May 23, 2013 — She was undoubtedly a leader and a trailblazer in her field. But when rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died and The New York Times recorded her life’s achievements in a prominent obituary, she was trumpeted as “the world’s best mom” who made a “mean beef stroganoff.” At a time when most women could only dream of being a role model in a tough business, Brill was in a class of her own as a noteworthy scientist in the 1940s.
Even though The New York Times made some adjustments to the obit after an outcry from readers who wondered if a male rocket scientist would have received such domesticated treatment, the real answer came when one of Brill’s male scientific peers passed away early this month.
The death of Christian de Duve is a relevant comparison because he was something of a contemporary to Brill. While Brill developed an efficient rocket thruster to keep satellites in space, de Duve was a Nobel-winning biochemist.
But the account of his life reads as one of serious scientific research. No mention of cooking or kids. The running list of deceased wife, kids, grandkids, and great-grand kids closed out the obit.
Why does this matter? Well, for people of great accomplishment, an obituary in The New York Times and what it highlights is the sine qua non in capping off a life. It is the final word that you existed, you really mattered, you had a singular career. It is a form of measurement, success, and public recognition that you could do it—whether it was make gobs of money, give it away prodigiously, uncover a scientific secret, or achieve as a remarkable athlete. Sort of a pantheon of the civic gods in society.
Women don’t fare well in the group. Brill, who died at 88, made the cut, but other women leaders somehow don’t shine a bright enough light during their lives to get the spotlight on the death pages. Though they may have been leaders in their fields—and these may be nursing, teaching, counseling, fostering children, fighting social ills—the last page in their professional history is not likely to show up in The New York Times.
In a class I teach at the University of Pittsburgh called “Women and Journalism,” I point out to a group of young women who are often surprised to hear of sexism in the workplace that, over the years, women have literally been left off the page, perpetuating gender inequality in death as well as in life.
The numbers say it all. For example, a count compiled by the nytpicker blog showed that in 1990, The New York Times published 691 obituaries, and 92 of those were about women. If you crunch the 2012 numbers of all the “big” papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and a few others, it comes to 77 percent for men and 23 percent for women on the lists of notable deaths, with many of the women credited for their beauty or artistic talent.
This interesting aggregation came from Mother Jones, where Gloria Steinem said that who gets written about has a “masculine skew.” Generally, the criteria seem to be: Were they powerful? Did they make money? Did they win office? Have an Ivy League pedigree?
With this criteria in mind, and male obituary editors often having the last word, consider Brill lucky to be memorialized at all. Let’s make sure it's not her casserole that she is remembered for, but rather her work with NASA, the awards she received, and her encouragement of young women to study math and science.
Watch and share our #WomenCan Video.