Rocket scientist who also made "a mean beef stroganoff" inspires debate on how to write about lady-scientists

Rocket scientist Yvonne Brill honored by President Obama. (Courtesy of Ryan K. Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation)

Yvonne Brill, a Canadian rocket scientist who developed jet propulsion technologies, died recently at 88, after a long career propelling human beings toward the stars. The New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin began with a quote about her cooking and mothering skills:

“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.”

Brill developed the concept for a new rocket engine, the hydrazine resistojet, but the paper of record starts off with her beef noodle skils.

It's a sweet comment from her grieving son, yes; but obituaries of prominent male scientists don't open like that. And obituaries of prominent women in historically male-dominated professional fields very often do.

After much public outcry—Douglas Martin must be punished!—the Times edited the lede to omit the stroganoff. Vegans and feminazis rejoiced.

I kid, I kid.

But seriously, the internet-drama over the NYT's crappy Brill obit leads us to something valuable: a discussion around how to write about female scientists.

Ladies and non-ladies, in the spirit of the Bechdel test, from Christie Aschwanden writing at doublexscience: the Finkbeiner test.

To pass the Finkbeiner 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…”

Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Read the rest. Great stuff. Required reading if your name's Douglas Martin, and you're writing about Scientistesses.


  1. I’m more sad that for “prominent male scientists” that they *don’t* mention how good a father or husband they were.

    When remembering someone, I find it nice to know that they were more than their accomplishments at work.

    1. In an obit they’ll typically mention it. And going with “this person sure was nice” first is apparently some sort of standard obit approach, which makes me think this particular writer was just following the family’s lead/wishes. 

      Still a good debate to be having though. Regardless of the what the family thought, the writer probably should have lead off with why Brill was notable. Its not a small town paper, and writing about a lady scientist’s beef stroganoff is pretty obviously walking into a mine field.

    2. That’s a great example of epically missing the point. 

      Obits of famous men often do mention family life. But they don’t lead with it in the first graf, and frame an entire life of professional notability around motherhood or sexiness or other gender-specific attributes associated with females.

      1. I can’t see it as missing the point, since he recognized that the public obits of famous men never do this, but thinks that perhaps they could or should.

        I’m not a scientist, but I’m fairly certain that the formula carries across all professional planes

        EDIT – but now, re-reading it, I see that the most contentious part was the stroganoff bit, not as much the family bit leading. Yeah, off the cuff stuff like that is out of place in a prominent obit in a major paper, for anyone. And it’s totally diff from a male equivalent obit

        1. LMG(odwin)TFY.  I propose that we rewrite Wikipedia biographies to conform to this standard.  Mr. Hitler’s bio can start with a tribute to his vegetarianism and endeavors as a painter.

          1. Those both are -far- more pertinent than the ability to make one single dish very well. 

            Bacon and a successful gallery showing may have prevented all that trouble. 

      2. I think I might have missed the point as well. Is it that the obituary was wrong? Or that the kerfuffle surrounding it was wrong?
        I’m also unsure about equality. Is it about giving people equal opportunities, not discriminating against them, valuing them for what they can do and the circumstance in which they do it. Or is it about treating everyone exactly the same?

        Janet built a remarkable barge and spent 8 years indulged her passion for navigating the intricacies of England’s industrial waterways, but this is not what she is known for.

        My initial reaction to Janet’s obituary would be; What? She took an 8 year break from her profession and still rose to the top? It wouldn’t be; What the Hell are they doing mentioning that she was good at other stuff?

          1.  It’s a hobby that’s taken me away from my very important work for a number of years

    3. I second this. 

      As a man who is also professional, competent and well-regarded when I take on a work related/like task/project, I can say I know what is more important to me and thus ought to be first in recognition.

      Perhaps there are those who knew her and thought she would want a public announcement to begin with her professional accomplishments but it seems unlikely with what else is contained in this post.

      What a person is most proud of and what they are best known for often differ.

    4. Call me a traditionalist when it comes to journalism, but I think the opening sentences of a prominent obituary should explain why the subject deserves such recognition, and also assume the readers are ignorant. That is, even if Neil Armstrong made a mean lasagna, and even though most readers would know him as the first person to walk on the Moon, the latter fact should still be up front. His lasagna-making prowess could be mentioned later.

      I’m glad Brill was a good cook and mother. It adds some depth to her portrait, but her accomplishments as a scientist deserve more respect than her stroganoff.

    5. Just maybe not in the lede.  I for one would love to learn something like (I’m making things up here) that Einstein had coached a little-league team, or that Newton had put on Punch and Judy shows for the neighboring kids.  

      But, again, not in the lede, and not in a prominent publication.  I could see this kind of thing flying in papers I have experience in, because those obits tend to be little more than paid advertisements written by a funeral home director or grieving family member.

      1. This is off topic but Einstein loved the sail. Particularly in Long Island’s Peconic Bay using the sort of small open boats commonly used for training. Supposedly he stored his boat at the same place I learned to sail. I’ve heard he was kind of terrible at it and sank his boat a lot. Which honestly might not have been his fault. Apparently he liked these guys:

        Which are fun as hell but have a tendency to sink.

    6. Sometimes scientists aren’t good fathers or husbands.  Remember in Cat’s Cradle the inventor of Ice Nine once left a tip for his wife at the breakfast table . . .

      1. Um… I’ll just leave the “scientists… fathers or husbands” alone. Anyway… you do realize that you are talking about a fictional person? Unless you are claiming it’s based on a real person.

        In general… sometimes people, no matter what their profession is, aren’t good parents or spouses. Or not good people overall.

        1.  To be fair, most people in novels are based on real folks. It’s one of the ways novelists test their friendships.


          It’s pretty much inevitable in a sample of tens or hundreds of thousands of people that some of them will be terrible parents.  It’s only an insult to scientists in general if you personally choose to take it that way.

