A kerfuffle has broken out at the feminist website Jezebel over the ratio of women to men in the New York Times obituary pages; of 78 obits in August, only six were women – and just 92 of the 698 since the beginning of the year. Things do not look much better on this side of the Atlantic. Diana Gower, the Guardian’s deputy obituaries editor, reckons around 12 out of the 75 obits published in the last month have been about women.
There are four possible explanations. One: women do less. Two: women die less. Three: newspaper obituary sections are riddled with sexism and need a good poking. Or four: obituary sections reflect a period in our society when women were not free to hold the positions of power that merit an obit. That’s the view of the New York Times obituaries editor, who Jezebel quotes saying: “To me the Obit page is not a reflection of the times in which we live. It’s a mirror on a past that is slipping away.”
Gower agrees. While from a modern perspective this may seem unfair, she says, “the pages are dealing with the past, with people who were born into a completely different world in the 20s and 30s”.
Feminists today worry about when or whether to have children, and what effect that will have on their work. But 50 years ago we didn’t have this luxury; as Betty Friedan (herself in the obits column four years ago) wrote in the Feminine Mystique, women were expected to find happiness being “wives and mothers”. Not much scope in that for the power and influence that gets you an obit when you finally pop your clogs.
In 1961 came the pill, and a whole generation were, quite literally, liberated. Personally, it’s only in the last few years of my life (I’m 38 with small children) that I’ve fully understood how profoundly radical that moment was. It won’t be until these women, sadly, start to follow Friedan into the section over the next few years that the ratio will improve.
Then again, it may simply be – as one commenter suggested – that: “Women are just too busy to die”.