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For Women, Gender Bias Continues Even In Death

I read obituaries. I like getting the whole picture about a person’s life, to be moved by other people’s passions and work. Perhaps it is the sociologist in me, inspired by Margaret Mead, who liked to be inspired by people’s real lives.

Perhaps it is more compulsive, my need to know where we are headed, like my habit of reading the last page of book before I am done. I want to know the purpose of this story – our lives, the narratives we craft for ourselves – where the narrator is trying to lead us. I’m impatient for the ending. I want to know right now, every day, what makes life – my life, your life – meaningful.

Or maybe I like commiserating with mourners, because being in a space where sadness dwells give me permission to embrace my own mourning needs, without having to explain too much. Being a woman in the world often means living with constant injustices and assaults, and maybe sometimes I want to dwell in the reality of loss, an incessant daily loss.

Indeed, as I read obituaries, I cannot help but feel the dearth of women. Most days, on the New York Times home page, where there is only room for mention of three obituaries, there are no women at all. Some days one of three will be women, but I have only rarely ever seen two women there, and never all three. (I am reminded of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment that she will only be satisfied when all nine seats on the Supreme Court bench are occupied by women. I suppose that is how I feel about the obit section.)

The absence of women in the obituaries was noted last year by Lynn Melnick and then picked up by at Slate. Melnick counted 9 out of 66 obituaries about women, or 13.6%. Melnick told Slate, “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”. Indeed. It is this sense that women’s lives matter less – that sense which so many of us experience on a daily basis – that is permanently reinforced by a life slipping away unnoted. It is a tragedy that pours truckloads of pain over the already painful loss of life. It is that unbearable sense that our presence on this earth is simply not important.

Last week, as I pored over lists of “Notable Deaths of 2015”, I decided to look a bit more scientifically at this phenomenon. So I sat down and counted. Yes, I went through a bunch of major news outlets and actually counted how many women were mentioned – and why. Here is some of what I found:

In the New York Times notable deaths section, 58 out of 234 profiles were of women – 24.8%, which is a bit better than last year, though still half of what it should be. Put differently, for every three men, there is one woman. No wonder I often don’t see women on the three-item home page. It is worth noting that a large portion of the women in the list are entertainers – larger than among the men, where politicians and businessmen feature more often. Through all my searches, very few women in business were mourned at all.

In the Los Angeles Times notable deaths, of the 117 obituaries, 92 were men, and 25 were women, including one trans woman, the only transgender person in all my searches. This makes 21.4% of the obits about women – less than the New York Times, despite the fact that LA is more entertainment focused and should therefore have had more women. What was even more troubling about the LA Times women was that many were noted for achievements not their own – a wife of an astronaut, a wife of a politician, and an ex-wife of an actor. Also, this list that included a stripper as a notable life.

The Washington Post included 16 women out of 82 obits, which comes to 19.5%. The Wall Street Journal included only 15 notable deaths, and the portion was still roughly the same – 3 out of 15, or 20%. At Yahoo, the percentage was less: 8 women out of 52, or 15.3%. (Although Yahoo gets credit for mentioning the death of Assia Djebar, an Algerian feminist – the only listing I found that included the word “feminist” in it.)

In Canada, the problem seems worse. The Toronto Star listed 16 notable Canadian women out of 89 – some 15.2%. Significantly, a large portion of notable deaths were hockey-related, and there were no women in that category. So much for Prime Minister Trudeau’s “because it’s 2015”. In the UK, it is also worse than in the US. The Telegraph did not post notable deaths but rather only notable deaths of “culture stars”, and only 18 out of 123 notable deaths were of women – 14.6%. Interestingly, the BBC, where there are two lists – UK notable deaths and international notable deaths – is both the best and the worst. On the international list, there was only one woman out of 13, or 7.7%. On the UK list, there were 10 women out of 39, or 25.6% the highest portion that I found.

It doesn’t seem to matter much how long the list is or what the focus is. (I was actually quite intrigued at how different each of the lists were.) It doesn’t seem to matter if the news outlet is one that sees itself as more intellectual or more popular. This minimizing of women’s lives seems fairly consistent, between 15% and 25%, a pathetic representation for half the population.

Another issue that I found is that many men listed had questionable merit for being there – an actor who had a one-series moment of fame decades ago, or an athlete who was famous in the 1950s and never again, is more likely to be included than a woman who dedicated an entire lifetime to social causes. Take Sheila Kitzinger, for example, known as the “high priestess of natural childbirth” who died in April at the age of 86 after 50 years of fighting to change attitudes towards childbirth. Despite a lifetime of fearlessness and notable achievements in the realm of shifting social consciousness, the BBC UK list was the only list to mention her. Belgian feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who spent a lifetime making films about women and died in October, was not on anyone’s lists. When women’s work primarily impacts women’s lives as opposed to men, their lives seem to be considered particularly insignificant.

The absence of women from the obituary pages – even women who made long-term, lasting contributions to our lives – is a heart-breaking travesty. Yet, the women whose lives and deaths were ignored cannot come back to life to fight for themselves. That job is left to us. There is a passage in the text of the Mishnah, which says that favors we do for the dead are of the highest caliber, since the beneficiaries will never be able to repay you. It is time for society to care for women who die, and make sure that their notable achievements are not forgotten.


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