Obituaries Favor Famous Men Over Women

by Kari Belsheim

Are we all equal in death? Apparently not. According to an article by Dana Liebelson, enticingly titled “Newspapers Don’t Care When Notable Women Die,” obituaries continue to disproportionately report the deaths of famous men as opposed to women.

 This year, The Los Angeles Times featured 36 women and 114 men on their list of prominent deaths. In The Washington Post, women made up just over one third of the list.

In the same article, Bill McDonald, the editor of the Obit section at the New York Times, explains the phenomenon away stating, “The people we write about largely shaped the world of the 1950s, ‘60s and, increasingly, the ‘70s, and those movers and shakers were—no surprise—predominantly white men.” Oh, I forgot that obituaries have to read like textbooks and omit whole demographics.

 Gloria Steinem looks at the ratio more critically, and points out that “the standards by which people are chosen still have a ‘masculine’ skew.” For example, we are more likely to recognize the wealthy and politically prominent than advocates for social progress—especially if that social progress is assumed to only benefit half of the population.

When ranking notability, it is easy to over-simplify. Consider the way the Civil Rights era is often taught in schools. We are given a handful of well-known leaders, and other actors are marginalized (Malcolm X) or practically forgotten (Coretta Scott King).

 The asymmetrical ratio of prominent male deaths over female deaths is symptomatic of a larger issue: the way we represent history. Here’s hoping the gap lessens in the near future, and women get the recognition they deserve.


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