  2. I like how Canadian MP Keith Ashfield, while promoting the Canadian government’s emphasis in the new budget on training young people , “complimented” a teenage girl on her cooking, said she would “make a wonderful wife for somebody”.

    1. This is one of those cases where I wish the “Like” button could be replaced with a “Thank you for reminding me how far we still have to go” button.

    2. I love all the comments on CBC News saying, “I’d love to be called a good husband for somebody! What’s the problem here?”

      1. Not surprising that men who aren’t known as good husbands fail to understand the problem.

  3. Agree except for the “nurture the underlings” thing. That’s pretty standard regardless of gender. The two things that you seem to have to say in an obituary of a scientist (whether or not they were true) is that they were a caring mentor of their graduate students/postdocs, and if they were in a university, that they loved teaching undergraduates even after winning major awards.

    1.  But it’s important to acknowledge that men are sometimes denied “x” in any story where the main point is that women are almost always denied “XXXXXXXXXX”.

      1. You are right, your cynicism at encountering our typical reaction is right, is what I mean. 

        Though this isn’t denying so much as reversing polarity, de-emphasizing where others are emphasized.

        And sometimes, correcting an imbalance to a formula that isn’t correct to begin with, if it occurs, should at least be just a start, not a finish.

        1. It’s a subtle distinction which you seem to understand but many do not.  So, yes, re-writing the formula from scratch is the ultimate goal, and can be worked on simultaneously, but can’t be the lede….not yet.

    2. But Xeni, there ARE no girls on the internet, so which other opinions matter but men’s??

      (edit: Which other opinions but men’s matter? Which other opinions, save those of men, matter? But for men’s, which other opinion matters?)

      1. There are men. …and women. Now, the women, see, they have opinions, but the men! The men’s opinions are the, in a manner of speaking, the matter that must be considered to be in a state of mattering.
        Now these women and these men, the ones that matter, are mattering together but with unequal balance.
        So, in conclusion; if you subtract the matter of the women from the matter of the men, there is matter left over from the women that matters less equally than the matter left from men. #mansplainin’

  4. One unfortunate aspect of the Finkbeiner test compared to the Bechdel test is that it is mostly expressed in the negative. The Bechdel test are three positive attributes that build on each other. (you can’t have female characters talk to each other unless there are more than one. They can’t talk about something other than a man unless they talk.) The Bechdel test isn’t even directly a test of feminism. (after all, a female prison movie probably passes the Bechdel test.) Van Halen now gives for the “no brown m&ms” clause in the contracts. The Bechdel test only shows that if a movie fails on those basic attributes that it likely has not developed its female characters to any degree. In some ways the Bechdel test is more like the the reason The Finkbeiner test to me sounds much more like a checklist that if you avoid these common mistakes then the writer passes.

    1. This obit obviously went completely over the top, but it seems that family (and being a mother) was very important to Brill, so it would be a shame to completely edit that out for the sake of a rubric that seems almost procrustean in her case. It would be nice to see family life being less front and center of the article (after all, you don’t get a NYT obit for being the world’s greatest mother), but it’s normal to have some comment about a great person’s personal life and the major influences that might have affected their professional life. For example, giving an obituary of Christopher Hitchens without mentioning his personal battle with cancer would be odd. Likewise talking about Yvonne Brill without mentioning that she gave a large amount of her time to family life and took eight years out of work to be a full time mother would be missing some of that life. You never know, maybe sometime there will be a balanced article that gets it right.

      1. This obit obviously went completely over the top, but it seems that family (and being a mother) was very important to Brill, so it would be a shame to completely edit that out for the sake of a rubric that seems almost procrustean in her case.

        1. I don’t see anyone advocating that.
        2. Since it is completely standard to talk about relationships with family in obituaries your “procrustean” bit doesn’t actually make sense.

        1. I was referring to the Finkbeiner test, which I think is far too restrictive for an obituary (and which definitely advocates that). Take the information about family out of the lede by all means, but it probably deserves to be mentioned at some point (much as it would if a male scientist had taken eight years out of his professional life to “nurture the underlings”).

    1. Didn’t take but the first result in a search to call bullshit on that:

  5. I agree with the other commenters who would rather see more of this type of information in all obits. For the record, here are the first two NYT obits of male rocket scientists that came up in my search: and

    Each contains a brief list of family members but no mention of family life or much of a “nurture the underlings” thing as mentioned by others. Maybe they weren’t family men, I dunno. Personally, I hope my family appreciates my personal as well as professional accomplishments.

    1. I see things this way too, maybe because I’ve done/am doing the stay-at-home dad thing (we’re taking turns), have always valued those aspects of life well above others. 

      But it is a derailment since it doesn’t relate to how this obit and others are done now. It’s a different discussion, which means it automatically detracts from the intended discussion, and since the very first post was about that, all the criticism is just.

  6. Looks bad if you read between the lines, but I would also add that we have no idea how Yvonne Brill would have written her own obituary, and assuming that she’d like to be remembered first as a rocket scientist and second as a great mother may not actually be correct. That a male writer actually took the time to write an obituary about a prominent female scientist is a modicum of progress, as many female scientists pass without any mention in a major newspaper. I don’t think Douglas Martin was trying to say “Okay ladies, you can be a scientist, but only if you don’t foresake your domestic responsibilities”, even if it came off that way.

    1. A big paper like The Times publishes an obit because the death in question is newsworthy. Brill’s death is newsworthy because of her career. And while I’m sure the writers motivation had more to do with laziness or giving the family the warm and fuzzies, a massive paper with international readership is not the place to do that.

