Last night, Lynn Melnick—a poet who serves on the executive board of VIDA, an organization that advocates for better representation of women in the literary arts—turned her eye toward the representation of women in death. Melnick counted up the 66 most recent obituaries published by the New York Times, and found that just seven of the recently deceased people who merited a postmortem were women. When Melnick pointed out the grave imbalance on Twitter, parody account @NYTimesObituary joked: “Interesting analysis. After careful consideration, we believe that women have a tendency of dying less often.”
That’s a clever twist on the old Onion joke that the world death rate holds steady at 100 percent—an obvious truth that would nevertheless be lost on a reader whose only view of humanity is through the lens of the New York Times. As Melnick put it on Twitter, the Times’ coverage gives the impression that both men’s lives and their deaths matter more. (In 2013, one study found, the Times front page quoted male sources 65 percent of the time, and female sources 19 percent of the time; the remainder weren’t identified by gender). But we live in a sexist society, where the contributions of men do matter more. The Times obit page reflects the grim reality that death journalism isn’t the only industry that finds women less than worthy of our attention. Most of the subjects of Times obituaries achieve their final criteria for inclusion between the ages of 60 and 100, meaning that they first made their marks in the 1940s to the 1960s, when women were particularly excluded from the spheres of politics, journalism, filmmaking, science, technology, literature, and professional athletics that typically earn attention from the Times.
Still, simply waiting for prominent women to die is a depressing solution—and anyway, time won’t fix the problem on its own. Given that men still dominate those obit-baiting industries today, it’s unlikely that we’ll see parity in the Times anytime soon. (In its most recent 66 obits, the Times featured one man and one woman who died in their 30s. But because women outlive men, even women who were prominent in the 70s and 80s won’t be written up as soon as men from the same era). I wouldn’t be surprised if all newspapers burn up in an apocalyptic hellfire—or post-gender robots assume control of our society—before we see gender equality in obituary pages. But the Times’ current ratio—just 10 percent of its obits are of women—can absolutely be improved. “Without a complete list of who died each day, there is no way to know how much of the problem is the lack of career options for prior generations of women,” Melnick told me. “That said … they have an obit for Farley Mowat, a Canadian author. Meanwhile, children's author and illustrator Kate Duke died on April 20th, according to an obit in Publisher's Weekly, and NYT didn't find that worthy of coverage. I think a new mindfulness needs to take place about who is deemed important to cover, and for what kinds of achievements. I would guess there are dozens of writers, scientists, and academics whose lives and deaths go unnoticed because the men's lives are perceived as more of note.”
While the keepers of the Times parody account went on to snark that the newspaper is confident that it gives “equal prominence to all significant deaths, regardless of gender,” the real Times obituary desk has made some effort to respond to feminist criticism of its coverage. Last year, the Times led its obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill with the detail that she “made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” (She may have worked at NASA in life, but the Times put her back in the kitchen in death.) But after widespread outrage about the coverage, the Times took out the stroganoff reference in the obit’s online version. And recently, the Times has hinted at some flexibility in its criteria for assessing prominent deaths. Last month, I was heartened to read the Times obit of Adrienne Wadewitz, who may not have made the Times’ radar in her roles as a scholar of 18th-century British literature or a professor at Occidental University, but who earned mention for being an influential editor at Wikipedia. Wadewitz—who died at age 37—was instrumental in increasing the online encyclopedia’s coverage of prominent women, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Martha Sherwood. This is a contribution that falls outside the Times’ typical obsessions, and it made for a fascinating read. The Times obituary parody account noted that its stunt could raise awareness of the issue at the real newspaper—and Times social media editor Daniel Victor has already brought Times public editor Margaret Sullivan into the loop. Unfortunately for humanity, lots of people die every day. Conveniently for the Times, that means they have plenty of opportunities to get this right.