• Wed, Apr 3 2013

Douglas Martin, Writer Of Sexist NYT Obituary, Thinks You Just Didn’t Read It


Remember the other day when we discussed how ridiculous it would be to everyone if the obituaries of famous male figures in history had been remotely similar to the New York Times‘ eulogy for Yvonne Brill, wife and mother and cook…and “also brilliant rocket scientist.” It felt absurd to declare arbitrary, indistinctive qualities as superseding, say, writing Crime and Punishment or being an angry, talented alcoholic, right? Well, the obituary’s writer Douglas Martin sees no problems with his reasoning behind the awful eulogy.

After concerns were raised that Brill’s remarkable accomplishments were being trivialized by Martin due to her gender, the New York Times decided to ask the writer in question why he chose to lead with her domestic life. Basically, he doesn’t get why everyone’s all angry:

“I was totally captivated by her story,” he said, and he looked for a way to tell it in as interesting a way as possible. The negative reaction is unwarranted, he said — a result of people who didn’t read the obituary fully but reacted only to what they saw on Twitter about the opening paragraph.

It hasn’t changed his mind about how he wrote it: “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Basically guys, you just didn’t read it right. It was totally honoring her on multiple levels! First, on her cooking, motherhood and spousal accomplishments, and then eventually on her other stuff — like inventing incredibly important pieces of engineering for outer space. But as Jezebel points out, it is slightly impressive that he’s really going for the “sorry you feel that way, but whatevs” attitude here, particularly when literally thousands of people are explaining to him why it was terrible.

I am certain some people did not read past the first couple paragraphs, but I am also sure that many did — it wasn’t a lengthy piece and it was really interesting because it was about an incredibly accomplished scientist. However, for more casual readers, the first couple paragraphs said it all: she was a wife, mother and then, somewhere thereafter, had a career. And considering many readers tend to glaze over pieces they find boring after the first paragraph — for example, I would likely ignore an obituary that began with stuff about some rando’s tasty dinner because it would feel irrelevant to my interests — it was silly of Martin to begin with her cooking skills.

Obituaries editor William MacDonald seemingly doesn’t get it either, though — not even a little bit.

“I’m surprised,” he said. “It never occurred to us that this would be read as sexist.” He said it was important for obituaries to put people in the context of their time and that this well-written obituary did that effectively. He also observed that the references in the first paragraph to cooking and being a mother served as an effective setup for the “aha” of the second paragraph, which revealed that Mrs. Brill was an important scientist.

Here’s the thing: a woman can absolutely be great at cooking and being a mother without it somehow shocking the world that she’s simultaneously brilliant. The more we encourage that silly, “Ta-da! She defied the odds by doing things that are mutually exclusive!” attitude, the more people will maintain that outlook. If anybody can find me an obituary where people were shocked that a man was able to make a great casserole and also be a successful engineer, I will bake you cookies. And then possibly have a career which, though I am certain it will not involve rocket science, will hopefully be focused on more than my minimal culinary skills when I peace out in however many years.

By the way, that’s Yvonne Brill up there. You know, just receiving the National Medal of Technology from the President of the United States, but chances are, this was just them hanging out and Obama making a nice lady feel like she’s people after he’d heard about how great her stroganoff was.

Photo: Getty Images

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  • Jade

    I hope she baked Obama a lovely pie after he gave her that lovely necklace

  • Christine

    I agree that the way the obituary was written could be considered horribly sexist. Maybe he shouldn’t have started with the cooking and the beef stroganoff. But, ideally, the writer is supposed to be telling her story in a way that represents what was most important to her. Maybe (not definitely, but maybe) she valued her role as a mother and wife as much as she did her role as a rocket scientist. Martin interviewed her family shortly after her death, and they were remembering the parts of her that made her the person they loved.

  • CMJ

    Thanks for mansplaining how to read for us, MacDonald.