      At that level what the family (or deceased) would prefer shouldn’t be a factor. The whole point is to inform thousands to millions of people who never met the deceased of their passing. I do not need to (or care to) know that some one who made great stroganoff and hugged her babies so hard has died. I potentially need, and more likely want to know that an important scientist passed and why she was so important. 
      So the writer whatever, there’s any number of explanations for his actions. But the fact that The NY Times editorial staff felt this was appropriate and informative enough to publish is where the problem is.

    2. …we have no idea how Yvonne Brill would have written her own obituary…

      Supremely irrelevant. It’s the New York Times, not her church newsletter.

  7. So here’s the new-and-improved opening paragraph in the obit:

    “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.”

    Oh that’s so much better.  Six words about her extraordinary career before launching into 27 words assuring the reader that despite all that, she was a good little woman after all.

    I wonder how different the quotes would have been if the author had interviewed her daughter instead.

      1. Edited, not re-written, looks like to me.

        Editing happens, and while her son would justifiably find his mom being mom the most important thing about her, what child of a parent wouldn’t? It’s the writer & then the editors job to know better.

      2. ??? Not following you.

        The NYTimes only took out the stroganoff bit but not any of the rest of the sexism in the first paragraph.  The quote from her son (“the world’s best mom”) is the same in both versions.  The article includes other details given by that same son.  I’m just wondering why the author did not include comments from the daughter, and if the obit might have been worded differently if he had.

        1. I’m saying that the writer and editor aren’t required to put whatever the son wants, that their jobs are more to put what the readership wants. 

          No surprise her son finds her being his mom the most important factor, but if it really was his wish that quote be the lede, as people imply by defending his quote, that doesn’t take any responsibility from the writer and editor. 

          1.  No, not you!  I was responding to Les Hitchens’ question about rewriting the son’s quote.

    1. Remember how Hillary Clinton had to spend her eight years as First Lady proving that she was ready, willing and able to bake cookies?

      1. And yet simultaneously excoriated in the media for being a dutiful wife who chose to “stand by her man”?

        Damn, if her obit opens with that cookie recipe, I’ll storm the NYTimes myself.

  8. Wow- the obit is totally tone deaf. How completely stupid to lead off with items about her family life when she had so many scientific accomplishments. I am a mother with an awesome job/ career, of which I’m proud. However, this was supposed to be a professional obit- am I right? It seems the personal info, coming first, diminishes her professional info. I would want both- that’s my experience as a younger woman in the workforce/ world. I want to be recognized as human who gave good care to others and was really good at my vocation too. 
    That said- don’t shut down male commenters by insulting them. Unless you don’t want a discussion in the comments. Men have an obviously different experience in the world than women- but why insult them when they inject an opinion? With an all caps, yelling reply? (As a sidenote: I find it incredibly hard to talk to other feminists of, perhaps, a different generation when my personal experience is boiled down and generalized. I actually feel like motherhood does frame my professional life, at this point. It has affected every facet of my life. Can that be reflected in someone’s obit without it diminishing the professional? I don’t know. Martin didn’t get it. Obviously.)

    1. NYTimes, Picture with the Pres. yes, pro stuff should have led, because that’s how it is for others. Whether it should be like that for others by necessity is a different discussion entirely, I apologize for my interjections on the matter.

    2. Oh, please. “Shutting down the thread” would be when we actually shut down the thread. As you can see, people are free to continue making whatever comments they like.

      And you mistake my LULZY IRONO-CAPS for “angry shouty caps,” which nobody around here would ever use.

      1. Xeni, “shutting down the thread” and “shutting down male commenters” (which is in fact what the OP said) are very different things, and I have to say, your words have had a chilling effect on my willingness to comment, until you took the OP completely out of context.

        Be fair.

        1. To be fair I’m totally okay with commenters on boing boing pointing out stuff like this, even harshly, even if it’s me doing the mansplaining. 

          Lots of mansplainers/other fails intentionally take full advantage of others being unwilling to criticize them strongly with the justification being to keep the convo going. They take it as a sign they are both correct and running the convo.

          That chill you feel, what’s the point? I feel flushed when I see that I’ve inadvertently gone off topic, or dismissed someones good point, or some other error, or even jsut read something without commenting and realized maybe I was thinking about something in that way. That’s what not always being allowed to be right is like. 

          We all know that no one can be right all the time, that different viewpoints isn’t always a justification, or whatever, but comment boards are full of people afraid to be or admit being incorrect.

        2. But despite this “chilling effect” you found the courage to comment.

          This has to be the dumbest form of mansplaining I’ve ever seen.  This is your argument:

          “You’re being sexist for telling me I’m wrong about telling you the thing you’re saying is sexist isn’t sexist.”

          To which I can only say you’re wrong that Xeni is being sexist for telling you that you’re wrong about telling everyone that the thing Xeni is saying is sexist isn’t sexist.

          I hope that’s made everything clearer.

        3. A man felt sooo intimidated at a woman expressing anger at clueless mansplaining fuckstains that he hesitated to leave a comment.

          Let me get out my nanoviolin.

      1. Speaking of generalizing, has anyone other than me bothered to skim through Douglas Martin’s backlog of obits, or have we all spent more time raging about one obit than Douglas probably had allotted to write the thing?

    3. “Men have an obviously different experience in the world than women- but why insult them when they inject an opinion? ”

      1 – I didn’t take it as insulting but in the spirit it was intended.
      2 – If being insulted in the comments of BoingBoing is the worst that happens to a few guys today while calling attention to the fact that women’s achievements should lead a story more than “gals are great at things other than cooking!” I think we’ll look at our 150 years of extra years of voting rights, the ability to eat sushi for nine months while having a baby at the end, and our extra pay for the same jobs and be able to console ourselves with that.

          1. True in the US, not Japan.  I’m still rather disgusted by how little scientific evidence exists to support any of the dietary restrictions Usian ladies are put under during gestation.  

