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Dr. Brill and Equal Ledes for All

Verily_Dr. Brill

Art Credit: Pablo Martines Monsivais for the Canadian Post

Alarms of sexism rang out across the twittersphere last week, as the New York Times scrambled to recover from the unexpected onslaught of furious chirping. The Times obituary on deceased rocket scientist and inventor, Dr. Yvonne Brill,  began by describing Brill as a woman, a mother, a wife, and—the gravest offense—a good cook.

“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."

The writer, Douglas Martin, makes mention of Brill’s professional accomplishments in the third sentence:

“But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

As I read past the offending two sentence lede, I wondered who was really being censured as sexist last week. Was it the male obit writer who used Brill’s femininity to reduce her professional achievements? Or was it the proverbial messenger who was silenced for telling the story of a woman who wanted to be remembered as a mother just as much as she wanted to be remembered for her professional accomplishments?

Outraged readers tweeted out, “can you imagine a man’s obit with this lede?” and the New York Times responded by silently editing the web version. But a post-printing edit to a New York Times obit makes for a very loud occasion.

The truth is, they’re right:  a man’s obituary would probably not lead with his dedication to his wife and children. But perhaps the question here isn’t why a woman’s did, but why a man’s does not. Must our treatment of men continue to be a woman’s gold standard?

The original obit in the Times told a story not about a woman who did what no man could. Dr. Yvonne Brill’s story was about a woman who did what few men would. Brill was a woman who did not see devotion to her husband and children as a weakness that compromised her equality as a professional; she saw it as something that set her apart and she made a point of making her role as a wife and mother a priority in her life.

Mrs. Brill—as Martin notes in the obit, she preferred Mrs. to Dr. Brill—was proud of the sacrifices she made as wife and mother. The obituary explained that she bore no regrets regarding switching jobs three times to accommodate her husband’s career. Her son Matthew noted that his mother would say, “good husbands are harder to find than good jobs.” At one point in her career, Mrs. Brill even chose to work as a part-time consultant in order to care for her young children.

Was Brill’s decision to prioritize her family less empowering or liberating than her decisions to prioritize her career? In a recent i09 article, Robert T. Gonzalez suggests that while Brill’s professional accomplishments are a step forward for women, her system of prioritization was likely addled by “ the nature of sexism in the 1940s.”

Today, countless women are faced with the challenge of how to be a woman, a mother, a wife, and a professional, and at the end of the day, an equal—not in spite of our femininity, but because of it. Dr. Yvonne Brill made sacrifices that men might never be expected to make and chose to prioritize her family in a way many men do not choose to, and she was proud of that.

Dr. Brill rose above the sexist system of measuring success against an antiquated masculine ideal—a measurement of success that tells women that equality means making the same choices as men or having the same lede. Times writer Douglas Martin simply told her story.