March 8 marks International Women’s Day 2018, and it’s the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while reflecting on gender equality, which is exactly what editors at The New York Times did.
After looking through the archives, a glaring issue with the historical obituaries became clear to them: The articles were rarely written about women—and when they were, the language was often sexist. Amisha Padnani, digital editor of the obituaries desk, was the first to notice and do something about it. And once she did, the entire newsroom wanted to help.
“It is difficult for me as a journalist to see important stories go untold,” Padnani wrote. “But perhaps more important, as a woman of color, I am pained when the powerful stories of incredible women and minorities are not brought to light.”
As the Times‘s gender editor Jessica Bennett added on Twitter, the problems with the omissions were striking.
Frida Kahlo was referred to as the “wife of Diego Rivera” in the first sentence of her obituary, and a painter much later. Harriet Tubman’s obituary was just 132 words. Author Charlotte Bronte didn’t get an obit when she died in 1855, but her husband did 51 years later—and the headline was “Charlotte Bronte’s husband dead.”
Other women–like Sylvia Plath, Ida B. Wells, Diane Arbus, and Ada Lovelace—didn’t get obituaries at all.
And thus, The New York Times launched a new project called “Overlooked” for which they write obituaries for women who never got them but should have.
Universal History Archive/Getty
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“Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men,” the project foreword begins. “Now, we’re adding the stories of 15 remarkable women.” New historical obituaries will be added every week and will expand to others who have been forgotten.
The 15 introductory obituaries serve as significantly more appropriate tributes to the women they’re about. Transgender pioneer and activist Marsha P. Johnson’s obituary sheds light on her work as a central figure of the gay liberation movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bollywood legend Madhubala’s shared the story of a life filled with fame and tragedy.
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