            We’re so OT right now.  

          2. In Japan you also get to eat raw egg yolk at restaurants which is flat-out illegal in many countries due to the very real risk of salmonella poisoning, which can happen anywhere, no matter how careful you are. Same with fish: yes, it’ll be okay most of the time but you never _really_ know. Even Japan isn’t immune to food poisoning, as has been proven by a couple of widely publicized cases recently.

            Personally I don’t think that avoiding severe food-borne illness during pregnancy is a bad thing, but that’s just me.

          3. @twianto:disqus :  You’re mansplaining to a mom who got norovirus during pregnancy in spite of following the low-evidence dietary restrictions. 

            And you’re even further OT.

          4. What makes you think twianto is a man? The facts or lack of facts have nothing to do with one’s gender, or your anecdotal experiences. 

    4. “Men have an obviously different experience in the world than women”

      Oh yay! Gender essentialist fallacies. . . here, let me rewrite that for you:

      Men have an obviously different experience in the world than women, except when men have an obviously equivalent experience in the world as women, except when men obviously have an obviously different experience in the world than other men, except when women have an obviously different experience in the world than other women.
      There. Fixed!

      1. In what sense is it a “gender essentialist fallacy” to assert that men and women have different experiences in the world?

        Just as one obvious example I’ve never had any menstrual cramps whereas, from what I understand, the vast majority of women have.  Is it “gender essentialist” to assert that my experiences vis a vis menstrual cramps are very different from those of women?

        That’s a bit trivial because it’s biological, but even restricting the focus to culture are you really going to say that we don’t, as a matter of culture, treat men and women differently from each other?  To say “men and women should be treated differently because they are intrinsically different,” yes that would be essentialist but to merely note “as a matter of fact, men and women are treated differently within our culture” is not in itself essentialist.  It is merely an observation of a (debatable) contingent fact about the world.

      2. How about we stick to just the ‘boys’ at the elementary school where I work?

        “‘Boys’ have never been shown to have different gender essentialist fallacies while wearing their different uniforms, which allow them to cover their legs in winter, unlike skirts. Luckily this doesn’t necessarily lead to a different (thermal) gender essentailsit fallacy. The ‘girls’ can’t be proven to experience gender essentialist fallacies, either, while lining up in a separate line to take dance instead of judo in the afternoons.”

    5. I’m having a totally weird AU nametwin reaction, which is totally OT but I had to say something.

      Otherwise, most other people have summed it up nicely. Sometimes people who “have an obviously different experience” don’t GET to be played nicely with, especially when they have societal conditioning to speak over people who ACTUALLY HAVE THAT EXPERIENCE. I’m so, so glad for you that your family is in an inextricable part of your career, and I hope that someday that is also the case for me, but when women have, for centuries, been forced to express themselves in that way (deny women the vote because then they won’t be good mothers! deny everyone alcohol because then women won’t be good mothers! deny divorce because WHAT ABOUT THEM BEING MOTHERS) it’s a valid concern to say HEY MAYBE DON’T START OUT A THING ABOUT THIS WONDERFULLY BRILLIANT ROCKET SCIENTIST BEING A MOTHER.

    6.  “That said- don’t shut down male commenters by insulting them.”

      Awww, the poor menz. So silenced!

  9. here’s a decent obit for a Scientistess, Sylvia Fedoruk, a pioneer in nuclear medicine. bonus points for mentioning all her curling fascination.

    1.  That is a “Death Notice”, an advertisement paid by the family and/or funeral home (usually purchased by the funeral home and charged back to the family in part of the larger funeral bill.)

      An obituary is written by the editorial department, not the advertising department.

  10. Did they really say that Amelia Earhart’s obit shouldn’t have mentioned that she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic?
    On that list, there’s a huge difference between “mentioning” and “running in the lede”.
    If a son or daughter can mention how great dad, the astrophysicist, was at whittling, or that he made an awesome chili, can’t they mention that mom made a mean beef stroganoff?
    Just not in the lede.

    And with Amelia Earhart, I damn straight would have led with “She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.”
    What else WOULD you lead with?

    1. This is exactly what I wanted to say, but with an example.  I am interested when a woman is a first.  I think it gives a sense of context and history and of the institutional barriers she may have faced.  I also think that it’s motivating for girls to read about important women who did break barriers.  There is still subtle and not-so-subtle sexism in classrooms around male-dominated subjects and reading about prominent women like her may give some girls extra courage to defy the social norms that are holding them back.

      However, the world’s best mom bit is really NOT helping with that.

          1. I meant it wouldn’t be trivial* to research how many people had soloed the Atlantic before Earhart.* Trivial in this case meaning “findable on the Internet in two minutes”…wait, what is this “library” you speak of? :P

    2. The Finkbeiner test does seem to leave some considerable room for improvement. The issue here has much more to do with overall obituary organization and tone than individual statements, so trying to 
      In this case, many obituaries of men might mention something like cooking, and it would have been perfectly reasonable to include it in this obituary. Obituaries of women like Curie or Goeppert-Mayer that didn’t mention their husbands’ professions would be just as ridiculous as obituaries of their husbands not mentioning their wives’ professions. And I know several scientists whose child care arrangements and raising of their children would certainly merit mention.

      Likewise, a number of the things said in obituaries of women would not be ridiculous if they were said in obituaries of men. The placement, focus and tone is often what makes them ridiculous. An obituary made up entirely of statements that are completely reasonable could easily end up sounding ridiculously sexist.

      It would be very odd to not mention that someone was a mother of three children in an obituary, for example, just as it would be odd to leave being a father of three children out of an obituary. It’s completely ridiculous, on the other hand, for that mention to be something like, “X, mother of three children, and also a noted Y,” or to spend the majority of the obituary talking about raising children rather than the actual notable achievements of the person.

