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Column: Recipe for Disaster; Irony With Hint of Sexism

If I had the chance to write a headline for this piece, it would be, “For a Mean Bit of Sexism in an Obit, the Writer Must Be Punished.”

Gentle reader, do not take that too literally, as its intent is not, in fact, to argue for a caning in the public square in the case of the Internet v. Douglas Martin, The New York Times writer who stands accused of you-gotta-be-kidding sexism. The way I read him, he was kidding — yes, in an obit — but his attempt to be light sailed straight into space.

His obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill attempted to underscore her accomplishments by placing them in the context of other 88-year-old women who followed husbands around the country and stayed home to raise children for long stretches.

It began this way: “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.” Then, the punch line: “But Yvonne Brill, who died Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

Some readers were outraged. Would the obit of a boy rocket scientist have begun with a demeaning mention of his “mean beef stroganoff”? What makes a stroganoff mean, anyway? And why bring it up and then fail to give us the recipe?

That last complaint I assume to have been tongue-in-cheek. Just like the offending paragraph, which was soon rewritten, and the stroganoff sent back to the kitchen. Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, fell in with the critics, and tweeted, “To the many who’ve tweeted at me about the Yvonne Brill obituary, I sure agree.”

The brilliant Brill apparently did not dwell on such actual slights as a complete lack of accommodations for women at a required engineering camp: “You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted.”

This perceived injury was irony gone awry, not a literal exaltation of stroganoff over science. But as the great Mary McGrory once told me, “Nuance is overrated; clarity is the thing.”

She was right, too. Which is why, when I originally headlined an earlier, online version of this column “Douglas Martin must die,” an editor questioned whether some might take that literally, as well. Not without reason, I guess, because if you scroll down through the comments, you’ll see that more than one reader did think I, too, was enraged by Martin’s mention of home cooking in his opening paragraph.

So let me spell it out: I wasn’t. What’s more, I’d love to live in a world in which obits reflected the high value we place on parenting, or probity, or unrequited kindness. (“Sadie Smith, 104, rarely gave in to pique.”) We don’t, though, and I doubt that Martin — who I tried to reach but couldn’t — was striking a blow for a truly feminist appreciation of the complexity of women’s lives and choices.

Instead, he simply failed to realize that sisterhood has made the mention of stroganoff problematic. And almost as ridiculous as Princeton Class of ’77 alum Susan Patton’s advice to current coeds that they will never again be surrounded by so many potential mates. Clearly, the ex-Mrs. Patton wishes she had taken her own advice, which ladies who wish they’d chosen better have always handed out, and which has just as routinely been ignored. But I fail to see what makes her suggestion that the pool is deepest for women in college and for men in assisted living so jaw-dropping.

The commenter who joked that I could find sexism in a graveyard wasn’t completely wrong, either; oh, yes, I see plenty of the nasty stuff, not only in the 6-year-old girl in Afghanistan whose father at least at one point agreed to trade her, like Rapunzel in the fairy tale, to pay off a debt, but in my everyday life of meetings where men still sometimes seem to have trouble hearing women’s voices, even when they aren’t particularly soft.

Shouting down those who dare to state the old-fashioned and obvious — that yes, the choice of a mate is often rather more crucial to our long-term happiness than we might know at 20 — is not how feminism was supposed to work, but that, too, is the reality.

And for the record, in case it never comes up again, I do make a mean apple pie.

Melinda Henneberger writes a blog for The Washington Post.