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Sunday, June 24, 2018

At the risk of sounding like someone who “can’t let it go” — a feminist’s badge of honor if ever there were one — I’d like to offer a few tips on how to write obituaries about accomplished women in America.

It’s a short list, really.

1) Take a moment to read the March 30 New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, in which she is celebrated first and foremost for her cooking and years of tagging along with her husband.

2) Vow never, ever to do that.

That pretty much covers it. Otherwise, you’re going to be on the receiving end of a Twitter war you cannot — and should not — win.

In 2001, Brill won NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal. In 2011, President Barack Obama honored Brill with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Last week, she died at age 88.

This was the first paragraph of her obituary in the Times: “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.”

This was the second paragraph: “But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, NJ, 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.”

You can imagine the reaction. Two of my favorites:

Edward Champion (@drmabuse): “Mahatma Gandhi made a great frittata, ironed some shirts, and took eight years off to catch up on Hardy Boys books.”

Ron Charles (@RonCharles): “Dear NYT, just in case you’re prewriting obits of obscure book critics, everybody says I make delicious chocolate chip cookies.”

I know from my own Facebook feed that plenty of mothers thought the obituary’s opening paragraph was just fine. What greater role in the world than to be somebody’s mom, they said.


And no.

A few words about motherhood: Best. Job. Ever. My own kids are grown, but to this day, I’m only as happy as my unhappiest child. I can’t begin to describe the pressure building in my chest right now at even the thought of one of my kids saying, upon my death, “Mom was a good columnist.”

However, a newspaper obituary is meant to tell the story of why a person mattered in the world at large. It’s a fierce competition. Thousands of people die every day, but few of their stories make the cut. Even in 2013, noteworthy women are too seldom noted. This may explain why some of us get a little prickly when a scientist who kept satellites orbiting and wowed the president is celebrated for her sauteed strips of beef, no matter how good the cream sauce.