Editors at The New York Times got an earful last Sunday after publishing the obituary of Yvonne C. Brill, a celebrated rocket scientist. The obit opened with personal details about Brill, and it was mention of her “mean beef stroganoff” that caused a furor on Twitter. The obit was subsequently changed, the stroganoff left to cool off elsewhere.
Today, a letter writer to the National Post in effect wrote, “Eh, give over already.” And I wholeheartedly agree. The personal remarks about Brill were probably from her family. When I put an imaginary man in the same type of obit, I don’t see a problem: “John filled his home with many of his woodcarving pieces, was well known for his home brew, and enjoyed coaching his children’s baseball teams. ‘He was always happy to play catch in the park,’ his son John Junior said.” It’s these personal touches that make a person interesting and are the very things family and friends focus on in remembrance. It’s not as though career isn’t mentioned later in the obit.
But it’s not surprising that people cried foul. Brill’s rocket science career (not to mention her contributions to her field) makes her exceptional for her time. Heck, even now the number of women in rocket science is not great.
But what I take exception to is what is implied by the outrage: career takes precedence over the personal, what you do for a living is more important than who you are as a person. See, I infer something nefarious in this, and that’s what really grates. And that something is this: the masculine trumps the feminine.
When I was coming of age in the 80s, there was a push to get girls into sciences, and fashion was all about the power suit with the linebacker shoulder pads. As an impressionable teen, I ate it up. I wore those suit blazers to school with high-necked blouses, I enrolled in all the science classes available, I chose to study engineering after high school graduation. And while there’s nothing wrong with these things, I was choosing them because I was the type to choose what was considered prestigious — and those choices involved the typically masculine.
When my English teacher asked me what programs I was applying for at university, and I told him, he expressed some concern because, he said, he knew I was a talented English student. I shrugged him off, but I’ve always remembered his words. He was right.
I spent my youth out-boying the boys. I studied engineering, and while I was doing it, I swore, drank, and overhauled engines with the best of ’em. I’m comfortable saddling up to the bar, be it for drinks or to crank out a few chin-ups. I don’t appeal to human rights commissions — I’ll settle any sexual harassment right here, right now, thank you very much. Feminist? Damn straight.
But when I grew up and accepted who I was, guess what I found out? I love eighteenth century English lit (Oh, Mr. Darcy!), language, relationship and personality stuff, and, yes, cooking for my family. I’m also competitive, ambitious, and interested in participating in the world around me.
What I want is a world that appreciates the masculine and feminine equally, so that people aren’t forcing their circle selves into square pegs. As a toddler, my youngest (boy) loved to wear dresses and bake cookies. My oldest (girl) doesn’t do pretty, whatever she deems that to be, but she sure does a wicked self. And that’s what I want to celebrate: true selves.
Yvonne C. Brill was brilliant — apparently in both the lab and the kitchen. The woman kicked ass. ‘Nough said.