    3. “She was the first person to make a solo flight across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.”

      How’s that?  Easy enough.

      1.  Wikipedia seems to have missed that record. Maybe they weren’t reaching hard enough.

        When did she solo the Pacific?
        She was the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to California, but that ain’t “the Pacific”. There’s another 4,000 miles to Japan.

        You’d really throw out her most famous achievement to avoid saying “She was the first woman to…”?

        1. Well if it was only an achievement because she was the first woman to do it then how much of an achievement was it really?

          The only part of “first woman to fly across the Atlantic” that is actually an accomplishment is the flying across the Atlantic part.  She was born a woman.  That part is not an accomplishment.

          You mean the accomplishment of overcoming all the social pressure not to exceed in anything but motherhood and other acts of housewifery? Well fine — that’s indeed an accomplishment but we should celebrate it explicitly instead of encoding it into some condescending formula like “first woman to X”. “First woman to X” only reinforces the social pressure by suggesting that anything already done by a man is still a herculean difficulty to a woman, or at least a strange thing that only strange women would do.

          Is it really that hard to understand how it’s a little patronizing to be like “well, a few dozen people have already done this thing but they were all men so this is totally different”?  I don’t see how that’s fair to either men or women.

          1. Well if it was only an achievement because she was the first woman to do it then how much of an achievement was it really?

            If she had to undergo significant obstacles because she’s a woman, then it’s noteworthy. Yvonne Brill was refused entry to college because they had no accommodations for women.

          2.  I think being the first woman doing great things in male-dominated fields is kinda worth noting.

            I never saw calling Sally Ride the first female American astronaut condescending.

            Her company’s bio of her (I’m assuming with her consent.) had her “first” mentioned twice.

            “Sally was a physicist, the first American woman to fly in space, a science writer, and the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science.

            Sally’s historic flight into space captured the nation’s imagination and made her a household name. She became a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls. After retiring from NASA, Sally used her high profile to champion a cause she believed in passionately—inspiring young people, especially girls, to stick with their interest in science, to become scientifically literate, and to consider pursuing careers in science and engineering.”

            I’ve read she was a bit proud of being the “first woman who…”

            And from her writing, I picked up that Amelia Earhart was, too. She claimed lots of “first woman who…” records.
            So is it still patronizing for the women involved to be proud of those records?

            I actually do understand the position you’re taking.  I just don’t agree with it.

        2.  No, I wouldn’t.  But the questions was, how do you speak to her accomplishments without saying “she was the first woman to…”

          Her flight from Honolulu to California WAS considered the first solo flight across the Pacific, so there’s that.

          But there’s also the option of saying that she was the 2nd person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Man or woman, her accomplishments were historic.

          1. I guess I was responding with what popped into my head, which was “Why would you feel like you need to?”

            I think people who break ground are awesome, and she was awesomely awesome (I’m a fan.) and never understood why it was patronizing to acknowledge her most famed achievement.

            She put an awful lot of effort into being “The first woman to solo the Atlantic”, not “the second person to solo the Atlantic”, and I see nothing wrong with applauding that.

    4.  You’re right; Lily Maxwell was the n-thousandth voter in England, not “the first woman to cast a ballot in Britain.”

      Sometimes being the first [insert group which had hitherto faced discrimination] to do something is historically important in itself.

      1.  Only from the “history is made by great men” theory of history.  In actuality if it hadn’t been Lily Maxwell it would have been someone else and nothing else would have changed at all.  It is not actually important that Lily Maxwell was the first woman to vote in Britain.

        And voting after one has already achieved suffrage is not an accomplishment anyway.  Achieving suffrage is the accomplishment.  If Maxwell was instrumental to that then that is what she should be celebrated for, not for dropping a piece of paper into a box.

  11. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in Wikipedia articles – it seems that articles about women more often have a personal life section compared to articles about men.

  12. I read the comment section at the link, and particularly liked Ralph Dratman’s post:

    “It is remarkable that Albert Einstein, for example, was able to overcome the well-known problems of violence and impulsiveness of boys and men, and complete some astounding research. Early in his career, Albert Einstein became the first man to elucidate special relativity, the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and stimulated emission, all in one year. We asked Einstein what advice he has for other men who hope to follow in his footsteps…”

  13. As a non-engineer who loves reading about the people and technologies that send us into space, I wanted more rocket science and less stroganoff or square dancing.

    Oh…and more resistojets, please! It’s only Monday, but “hydrazine resistojet” may be the coolest words I read all week.

    1. Just in case this gets lost in the discussion, Yvonne Brill sounds amazing. I don’t want to lose that to get lost in all of the (well deserved) criticism of Douglas Martin’s article.

      Also…resistojet! I still love it!

      1. Thanks, Mark!

        The resistojet article makes it sound a little less like mad science, but also kind of ingenious. 

        We did a steam pressure experiment in junior high that sounds eerily similar (heat up water, vent the steam in one direction and use it to push a little sailboat across a tub of water ). I would have been much more interested if someone had told us that they used similar principles to position satellites.

  14. Are most prominent male scientists good fathers though? I actually find it remarkable that she raised a family and was prominent. The few extraordinary male scientists I know either have no families or rarely see them.

    1. I’ll try not to descend into mansplaining, but that’s just what I was thinking…

      I hope someday my obit will lead with my children talking about how hard I tried to be a good father and role model, and not with any of my other (lame, by comparison, in my opinion) achievements.  I too have known several extremely brilliant scientists who spent as little time with their wives and children as possible.  You sometimes get the feeling that they only had kids to keep their wives out of their hair.

      I like the second recommendation better than the Finkbeiner test:  “take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.”  That seems like a better way to compose a readable biography than to slavishly fit it to a checklist.

