Stroganoff and rocket science: For Yvonne Brill’s obit, Doug Martin must be punished

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

Gentle reader, do not take the above headline too literally, as its intent is not, in fact, to argue for a caning in the public square in the case of the Internet v. Douglas Martin, the New York Times writer who stands accused of you-gotta-be-kidding sexism. The way I read him, he was kidding — yes, in an obit — but his attempt to be light sailed straight into space.

His obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill tried to underscore her accomplishments by placing them in the context of other 88-year-old women who followed husbands around the country and stayed home to raise children for long stretches.

It began this way: “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.” Then, the punchline: “But Yvonne Brill, who died Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., 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.”

Some readers were outraged; would the obit of a boy rocket scientist have begun with a demeaning mention of his “mean beef stroganoff”? What makes a stroganoff mean, anyway? And why bring it up and then fail to give us the recipe?

That last complaint I assume to have been tongue-in-cheek. Just like the offending paragraph, which was soon rewritten, and the stroganoff sent back to the kitchen. Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, fell in with the critics, and tweeted, “To the many who’ve tweeted at me about the Yvonne Brill obituary, I sure agree.”

The brilliant Brill apparently did not dwell on such actual slights as a complete lack of accommodations for women at a required engineering camp: “You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted.”

Martin’s perceived offense was irony gone awry, not a literal exaltation of stroganoff over science. But as the great Mary McGrory once told me, “Nuance is overrated; clarity is the thing.”

She was right, too. Which is why, when I originally headlined an earlier, online version of this column ‘Douglas Martin must die,’ an editor questioned whether some might take that literally, as well. Not without reason, I guess, because if you scroll down through the comments, you’ll see that more than one reader did think I, too, was enraged by Martin’s mention of home cooking in his opening paragraph.

So let me spell it out: I wasn’t. What’s more, I’d love to live in a world in which obits reflected the high value we place on parenting, or probity, or unrequited kindness. (“Sadie Smith, 104, rarely gave in to pique.”) We don’t live in such a world, though, and I doubt Martin — who I tried to reach but could not — was striking a blow for a truly feminist appreciation of the complexity of women’s lives and choices.

Instead, he simply failed to realize that sisterhood has made the mention of stroganoff problematic. And almost as ridiculous as Princeton Class of ’77 alum Susan Patton’s advice to current coeds that they will never again be surrounded by so many potential mates. Clearly, the ex-Mrs. Patton wishes she had taken her own advice, which ladies who wish they’d chosen better have always handed out to their juniors, and which has just as routinely been ignored. Still, I fail to see what makes her suggestion that the pool is deepest for women in college and for men in assisted living so jaw-dropping.

The commenter who joked that I could find sexism in a graveyard wasn’t completely wrong, either; oh, yes, I see plenty of the nasty stuff. Not only in horror stories like that of the six-year-old girl in Afghanistan whose father at least at one point agreed to trade her, like Rapunzel in the fairy tale, to pay off a debt, but in my everyday life of meetings where men still sometimes seem not to hear women’s voices, even when they aren’t particularly soft.

Shouting down those who dare to state the old-fashioned and obvious — that yes, the choice of a mate might well be more crucial to our long-term happiness than we realize at age 20 — is not how feminism was supposed to work, but that, too, is the reality.

And for the record, in case it never comes up again, I do make a mean apple pie.

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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