Guest post: From obits to statues to traffic circles, whither the women?

Soraya ChemalyEditor’s note: This is a guest post by Soraya Chemaly. Soraya is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on women’s rights, free speech and the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture.

Last week, irked after counting up The New York Time’s last 66 obits and finding that only seven were of women, poet Lynn Melnick tweeted the count, pointing out the imbalance to @NYTimesObituary. @NYTimesObituary, a parody account, responded with deadpan explanations, such as “After careful consideration, we believe that women have a tendency of dying less often.”  Their conversation continued the next morning, which is when I joined them, totally taken in, to ask how “notable,” and “significant” were defined. Despite repeating some silly sounding, but entirely plausible excuses, the person running the parody account (anonymous still) admitted that he had no idea that a gender imbalance existed at all, “As long as they keep writing about dead people, I’m satisfied. I do sympathize though.”

Chart of notable deaths in 2012 from major newspapers, showing an extreme disparity between men and women

Chart of notable deaths in newspapers 2012 from Mother Jones.

It was a fake conversation about real numbers that generated a lot of interest. Slate and Poynter addressed the “grave” problem. And The New York Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote, “Still Talking About It: ‘Where Are the Women?’ detailing the positive changes in increasing diversity at the paper and the broader cultural obstacles to women achieving leadership and culture-shaping parity. Sullivan concluded, “Obituaries are chosen on the basis of the newsworthiness of their subjects; but that is subjective. It’s not outrageous to wonder what might change if more women were involved in all aspects of their selection and presentation.” Because, really, wtf?

In 1990The Times ran a total of 691 obituaries, only 92 of which were women. Twenty years later, in 2010, between January and August, the numbers were almost identical: 606 obituaries, 92 of women.  Despite the change in women’s status in society, women continue to make up fewer than 10% of all “notable” deaths. And, The New York Times is hardly alone. In 2012, as documented by the Women’s Media Center in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m on the board of WMC), The Washington Post ran obituaries on 48 men and 18 women and The Los Angeles Times had 114 men to 36. That year,  Mother Jones ran a story, “If a notable woman dies and a major national newspaper doesn’t report it, did it actually happen?” comprehensively analyzing deaths by gender and occupation. They concluded, “Maybe notable women don’t die.”

The obits area just a symptom of bigger problems with institutional sexism and androcentric norms. Women do a whole lot and die.  We just don’t want to tell anyone about it. In any publicly recognizable way:

According to Equal Visibility Everywhere, the majority of our streets and schools continue to be named after men.

Sullivan’s accurate whither-the-women lament took on real, pointed and poignant relevance in the land of the living yesterday when not only was the Times‘ first woman editor, Jill Abramson,  fired (in the wake of confronting possible pay discrimination and people’s discomfort with her gender-transgressing behavior) but also France’s Le Monde’s loss of its first woman editor-in-chief  Natalie Nougayrède, who retired due to “obstacles.” Fortunately, both women are relatively young and we will hopefully have to wait decades to see what media make of their obits. In the meantime, the ranks of prominent women in media just took a serious blow.

My favorite part of this erasure of women’s lives and work is when I hear people who should know better, concerned about girls’ confidence, ask questions like, “Why do men assume they are so great?” They think they are great because we tell them they are. It isn’t that what women do isn’t significant or important, it’s that unless a man does something we don’t consider it notable. Those are two different things.  The New York Times is, at less than 10% of obits, actually ahead of the curve.

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