      Edit: I just realized I also know a famous female scientist that spends as little time with her family as possible. So maybe I am mansplaining!

      1. I hope someday my obit will lead with my children talking about how hard I tried to be a good father and role model, and not with any of my other (lame, by comparison, in my opinion) achievements.

        That’s the point. You haven’t done anything else notable. She has.

        1. Ow, that stings.  Don’t be mean!

          I once won a dozen or so single combats in a row while suffering from haemothorax, isn’t that notable?  I was going for 30 but most of my blood supply was sloshing around in my lungs, which interfered with my breathing so I ran out of wind.  I did some nuclear missile work in the 80s, too.  Hmmm, I guess I hope none of the notable stuff I’ve done ends up in my obit, since most of it was notably stupid.

          But yeah, in my opinion there isn’t anything I could do that would be more notable than raising my children.

          1. For most people, raising children or making a really great Margarita are their claim to fame. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not newsworthy.

      2. I think a big part of the difference here is that it would be NICE for obits about men to talk about their family, because it is assumed that a man will be defined by what he creates and does. Whereas with women, talking about family is the default because what else are we supposed to do? Be extremely intelligent and invent things not for use in the home? No, no, it must be something else… DOMESTICITY.

        Even with someone as accomplished as Yvonne Brill, her life is retrospected as if she’s the supporting actress, not the lead.

    1. I’d argue that you shouldn’t rely on the hed for the most relevant information.  The hed should grab your attention.

      Having said that…before I joined in too much on the Internet Outrage, I read through the NYT stories with Douglas Martin’s byline, and they’re all obits.  Every one of them.   I scanned through a few, such as Martin Fay’s (The Chieftains), Gae Aulenti (architect), Eileen Moran (Weta Digital, and Digital Domain), and so on.  The ones I looked at were heavy on professional accomplishments and light on family details.  Eileen Moran’s mentioned that she was a single mother, but doesn’t make a big deal of it.

      I know I’ll get blasted for mansplaining here, but I don’t care.  We live and work in a society where many lines of work still have guys who are openly hostile to women in the workforce.  When a woman comes in and is a first, and not only is a first but excels, shouldn’t that be acknowledged? Seriously, I wish to know.

      And finally, here we are, in the age of social media, spending tons of time trash-talking about someone at a daily whose byline is only on obits.  What are Douglas Martin’s responsibilities at the NYT?  Knowing how the business is these days, I have my doubts they have someone sitting there doing nothing but obits for notables.

      Where was the outrage on Arlene C. Ackerman, by the way?  The hed lists her as “superintendent”.  Really?  Is public education too stereotypically “woman’s work” to be notable?

      1. When a woman comes in and is a first, and not only is a first but excels, shouldn’t that be acknowledged?

        What does that have to do with leading with her beef stroganoff?

        1. I think the author was going for a writing trick: “this person may seem normal, with mundane achievements. But in the next paragraphs, I explain why this impression is wrong and this person is actually extraordinary.” It is debatable as to whether the author actually flubbed this.

    2.  The original obit opening was changed without an editorial note stating such.  You’re only seeing the new-and-improved version.

      1. Not sure if you’re replying to me or not chgoliz, but I have seen both versions (I write about them at the link I provided). And I’d argue the new version isn’t “new and improved,” heh

  15. Reminds me of the book I read recently: Manhunt, by Peter Bergen, about finding Osama bin Laden. I liked all of it, except for the parts where he found it necessary to tell me how many children prominent female officials had. Was it appropriate when one died, and it mentioned she left children behind? Yes. Was it appropriate when describing how good she was at her job – i.e. she did a great job while also being a mother of three – no. Unless she was a single parent, then MAYBE that would factor in. But that was not specified, and I didn’t seem to hear about how many children all the male officials had. Hmm…

    1. No, it doesn’t. (“In the mid-1950s, as one of the few women to rise to orthopedic surgeon in the United States…”) I think that’s a good test case… if you really want to endorse the Finkbeiner test, you’ll need to be prepared to say that Martin should have left that out.

  16. This whole thread is disappointing to me. I take pride in my work, but I also have no shame about being a good cook, loving my partner, or putting my family first.  Some of these are traditional female “roles”, but what we should strive for is equality among genders, not a complete disavowal of stereotypically gendered activities.  

    If we don’t point out things like “this woman achieved a work/life balance at a time that it was very difficult to achieve a work/life balance for women” then how are we supposed to recognize milestones and progress like this? It’s like saying that we should ignore when we achieve milestones like having a black president or a female justice. 

    Part of moving towards equality is recognizing that there hasn’t been equality in the past and striving towards it in our future. I understand that the NYTimes did a poor job of expressing this, but that was the intent. I think that many of the points of the Finkbeiner test are taking the point too far to the opposite end of the spectrum.  

    Perhaps instead, we should recognize all people regardless of gender more for their prowess as parents, family members, and household contributors.  After all, these roles are not easy to fill, and they deserve our respect. 

    1.  Please point out where the obit said “this woman achieved a work/life balance at a time that it was very difficult to achieve a work/life balance for women”.

      Hint: if the obit had been written in such a vein, this thread wouldn’t exist.

    2. Nobody cares about your work/life balance except your family. That doesn’t qualify you for an obituary in the New York Times.

    3. “I think that many of the points of the Finkbeiner test are taking the point too far to the opposite end of the spectrum.  ”

      Yeah; as someone else pointed out, the Finkbeiner test completely wipes out what makes Amelia Earheart noteworthy.

    4. Everyone agrees that family life is great and should be mentioned in obituaries.  No one is saying otherwise.  But let me give you a little quiz.  Let’s suppose that an obituary for a famous scientist begins by explaining how wonderful that scientist’s home cooking is.  Do you suppose it’s more likely that such an obituary would be written for:
      a) a man?
      b) a woman?

