Yvonne Brill Obituary: Was New York Times Tribute Sexist?


There’s certainly no correct way to reduce a person’s entire life down to a page and a half and a  photo. But in light of recent events, it seems like there is definitely a wrong way. In an obituary chronicling the life of Yvonne Brill, the New York Times found it pertinent to emphasize her skills as a housewife, namely her “mean beef stroganoff.” However, many accused them of mentioning her career as a rocket scientist as an afterthought, and a belittled one at that. Those demanding gender equality erupted from all corners of the Twitter-sphere in outrage at what they deemed as blatant sexism. The Times eventually succumbed to the pressure and submitted a new version of the controversial obituary.

But women are good at multi-tasking: is it possible that Brill was both an accomplished rocket scientist and had mastered the elusive art of beef stroganoff? Today, we are too quick to cry “sexism” and take affront at trivial matters that scarcely belong on the spectrum of issues of gender equality. The remarks about Brill’s acts behind the stovetop are by no means derogatory. The obit goes on to quote her son as calling her “the world’s greatest mom.” While possibly an exaggeration, it is by no means a slight on her character that Brill is respected and loved by her children and the Times were right to emphasize such an important facet of her character. It’s certainly true that their portrayal of her life was less than ideal, at times. For instance, when they recalled how she took eight years off from work to focus on her family, when in actuality she reduced her hours to juggle being a working mother.

Perhaps, the problem is that the obituary did not emphasize this balance. Perhaps, had they done so, Brill could have served as a model for the modern woman, one who is beyond sexism. She could be the woman who is exceptional. She excelled in her career to the extent that she was awarded the National Medial of Technology and can still be remembered by her children as the “world’s greatest mom.” Wouldn’t that be the ultimate triumph over sexism? Women not having to choose between being the apron-clad housewife of the 60s and corporate ladder-climbing businesswoman. True gender equality gives you the choice of being whichever woman you want to be. So, why is it bad to be remembered for your acts as a mother? Isn’t it enough to be remembered at all, and even fondly at that?