Yvonne Brill’s Obituary And The Problem Of The “Phantom Husband”

The New York Times might have altered its now-infamous “beef stroganoff” lede, but both versions are still reminders of how women’s professional successes only count if the husband and kids are taken care of too.

The original obituary, New York Times.

A New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist and inventor of a propulsion system that helped keep communication satellites in orbit, sparked controversy over the weekend, as writer Douglas Martin led not with Brill’s notable scientific achievements but with the fact that she “made a mean beef stroganoff.”

After a number of complaints on Twitter — and the agreement of the Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan — the opening of Brill’s obituary was altered and the stroganoff line scrubbed. But the new opening sentence provides only the tiniest improvement — it rightly acknowledges Brill’s role as a brilliant rocket scientist up front, but it does so in the same breath and sentence in which she is commended for being a dutiful wife and dedicated, flexible mother: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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.”

It’s not that surprising that Martin’s obituary emphasized Brill’s family life. After all, the idea that young women need to have both a career and a husband (and children) to be truly successful hangs over them starting in adolescence. Call it the “Phantom Husband” — the omnipresent relationship that is so frequently presumed to define a woman and her choices, sometimes even before they meet. It seems like an antiquated notion, but just last week Princeton alum Susan A. Patton wrote an open letter to The Daily Princetonian urging young women there to prioritize finding a future husband before graduation. She wrote:

Here is another truth that you know, but nobody is talking about. As freshman women, you have four classes of men to choose from. Every year, you lose the men in the senior class, and you become older than the class of incoming freshman men. So, by the time you are a senior, you basically have only the men in your own class to choose from, and frankly, they now have four classes of women to choose from.

The message is clear: You might be in college to learn, but all will be for naught if you don’t lock down a husband while you’re there too.

Brill’s obituary (if unusually obvious in its retro-ness), then, is part and parcel of an established journalistic practice in which women are presumed unfulfilled until marriage, and in which, if they do marry, their husbands and families are given equal weight to (if not more than) their careers.

This is true even in cases where any mention of a woman’s relationship and/or children is especially irrelevant: Christine Aschwanden, a freelance reporter, developed a set of criteria called “The Finkbeiner Test” (after science writer Ann Finkbeiner) to remedy what she and Finkbeiner saw as a large-scale sexism problem in writing about women and science. In order to pass the test, a story about a woman in science (or, let’s say, in any career profile) cannot mention any of the following: 1)The fact that she’s a woman, 2) her husband’s job, 3) her child-care arrangements, 4) how she nurtures her underlings, 5) how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field, 6) how she’s such a role model for other women, and 7) how she’s the “first woman to…[achieve what she’s achieved].”

The criteria are simple, but to find any profile of a professional woman that excludes all of them would likely prove very difficult. In a thinkpiece era obsessed with asking whether or not women can “have it all,” the assumption is almost always that “all” includes a heteronormative nuclear family — and that all women want (and need) a husband and children is taken for granted. “Having it all” comes predefined, before women as individuals can decide what (and who) it is that they want in their lives. That’s how it comes to pass that an obituary about a literal genius like Brill rushes to point out that yes, she was a career gal — but just as importantly, the woman could cook.

In almost every case, surely, one’s family belongs in one’s obituary. But for men, these personal notes are typically used to conclude an obituary rather than begin it — indeed, the Times obituary directly below Yvonne Brill’s, for art critic Thomas McEvilley, provides 13 paragraphs in memoriam of his life and career achievements before nodding to his surviving sons, grandchildren, and ex-wives at the very end.

But for women, marriage is painted as the only endgame that counts, and the increasing average age at marriage as a national crisis. We simply do not hand-wring over the trajectory of men’s personal and professional lives in this way. We tend to assume they’ll figure it out on their own.

Yvonne Brill is a woman who, to say the least, figured it out. And that’s all the more reason why the first sentence we read about a genius rocket scientist who died shouldn’t include the fact that she followed her husband from job to job — it’s a none-too-subtle reminder that, in the eyes of many, she is only exceptional because she did both.

It’s important to strike these habits not because family doesn’t matter, or because women who are devoted wives and mothers are backwards or wrong. It’s important that journalists work hard to pass the Finkbeiner Test (for all professions) in writing about women because women, too, deserve the right to be publicly honored as individuals first and foremost, and not merely as they exist in relation to their husbands or their families.

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