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March 30, 2013


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Thank you for this thoughtful post. My one observation is that there are issues of gender in hard science, particularly in some subsets, that make the critique of the NYT piece salient and arguably meaningfully different than in other professional contexts. I will spare the plethora of anecdotal evidence as arguably unrepresentative samples, but the point is, it is a sensitive subject and the NYT happened to light the spark. Twitter is just latest medium to have fanned the flames in an area where moments of mysoginism (unintentional or otherwise) can happen with the ease of batting an eyelash.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Twitter is structurally adverse to the communication of careful thinking, or the proper maintenance of the English language for that matter. In fact, it's rather conducive to the simultaneous or instant expression of anything that comes to one's mind, rarely a good thing, and of all the social media, most liable to both ignite and fan the sort of flames that generate far more heat than light.


I don't think the appropriate comparison is framing Jackie Robinson as a trailblazer in racist times. Rather, imagine a story on Jackie Robinson that began,

His favorite food was fried chicken, he was an excellent dancer, and always stood aside for ladies on the sidewalk. "He was surprisingly well-spoken and articulate," said a coworker.

But Jackie Robinson, who died on Wednesday at 53 in Stamford, Connecticut, was also a trailblazing baseball player....

Michelle Meyer

Hi TJ: I meant the Robinson analogy as a response to the Finkbeiner test (linked to above), which forbids, as one prong in its “simple” (!) seven-part test, mentioning that a woman was the "first to do X." There, I think the analogy works pretty well, and I wondered if those celebrating the Finkbeiner test without qualification would apply it equally to, say, the upcoming Robinson biopic (and recent PSAs I’ve seen in which contemporary African American athletes thank Robinson for paving the way for them) and similar discussions of pioneering individuals who are members of disadvantaged groups.

But even as an analogy to the original Brill lede, although I take your point, let me push back at least a little bit and suggest that the Robinson obit you offer isn't fully analogous to the Times’s obit for Brill. For instance, I take it that "His favorite food was fried chicken" is supposed to be analogous to "She made a mean beef stroganoff." First, I note that both references possibly could be defended by arguing that the subjects simply valued and identified with these things (fried chicken, cooking) and that although the fact that their preferences happen to run consistent with racial and gender stereotypes, respectively, may make readers feel uncomfortable, this discomfort may be insufficient reason to exclude the references from the obit. That gets into the questions I alluded to above about whose story it is to tell, the ethics of inconvenient facts about people that have damaging side effects of perpetuating stereotypes, etc.

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Michelle Meyer

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But let's leave that set of questions aside. The stroganoff reference strikes me as ambiguous (in a good way) while the fried chicken reference isn't. The stroganoff reference lends itself to both an uncharitable interpretation (in which it was included because all profiles of women must make some mention of their domestic skills because cooking is part of the female essence, or whatever) and a more charitable interpretation (in which Brill is lauded as a quasi-hero for overcoming obstacles, even if this "perseverance narrative" is, as the Finkbeiner test suggests, problematic in other ways). How on earth does making a mean stroganoff amount to perseverance? Well, I take it that the stroganoff reference was meant to stand in for a host of domestic talents, and although domestic skills may seem trivial, being Martha Stewart is a pain in the ass and it takes time – time that cannot be spent on one’s career outside the home. I can’t see a way of reading the fried chicken reference as a way of acknowledging that Robinson essentially worked two full-time jobs, or as any other sort of compliment. The “excellent dancer” reference can certainly be read as a compliment, but one that seems to have nothing to do with explaining why Robinson’s baseball success was all the more extraordinary.

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Michelle Meyer

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The reference to Robinson having “always stood aside for [white?] ladies on the sidewalk” is, I assume, meant to be analogous to the reference to the fact that Brill “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” The sidewalk reference suggests – to me, anyway – approval of that behavior as race-appropriate, as in “he always minded his manners and took care not to get uppity.” The analogy to that would be if the Times had said that Brill “knew how to please her man and followed him from job to job, taking eight years off from work to raise his three children.” But again, I think the more charitable — and in fact the more natural — reading of the Brill obit is as a depiction of someone who faced societal challenges and made sacrifices that perhaps she should not have been asked to make, rather than someone who was rightly fulfilling gender-based duties. (Some readers may have preferred a subject who rejected those gender roles, rather than finding a way to accommodate both them and her professional ambitions, and had that been the case, perhaps we wouldn’t be seeing charges of sexism.) Now on this one, I’ll grant you that I’m reading approval of race-based roles into the sidewalk reference and the absence of approval of gender-based roles into the husband and kids reference. I think the rest of the Brill obit provides a context that makes that interpretation fair.

As for “‘He was surprisingly well-spoken and articulate,’ said a coworker,” the appropriate analogy to that, I think, would have been if the Times writer had said “Brill had a surprising knack for science.” I don’t think anything in her obit can be read as expressing surprise at her natural talent for science due to her gender, and certainly not this: “‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.” At most, the Brill obit conveys that we should be impressed that she managed to excel at science not because she’s a woman and women, as everyone knows, can’t think clearly, but, rather, because as a woman she was saddled with a whole set of social expectations that ran counter to a career in science and made that career much less likely. When one acknowledges those social expectations, it frankly *does* seem surprising that she managed to succeed as much as she did in such a male-dominated field, and I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize that surprise and/or appreciation as sexism (even if, as I’ve conceded, the perseverance narrative may be problematic), whereas it would be entirely appropriate to characterize as racist someone’s surprise that an African American is “well-spoken and articulate” (or “clean,” to complete the reference to Biden’s gaffe).

David B.

Michelle, I had a similar reaction to yours.

Carolyn Thomas

Such an interesting discussion here, Michelle. Reminds me of an applicant for a career posting many years ago in the corporation where I worked at the time. Some of us were reviewing a resume that had just been couriered over, and one sharp-eyed colleague noted that, for some reason - you rarely see this on professional CVs, I guess - this particular applicant had listed her interests including "Western Canada Chili Cook-Off Champion" and "chocolate making".

These two completely irrelevant pieces of personal information had absolutely nothing to do with the job posting, of course, but sure told us something about the applicant. In another workplace, perhaps inappropriate - but in our particular office, most of us absolutely could not wait to meet this chocolate-loving chili chef.

What could have elevated that NYT piece to obituary super-stardom would be including Dr. Brill's beef stroganoff recipe. Now THAT'S an intriguing obit.

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