man's Shirt

Don't forget to put that in my obituary, should I ever evaporate.  Don't mention that I don't iron.

All this is because of a New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist.  It initially began like this:
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 many complaints, the lede was changed into this:
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 obituary then continues:
Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Her personal and professional balancing act also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.
Mrs. Brill — she preferred to be called Mrs., her son said — 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.
So weird.  The obvious interpretation of all that is to reassure people that Yvonne Brill may have been a rocket scientist, but don't worry.  She put her family first and cooked, too.  She was still a woman.

And that's how most of the criticism goes.  It is deserved, I believe, but I don't think the writer necessarily intended to write such an obituary.  This is because the little shock caused by the first and second paragraph has some literary merit:  You lead the reader in one direction and then flip her or him over and present something quite different.  That way the "different" will stick to your mind.

Where it failed is in the invisibility of how women are viewed in general, and that's how it became ripe material for those reversals the Salon article posts.  Something that would have worked for the obituary of a generic Great Man (pick a hobby, such as fly fishing, to begin with, say)  does NOT work for the obituary of a generic Great Woman, because of the gender role schema.   Women are expected to cook and expected to be great mothers if they have children.  Women are not expected to be rocket scientist.

I'm trying to think how Einstein's obituary would have read had we started with what kind of a father he was. Hmm.
Added later:  This post supports my guess that the transition was intended as something different:
“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.
But his surprise was because of that invisibility of the way female researchers are traditionally regarded.