      The answer is pretty obvious and that is the problem people are complaining about.

      And yes, “milestones” are often worth ignoring.  Why is it more of an accomplishment for a black man to become the president than a white man?  If it’s because black men start from “behind the pole” so to speak because of the discrimination in our society I think it makes more sense to say “Overcame discrimination to become president” than to say “Became the first black president.”  One makes it clear what the real accomplishments are (separately, overcoming discrimination and becoming president) while the other confounds them and makes “being black” seem to be part of the accomplishment which, as something people are born into with no choice in the matter, is not actually an accomplishment.

    5. None of that is newsworthy. Good grief, the mansplainers in this and other, non-BB threads are bad enough without the “‘MAMA’ IS THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB TITLE IN THE WORLD!!!” derails.

    1.  If it was a man, would they not include their extracurriculars? “In his off time, he also enjoyed restoring old Chevy’s and fishing in Bob Creek.”

      Incidentally, both of those things are also gender stereotypes.

      Don’t pretend like they don’t do the same to men. That’s just dishonest. But we don’t get bent out of shape about it.

      When you’re talking about a woman in her 90s, and you’re talking about her life in the 50s, it should not be controversial that her life might have resembled in part certain norms of the day, however unfortunate. The question is whether there were other aspects of her life besides rocket science, cooking, and mothering that are being passed over, and I don’t see any reason to believe that.

      Bob forbid that we let reporters report accurately those things we don’t approve of!

      1. They wouldn’t write an opening paragraph like that. Even the edited version sucks. Just delete that and reword the following paragraph that references back and the obit is much better.

        Obviously it’s relevant that she encountered discrimination at college and excelled despite it. It’s also worth mentioning that she had to move around to support her husband’s career, but first and foremost she is getting an obituary for being a great rocket scientist/engineer.

      2. For a man in a technical field? No they don’t. Look at some of the examples linked in these comments. Other rocket scientists, but men.

        Extra-curriculars are only mentioned if they intersect with their field, and family is the last paragraph, not the first. 

        I’m not saying it should be that way, I’m saying it is.

        1. I’m not saying it should be that way, I’m saying it is.

          Yes, it should be that way because nobody cares about your personal life except the people in it.

          1. You can’t say with certainty that nobody cares about an individual’s personal life except the people in it. I’m drawn to the unusual quirks, the small details of others’ lives-and I’m pretty certain I’m not the only person who feels this way.

          2. Cooking an edible meal and rearing children are not unusual quirks by any stretch of the imagination. Unless, I suppose, they’re done by male scientists. Describing her cooking and mothering abilities is the precise opposite of highlighting quirks, it’s an attempt to shove her into the mold of female “normality” to make up for her impudence in becoming a rocket scientist.

          3. Ah but cooking a meal, enjoying the title of greatest mother in the world and developing rocket propulsion systems-that is something not one other person can claim. Contrary to your view that she was shoved posthumously into the role of parent and homemaker as punishment for her brilliance-she chose the life she lead herself-she didn’t rail against the injustices she certainly triumphed over. She just did it all-and for that I admire her.

      3. If it was a man, would they not include their extracurriculars?

        In the last paragraph.

        Incidentally, both of those things are also gender stereotypes.

        Which you made up and have nothing to do with the subject at hand.

        But we don’t get bent out of shape about it.

        I think that the word that you’re looking for is “uppity”.

        When you’re talking about a woman in her 90s, and you’re talking about her life in the 50s, it should not be controversial that her life might have resembled in part certain norms of the day, however unfortunate.

        She was a rocket scientist in the middle of the 20th century.  Why are you trying to equate her with June Cleaver?

        Bob forbid that we let reporters report accurately those things we don’t approve of!

        And a final histrionic appeal against political correctness.

        There is not one single piece of your comment that isn’t bullshit.

  17. This wasn’t the reporter selectively choosing details to report. The woman’s own son was asked about her and this was his response. Unless he had more to say about his mom that wasn’t about being a mom, it’s not the reporter’s fault if that’s her own son’s lasting impression of her.

    Perhaps the reporter could have included what someone else said, if there was anyone.

    But if the woman’s own family could only focus on her cooking and doting, that’s not on the reporter, but on the son.

    1. My guess would be that the son only knew her as his mother, that he didn’t work with her as a rocket scientist. And as amazing as his Mom was they don’t usually give this much attention to great Moms, they do however to rocket scientists.

      Perhaps the reporter owes it to his subject to you know, actually report, on the woman as a whole, and not just as her son saw her?

    2. Two sons and a daughter as well as adult grandchildren. And that’s just the most obvious personal connections.

      I know I would prefer my obit to be a little more accurate than the feelings of one of my children at the time of my death.  I also know that my children would give very different reports of my life if asked by a reporter.

      Besides, what makes you so certain that the only thing the son had to say was about his mom’s cooking and parenting? This isn’t a transcript: Douglas decided what order to put the details in. It would have been sweet if the obit ENDED with a loving intimate remembrance from the son. Unless you have some sort of proof that 1) no one else in the family was willing to talk about Brill and 2) the son insisted that his recollections be in the very first paragraph, then you have no basis for claiming that Douglas is faultless in his presentation of the “facts”.

      When prominent figures die, most quotes and remembrances included in the printed obit are from colleagues or other professionals. Can you find any obit for a prominent man which includes a quote about his home life from his daughter in the lede?

      (edited to add more in the middle)

      1. I know I would prefer my obit to be a little more accurate than the feelings of one of my children at the time of my death.

