It’s always good to be reminded of how far we haven’t progressed. In two thousand and fifteen years of civilization we still treat women as second-class citizens. The glass ceiling, restricting career growth for women, remains largely un-shattered. Women still earn less than men even though they do the same job. And women are expected to make all of the career sacrifices when it comes to raising a family. In fact the second class tag seems to be especially apparent when the woman concerned has a led a first class life that achieved greatness. Take acclaimed Australian author, Colleen McCullough, who recently passed away at the age of 77. McCullough was a neuroscientist before she discovered that she had a supreme talent for writing best sellers. Her book, The Thorn Birds, sold 30 million copies worldwide. As you would expect with someone of McCullough’s stature, an obituary was written ostensibly to celebrate her high achieving life and published in an Australian national newspaper. Here is the opening paragraph. You be the judge: “ Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nonetheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “ I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”
Now, you might want to ask what did we learn about Colleen McCullough from that introduction? Forget about the fact that she was a best-selling author. What is more important is that despite her ‘plain’ looks she could still attract a man, and that, ladies and gentlemen is worth celebrating. Of secondary importance was the fact that McCullough was a woman who penned The Thorn Birds, still the highest-selling Australian book of all time. And after working as a neuroscientist in Sydney, she went on to write that particular book during her time in the neurology department at Yale University. This is a woman who also wrote an acclaimed and methodically researched, seven book historical series called Masters of Rome, which won her diverse fans including Newt Gingrich. She is someone who accomplished an astonishing amount during her life, and here she is, reduced in a moment to her looks and her ability to attract men. As one columnist wryly observed, you could be forgiven for wondering if the obituary really wanted to say “Well, she was fat and not much of a looker, but somehow she managed to do ok in life, bless her”.
Now, if you think I am over-reacting, or being thin skinned, consider this. When Bryce Courtenay, an equally successful Australian author died in 2012, his obituary in the same newspaper began: “ Bryce Courtenay, was one of Australia’s greatest storytellers, touching the hearts of millions of people around the world with 21 bestselling books including The Power of One.”
A comparison of the two opening paragraphs speaks volumes.
Sadly, this is not an issue restricted to this particular newspaper, even though it is a clear and hideous example of it, or to McCullough herself. When the accomplished and brilliant rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, passed away in 2013, the New York Times was strongly criticised for their obituary, which began with:
“ 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. “ But Yvonne Brill, who died on 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 communication satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”
Once again, a woman’s life full of incredible accomplishments is reduced to her position in relation to a man, and how good she was as a mother and a cook. As another columnist pointed out, the very fact that these outrageous obituaries are still being published, demonstrates how little has changed, and how women’s lives are still disrespected. It shows us that a woman’s physical attractiveness and relationships with men have greater weight than her personal accomplishments.
Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist, as well as a woman and a mother. As if all three were mutually exclusive. Colleen McCullough was plain and overweight, but she was warm and had wit and could attract men. These ‘attributes’ were hardly worth mentioning at all, let alone in the first paragraph of her obituary. What a shocking indictment that the summation of the exceptional lives of these two women, centred around their roles as wives, mothers or their ability to attract men. Brill invented a rocket propulsion system for keeping communication satellites in orbit. But as far as the New York Times was concerned it was only worth a mention in passing.
That is not to say that personal relationships, husbands, wives and children are not vitally important in many people’s lives and should be included in a retrospective. But, all too often, women are firstly classed and summed up by the roles they play in a relationship, rather than by their personal achievements. The life of a brilliant male scientist would never be reduced to his looks, or how many wives he had. He would be remembered first for what he achieved in his career.
The McCullough obituary also dived into personal details of dubious relevance, such as the fact that her father was revealed to be a bigamist, and that she had married a man who was 13 years her junior. Seriously, so what?
Yes, evidently you can be a neuroscientist who wrote a mega-selling series of books in your spare time, but what will be most remarkable about your colorful life will be the fact you didn’t let your ‘plain’ looks hold you back.
I am so glad that social media rode the crest of the wave of disbelief in response to the patronizing McCullough obituary. With tweets like:
“Award for worst opening lines of an obituary goes to “… #everydaysexism pic.twitter.com/xmQogrR58P — Joanna McCarthy (@joanna_mcc)
“McCullough was a successful writer & neurophysiologist, but “she didn’t let being fat & ugly get her down” was the best they had. — Sophie Benjamin (@sophbenj)
“Colleen McCullough died this week, though of course her relevance as a human died much earlier, when she started overeating.” — Anna Spargo-Ryan (@annaspargoryan)
As yet, there has been no response from the newspaper concerned regarding the outcry over its canine of an obituary. But one columnist writing in a rival newspaper took the same approach to a noted male author, rejigging their obituary to reflect what was described as this brave new era in posthumous hatchet jobs:
“J.R.R. Tolkien was, a touch shrivelled and certainly orc-esque in his latter years, he nevertheless was a prolific and talented fantasy weaver.”