A Twitter avalanche descended on the New York Times Saturday for sexism in an obituary. The Times backed down. Score one for Twitter and feminism, which, if I’m not completely crazy, just might be rediscovering the voice it left back in the 1970s.
Not that the Times’ Douglas Martin didn’t stick his foot in his mouth. He opened the obituary for gifted rocket scientist Yvonne Brill with the words:
“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."
Not until the second paragraph did the obit note that she “was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits."
Hey, Doug Martin, the 1950s called and want their stroganoff back.
The Twitterverse rose in a frenzy of snark and sass to berate the Times for sexism.
"Vaguely wondering if it would be possible for this NYT obituary of a Rocket Scientist to be more patronizing," tweeted author Neil Gaiman at @neilhimself, whose comment was re-tweeted more than 250 times.
"I hope if I ever get a NYT obit, they mention my braised short ribs and cutesy sneeze," tweeted @JessicaValenti, who writes for The Nation.
"For future reference: if NYT mentions taxidermy in my obit lead, that's OK. If they say 'journeyman' or 'hobby' taxidermist, not OK," tweeted editor Alex Heard at @alexheard.
The final blow was when the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed with the chorus of critics, and tweeted: “To the many who've tweeted at me about the Yvonne Brill obituary, I sure agree.”
She posted a link to a remarkably prescient story in the Columbia Journalism Review on March 22 that noted a tendency for journalists to “treat every female scientist they profile as an archetype of perseverance.”
In the CJR story, science freelance writer Christine Aschwanden “cited a few examples littered with phrases like, ‘she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research,’ and proposed that, as a means of avoiding such gratuitous gender profiles, reporters adopt a simple, seven-part test.” Among the seven were avoiding praise for child care choices; omitting the fact that she’s a woman, what her husband does, why she’s a role model. No specific notation on beef stroganoff.
By late on Saturday, the Times changed the obit to merely: “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.”
Some were still dissatisfied with that assessment.
In the wake of the raging debate ignited by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” it seems that feminists, both male and female, are waking up and deciding to weigh in on what would otherwise have passed without remark.
“The internet just group-edited the NYT,” tweeted Adam Rothstein. “That's not something that used to happen.”
No it didn’t. And I couldn’t be happier about it. RIP trailblazers like Yvonne Brill.