What is the “men-are-people” but “women-are-women” phenomenon?

April 12, 2013

Lisa Wade writes about the “obituary edition” of men-are-people and women-are-women
Sociologist Lisa Wade, on the Sociological Images blog, reproduces NewsDiff’s tracking graphic of the changes that were made in the recent New York Times online obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill. These changes were not the usual kinds of corrections newspapers frequently make (after misspelling a name, misidentifying a photo, and so on). Instead, they involved necessary rewording because of an outcry over the obituary’s leading paragraph. The writer had cited Brill’s domestic achievements (her beef stroganoff, her willingness to move following her husband’s job relocations, her being a good mom), waiting until the second paragraph to announce she was “also” a pioneering rocket scientist.  According to the New York Times public editor’s report after the uproar, the obituary editor and the writer did not see anything sexist about it and would have preferred that their original wording had remained. They indicated that by starting off with Brill’s domesticity, they thought the “aha moment” would occur in the following paragraph in which (surprise!) it would be announced that she was “also a brilliant rocket scientist.”

Of course, the writer would never have written an obituary about a male scientist in such a way. Sociologist Wade sees what happened in this incident as just one more example in which men are seen as the “default” human beings, people, and women are seen as—well, women—and thus must be treated differently. Wade has a Pinterest page with other examples.  Gloria Steinem puts it this way: “Here’s a skeleton key to what has to change: . . . Women still require an adjective and males don’t. There is a ‘novelist’ and a ‘woman novelist,’ [as there is a] ‘doctor’ and a ‘black doctor.’ ”

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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