        Pretty sure that’s why my mother wrote her own obit and had the funeral home submit it the instant that they got word to pick up her body. And…. pulling out my mother’s obit:

        First paragraph – date/ place of birth and education history.
        Second paragraph – professional history as a working researcher.
        Third paragraph – her parents and surviving family members.
        No mention of beef stroganoff or evaluation of maternal skills.

    3. The woman’s own son was asked about her and this was his response.

      Her relationship with her children is not why she made the NYT. Going to them for a quote instead of to an expert in her field is the fundamental error in this misguided obituary.

  18. As Xeni said, it was Aschwanden who proposed the “Finkbeiner” test. I read the Finkbeiner piece, and it doesn’t sound to me like she’s proposing that all bios be written this way. In fact, she said that writing this way was to “close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with.” Maybe she thinks it would be a good idea to do that all the time, but if so I’m misreading her tone.

  19. I’m a woman in tech. While I do agree that this is a better article now the first sentence opens with Mrs. Brill’s tech achievements, it would be ridiculous to expect this particular obit to pass the Finkbeiner test.

    Yvonne Brill was a rocket scientist in the 40s; it’s a no brainer that her gender was a HUGE deal throughout her career. I don’t see how it would help today’s scientists to pretend that it wasn’t.

    1. “Pretending her gender didn’t matter” != “emphasizing her cooking skills above her professional skills.”

  20. Don’t obits for men traditionally save the family stuff for the last sentence? You know — “He is survived by his wife Doris, their sons Elmer and Godfrey, and their pet dachshund Oscar.” 

  21. I am also tired of the “even though she’s a woman” crap, as if being female is a disability or something that should be expected to prevent one from succeeding.

    1. Yes that is annoying, but nobody said that. I think the writer was attempting to frame Brill’s life story, to give an idea of the way it was lived. She was smart and ambitious at a time when to be so meant intense struggle to succeed because of cultural expectations. Brill was able to succeed in two strikingly different realms simultaneously. She made sacrifices in her career goals to raise family, she was able to also do the work she loved with grace. It seems to me that she was an exemplary person and the obit aims to show this-even if you think the opening paragraph was clumsy.

    1.  Feynman was exactly who I was thinking of, too….a perfect example of a renowned scientist who also had a fascinating personal side.

  22. Here’s an obit for the first female scientist that came to mind: Dr. R. C. Lancefield. Except for using the feminine pronoun, which kinda spills the beans on her gender, it comes pretty close to passing the Finkbeiner test. There’s a line in the second paragraph that mentions that she “was one of the few female members of the National Academy of Sciences”, and her husband and family are mentioned in the last paragraph, but I think it does well. It never mentions the one thing I really know her for, her fantastic egg nog recipe.

  23. This Finkbeiner test seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Here’s the obit for Sally Ride:

    Just another astronaut.

    The fact that she was the first American female in space seems relevant, no?

    1. But women seem to be only interesting enough to get their own article if they are “the first woman to…”. And even if they were the first woman to do something… is that the only newsworthy part, or is it their accomplishments?

      The “test” wasn’t for bios/obituaries anyway, but articles about (woman) scientists.

    2.  “Just another astronaut” would work for any astronaut except Yuri Gargarin, right?  That’s why obituaries usually talk about specific professional accomplishments.  Perhaps you simply don’t know enough about Sally Ride to guess how her actual non-sexist obit would read?

      Being a woman is not an accomplishment.  Women are born that way without choosing or working at it.  Overcoming sex discrimination to become an astronaut — that’s two accomplishments, both of them genuine.  Being the first female astronaut — that is one accomplishment (becoming an astronaut) confounded with the contingent identity of the person who accomplished it — which is itself not an accomplishment.

      Saying that accomplishments like “becoming an astronaut” count more for women than for men (or for black people, etc.) is condescending.  It implicitly suggests that being a woman (or black, etc.) is some kind of disability.  The accomplishment is not being a woman or black, the accomplishment is overcoming the discrimination against those classes.

  24. When I die I hope the first mention in my obit is what an awesome troll stroganoff I make.

  25. Can’t see any tags for this article for some reason, but hoping that ‘ragequit’ is one of them. 

  26. I’m a bit conflicted by this. Certainly, the professional accomplishments of women are as equally important as any by men; but do we lose something when we base the worth of a human being solely on professional accomplishments? It makes sense to me that an obit should start by addressing the personal lives of the deceased (be they male or female) before their professional careers. After all, an obit is a memorial and the people most immediately affected by the loss would be their family, friends and loved ones, not their colleagues. Perhaps we might consider why men’s personal lives are considered irrelevant and they are valued solely on the basis of their careers and professional accomplishments. If society placed some value on men’s sensitivity and personal relationships, perhaps fewer of us would become such nakedly aggressive sexist @$$holes. I’d like to see a society where it’s equally acceptable for a man to be a homemaker and a woman to be a professional if they so choose without being considered somehow socially aberrant. We should no more lock men in a confining box than we should women and visa versa. Let’s value all people as individuals with complex lives, emotions and social relationships first, their careers second. I think we’d become a more compassionate society if we did.

    1. but do we lose something when we base the worth of a human being solely on professional accomplishments?

      Why does nobody ask this when a famous man dies?

          1. Never thought of it before this, it’s probably a not a bad idea. You’ll get no argument from me that the NYTs didn’t bungle this badly, there’s no excuse to treat the obits of women any differently than a man’s. I realize that people have probably been heatedly debating this topic and are rightfully wound up about it, but I’m not arguing in defense of what the NYTs did. Just saying that if they treat women’s obits this way, they should do the same with men’s obits. I know that perhaps sounds counterintuitive, but that’s the way I think about things.

    2. After all, an obit is a memorial…

      No. It’s a news item. If you want a memorial, you take out an ad. This was a news item. Get it straight.

  27. I like to think the writer framed it around beef stroganoff because they were really hungry when they started writing the article. 

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